noko
Noko at work. Photo courtesy of Noko's mother Megumi
The Year We Woke Up

Meet the 10-Year-Old Japanese Artist Leaving Her Mark in the Tattoo Industry

Noko Nishikagi doesn’t let her age nor society’s expectations detract her from doing what she loves to do.
December 11, 2019, 7:22am

VICE Asia is calling 2019 "The Year We Woke Up." This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of a series.

Noko Nishikagi likes listening to K-Pop with her friends. She also likes school, and playing with her classmates. Originally from Japan, Noko likes “sushi, especially salmon.” She loves art, and drawing “foxes, wolves and other animals.”

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While she appears to be your average 10-year-old, Noko is unlike many others her age in one, distinct way – she’s a budding tattoo artist.

“I want to keep tattooing until I grow up,” she told VICE.

Noko is the world’s youngest tattoo apprentice. Her father is Gakkin, a celebrated tattoo artist who is highly respected for his freehand style. Their family now resides in Amsterdam, having moved from Osaka in 2016.

When VICE spoke to Noko over Skype, it was a Sunday morning in the Netherlands. Her straight bangs framed her face, the rest of her hair in a loose bun. Decked out in a printed sweatshirt and big earrings, she’s unusually hip and stylish for her age.

Early exposure to her father’s work and a strong natural interest in art paved the way for Noko to explore tattooing.

“I don’t remember when I first saw my dad tattooing, but it was probably when I was a baby,” she laughed.

“My mom and dad both encouraged me to draw more, and to tattoo as well. That’s how I began, and it was fun.”

Her craft is especially fascinating, when viewed against the backdrop of Japan, where tattooing is still widely stigmatised and associated with yakuza or Japanese gangs. Even tattoo artists have little protection, with some facing police arrests for tattooing without medical licenses. Those sporting tattoos are also often turned away from public places like hot springs, swimming pools and beaches.

None of that stopped her parents from supporting her passion. Gakkin himself has brushed off negative views on tattooing and his daughter’s choice, choosing to focus instead on letting Noko be free to explore her interests. As his apprentice, Noko started practicing her drawings first on notepads, then silicon skin and dolls.

She was 6 when she did her first tattoo.

“I only drew birds and cats. We had a Java sparrow named Komajiro when we lived in Japan, and so I began drawing Komajiro,” she said. “My first tattoo was Komajiro.”

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The lucky person who got Noko’s first tattoo? “My dad,” she said. “So I didn’t get very nervous at all.” This piece, and the many that followed, naturally became Gakkin’s favourite tattoos.

But when people started paying for her work, the nerves did get to Noko – at least in the beginning.

“When I first tattooed a customer, it was a bit scary and I was definitely nervous. I’m slow with my lines and sometimes my hand shakes a bit,” she told VICE. “I understand that the tattoos stay for life so I can’t make any mistakes. That makes me nervous.”

She has since learned how to shade tattoos, adding that colouring is less stressful. “The colouring I can redo even if I make a small mistake, so that part is a bit easier,” she laughed.

She continues to draw birds, finding inspiration in the book Masterpieces: 150 Prints from the Birds of America by John Hames Audubon, which she received as a gift from another tattoo artist. The various poses and types of birds in the book jog her imagination for new creations, she said. Aside from birds, Noko likes drawing cats, which has become some sort of trademark.

“I don’t have any cats of my own, but they’re really cute and easy for me to draw,” she said. “When I first started drawing cats, somebody asked if I could tattoo the cat drawing. Then people started wanting my cats, and that’s when it really started becoming fun for me to draw them.”

Initially, Noko liked drawing lavender, pinks, and pale yellows that she saw on Pretty Cure, an anime series she watched about magical young girls. Today, she likes black – likely from her father’s bold black ink tattoo style seeping through her work.

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“It’s a mix of both my mom and my dad’s influence,” she said of her tattoos. “My mom helps me a lot too.”

Aside from her father, she said she enjoys the work of Russian tattoo artist Sasha Unisex – whose work she loves because of its dreamy watercolour and animal motifs – and Nissaco, who like her father, is celebrated as a master of the blackwork style, and whose “detailed lines” she admires.

But her father remains her favourite. “I think it’s amazing how my father does big pieces on people’s backs. I get tired even when I do a small piece.”

Noko too, is making a name for herself. She has clients from across Europe, and was fully booked at her first tattoo convention in Singapore. As of publication time, she had finished her 35th tattoo there, a beautiful black and red mushroom which she signed off with her name.

The comments on Noko’s Instagram account – run by her mother – show a cult-like following. Her over 50,000 followers are encouraging, commenting on how she has improved in recent years, with others rallying for an appointment.

“When are you coming to Spain? I’d love to meet you,” said follower @__yolandagarcia__

Another user, @inconsistenseas, commented on her progress: “It's amazing being able to see her grow as an artist.”

“This is so beautiful. I love Noko's art and it's impressive that she can already can do customised work too,” said @alineleal13_.

Today, Noko works at Gakkin’s studio on Saturdays, when she’s not in school.

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Despite loving the work she does, Noko is aware that back in her country of birth, tattoos are still taboo – something she hopes will change over the years.

“In Japan, people with tattoos are looked at as bad people, but out here it’s not strange for people to have tattoos. Some teachers at school and doctors have tattoos,” she said.

“I don’t have any tattoos, but I kind of want some. Not so many though, since I like going to hot springs and pools, and in Japan, people with tattoos can’t get in. I wonder why,” she mused.

“I hope by the time I grow up, people with tattoos can enjoy hot springs and pools in Japan too.”

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.