Coffee and Tattoos by Anton Kusters

Kaicho lies motionless, silently enduring the pain. Sensei Horiyoshi applies the tattoo manually, according to ancient traditions, and with his own prepared colors. Although it is said to be less painful than a modern tattoo, the sheer size and complexity of the artwork is daunting. The skillset involved is immense: at precisely 120 stabs a minute with hand-made needles, and at an exact angle and depth, depending on the skin thickness in that particular area, the artist applies his design. Any mistake will show up immediately, and permanently, as an imperfection.

Early morning. A long row of cars stops in front of the hotel. When we enter the bar in the lobby, i notice that the place has been cleared completely. As a security measure. The bosses are having a meeting and a coffee. Other family members, sitting at surrounding tables at a different positions, form a physical barrier. I am the closest i can go, in front of a someone staring right at me. Soichiro tells me the man at my table has been in prison for the past 23 years, and recently released. He doesn’t tell me why, but i’m guessing that it wasn’t for shoplifting.

Anything below the heart is painful, Soichiro tells me, while we watch Kaicho’s tattoo being completed. Personally, recalling his own tattoo, the inside of the upper leg hurts the most, Soichiro says. Kaicho was once the proud owner of a full body suit tattoo, and had it removed several years later, only to have this new one made. Once complete, he will have spent about 100 hours, in sessions of 2 hours at a time, to get this tattoo.

In the hotel bar I am only slowly starting to understand the minutial social order that is continuously happening, the micro-expressions on the faces, the gestures, the voices and intonations, the body language. Everything seems to be strictly organized but at the same time seems to come naturally: strangely, I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do, where to sit, when to talk or when to shut up… it’s like I feel the boundaries, the implicit expectations, and I am slowly learning when i can do, and when to best hold back.

As much as they are allowing me to photograph, it as well seems to me that Soichiro is trying to teach me about the subtle Japanese cultural intricacies, and the relation of their family to society. It’s clear to me that they are most definitely not operationg completely “outside” of society. They are, so to speak, one leg in, one leg out. Why is this? How is this possible?

About the Work


Soichiro is the lead character of the story that i’m starting to tell, about a Yakuza family in Japan. After more than 10 months of preparation, my brother and I have been granted access to start a long-term project to document the visible and hidden life of that particular family. All names used in the account above (and previous and future accounts) are fictional.

Here on burn magazine, and on my own site, i will regularly provide visual and textual accounts of our adventures.

Previous chapters:

Meet Soichiro

As Light Shines on thy Thigh

Eye of the Beholder


Website: Anton Kusters


30 thoughts on “anton kusters – coffee and tattoos”

  1. It’s soooooo Anton…
    Anton has “established” a style..
    I’m thinking of the epic book coming..
    Something like the “GODFATHER” of photography..
    Anton :)
    great.. May FedEx be with you..:)
    keep it up my moutsatso

  2. First: you are still alive! Good!

    I have to regret the adverse lighting in the second shot, big window!!!, while hoping you were not next on the first shot.

    I stay conflicted with the possibility that your work may veer in estheticizing a society of criminals and murderers FOREMOST. I wish not to forget what they are.

    Just saying that, I realize David posted your Yakuza update as a direct counterpoint to Jan’s indigenous work, which has me asking: Are criminal syndicates just another tribe, with, paraphrasing Patricia, “rich histories, amazing stories and a deep commitment to the community in which they live”…. ?

  3. Anton, absolutely amazing. This essay is the one that I´ve always dreamed of doing…

  4. all –

    thanks for the comments and also for your patience, i know i haven’t been around here for a while (on the “front side” of BURN that is), but i’m doing my best to deliver images….

    wendy –

    i’ve just got back from photographing a covert training camp for their new recruits… this will be my next chapter. i’ll be looking at those images over the next few weeks, and i’m hoping i’ll discover some gems there…


  5. I just can’t understand why I should care about photos of the boring lives of these thugs. The excitement I see expressed for this series just goes over my head, I guess.

  6. “Anything below the heart is painful”

    anton, what i have always loved about pictures and about photographers involved in personal journeys, are always the small details, for it is always the small, almost prescient, details that speak the most universally….

    i love the small bead of blue in the lamp in the first picture (a parent) overseeing the light in the man’s eyes (being tatto’d)…eyes of a child loosing a parent, recalling the past, as he himself sets forth toward a journey of ending: commisseration….in the 2nd picture, the man by the window (a wise man), his look of forlorn and indifference in stark contrast to the young, strong, bald man (well-attired) behind him….

    a look forward to your book and completion of this project….

    and what i look forward to most of all is all you have been transformed, more so than the story of the Yakuza themselves…for in truth, for me, it is the personal journey that matters infinitely more than our attempt to document another, and that act itself, if we are most open, yields something new about, not the other, but ourselves….

    a sailor or a soldier, i’ll take a sailor, as wong kar-wei once suggested, because a sailor moves toward that line in the distance, not commands barked upon….

    looking forward to the book….


  7. ANTON

    Very strong images and text. You have found a style of shooting that suits this story to a T. I love seeing this book unfold, chapter by chapter.


    When you take a person’s words out of one context and apply them to another, it does them a disservice.


    You don’t need to be “on the same page” as the rest of us. You see things through your own lens and that’s cool.


  8. Hey Anton.
    These shots are about the intricacies of the people in them. No photographers ego in the way. I love the use of shadow, very appropriate.
    Next time you are london way give me a shout and i will buy you a beer.


  9. imants –
    nail on the head… exactly… and thanks

    jim –
    no worries mate, you don’t need to care

    bob –
    great words, thanks… indeed, the boss, everytime i met him, struck me as a quiet, contemplative man

    lisa, patricia –
    thanks for the words

    john –
    thanks… as long as you’re driving the mercedes, mate… :-) i’ll definitely shout

    hope i didn’t forget anyone…

  10. hey Thodoris –

    i’m still in the process of finding out both of your questions. i have some info about the “how”, but the “why” is not known to me yet. it has to do with new allegiances, but i will know more soon.

    as for the “removing” part: Soichiro said he had been “made completely white again”, and i’m led to believe this was done with moxa, a plant root used in ancient tattoo removal techniques (and acupuncture and more) where they not only heat but also blister the top layers of the skin. i have no idea how they prevent tissue scarring while doing this, but i can imagine that a full body suit would be quite painful to remove in this way. As soon as i find out more i will let you know!


  11. Great Anton,

    I can tell you that i haven`t been a huge fan of your previous projects, but the kind of dedication you`re giving to this is truly beautiful by itself, and the photos and texts are the most astounding company for it.

    I lived in Japan for a year, and the subject you`re exploring is so “untouchable” in that country that i feel really honored you share your experience with us.

  12. I may be considered a philistine for thinking this way, but your series is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this site. Your essay is compelling to say the least, people involved in photography use words like composition, depth of field, framing, and colors (usually mixed with the adjectives beautiful, stunning, and amazing).

    I think there’s just one word to describe your series, perfection. Thanks for letting me see a world that otherwise would be impossible to view.

  13. mate, this is really top-notch stuff.
    as someone living in japan, i know the intricacies of dealing with this group of people. i’m totally captivated with what you are doing and always look forward to the next installment.

  14. ANTON..

    I like the look of these images and dont agree with the idea that who cares because they’re Yakuza. Your capturing an essence here.

    I agree with BOB in his observations.

    Well done for getting in and persisting on with this project. Hope you spend as much time on it as you can.

    take care.

  15. Amazing access! Well photographed with sensitivity. The Japanese are very particular people and to find a way into a very secret sub-culture of their society intending to explore and publish their lives is a feat. Great story Anton, these two photographs and the text with them are amazing.
    Your adventure reminds me of the photographer, who’s name has slipped my mind, that rode with the Hells Angels to do much the same thing with that sub-culture of American Society. Great work! Look forward to more.

  16. all –

    thanks again for all your kind words… it gives me more strength to keep on going and to learn more and more about their world. i’m working hard on the next chapter, which will be about a covert training camp for new recruits; i hope to have images on that soon



  17. This story that you’re working on is one of the main reasons Burn now sits on my bookmark bar and gets checked every day.

    Other than the imagery which makes me feel like I’m learning about them first hand, it’s the elusive nature of the business that makes it all that more appealing.

    As opposed to the endless movies made about the cosa nostra, the Yakuza are still a huge enigma to the West.

    Very much looking forward to more instalments.

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