Dentist by Day, Dental Grill Expert by Night: Dr. Zara and the Culture of Customizing Teeth

Grills are a type of tooth jewelry with roots in American hip-hop culture. Previously, they were known only to a limited number of people, considered a symbol of success and status like necklaces and rings. But today, grills are gradually spreading among young people, even in Japan.

At the center of this movement is Dr. Zara, a man with two professions: dentist and grill specialist. Why is a dentist making grills? How will tooth jewelry be accepted and evolve? Dr. Zara, who’s captured people’s attention on social media, talks to us about the present and future of tooth jewelry with blunt honesty.

Dr. Zara 
On top of working as a dentist, Dr. Zara makes grills and tooth gems for clients through referrals. His forte is the guaranteed safety and quality of his work based on his dentistry experience and skills. His clientele, comprised of rappers, band members, models, influencers, and fashion insiders, is growing thanks to his social media presence and word of mouth.

Most people making grills have a distinct style

——Could you first talk about your professional history? 

Dr. Zara: I went to a dentistry school at a certain university, got my license in dentistry after graduation, then joined a pain clinic at the same university’s hospital. 99% of dental patients’ pain is rooted in issues like cavities or gum disease, but the remaining 1% is undiagnosable. A pain clinic deals identifying the cause, such as issues related to the brain, muscles, nerves, and psyche. It’s a branch of study dedicated to finding distinct causes of undiagnosable dental pain. I worked and researched there. 

——In other words, you have a lot of expertise. How did you start making grills?

Dr. Zara: One day, a friend from high school who makes sculptures asked me if I could make grills for them. That was the catalyst. I accepted the request because although I’d never made one before, I felt it couldn’t be that different from making silver tooth caps. I was about to graduate from grad school and was looking for something new to do. Also, my family’s dental clinic, which I’d helped out at, had equipment appropriate for making grills. It was a result of those two factors. 

——How many years has it been since you started making grills?

Dr. Zara: About three. I make them entirely by myself, and work in dental care during the day, so I can’t make many of them. That’s why I make grills by referral only. My first clients were the friend I just spoke about and a dancer friend from middle and high school. I got more clients through word of mouth after that. 

——Can you tell me more about grills?

Dr. Zara: Many people misunderstand this, but you put grills over the surface of your teeth, so you can usually take them on and off. There’s no problem with living your day-to-day life without taking them off. You could say they’re like rings. 

——How was the culture of grills born?

Dr. Zara: It was born around the late 80s to 90s in America. Apparently, at first, people who lost their teeth for any number of reasons used grills like dentures, but they moved on to become symbol of status in hip-hop culture, similar to blingy necklaces and rings. 

——The primary materials are silver or gold. What sort of designs are popular? 

Dr. Zara: There are also other materials, like white gold. I get the most orders for two plain caps next to each other. 

——Are the units in ones and twos?

Dr. Zara: They’re called caps abroad. You can say two caps, for instance. It might be similar to calling sneakers kicks. Rather than grills (or grillz) being the official term, I feel that people began calling them that before they knew it. The vague origin of the name is proof of grills coming from the culture.

——Can you fit them on anyone?

Dr. Zara: Yes, because I take impressions of each person’s teeth to make the grills.

——Like tattoo artists, does each person who makes grills have different traits?

Dr. Zara: There’s no official guidebook, so I think everyone has a different style. In terms of design, people follow a certain formula, but each person has their own style. Within the country, there are two legends in the field: Tetsuya Akiyama of Grillz Jewelz and Taro Hanabusa of Fangophilia. They have unique vibes, and I learn a lot from them. 

——What would you say is your style?

Dr. Zara: I don’t have one defining style. I want people who come to see my work to find that out by themselves. Many of my clients are creative people who dislike being the same as everyone else, so they’re assertive. They tell me, “Can you make something like this?” and I try to meet their needs as much as possible. People can trust me with ease because I have real dentistry knowledge. 

There’s no need for grill culture to permeate

——Many people make silver accessories on their own. Is that possible to do with grills?

Dr. Zara: It is if you can make a dental impression on your own, but you have to pour the dental model too. We do this daily, so we know how to produce high-quality grills safely without sacrificing that effort.

——Do some people bring in their own material? Do they want you to melt their favorite gold ring, for example?

Dr. Zara: It’s not impossible, but there might not be enough grams to make grills with the amount of gold used to make rings. 

——I heard about tooth gems for the first time recently.

Dr. Zara: It’s a new trend among celebrities abroad. You have to cover your teeth with grills, but with tooth gems, you usually just stick Swarovski crystals onto the tooth. They’re popular because they’re easy to try out. 

——Do men and women want the same things made?

Dr. Zara: Regarding the difference between men and women, I’d say while grills are popular among men, tooth gems are popular among women because they see them as an extension of nail decoration culture. But it’s silly to talk about things in a gendered manner in this day and age, so I actively recommend tooth gems to men too. 

——Do people get tooth gems done at a salon, like how people go to the nail salon?

Dr. Zara: There are salons for tooth gems abroad, but you can’t find them in Japan. There are a couple of places where dentists do it, like me. People tend to think this culture is a recent development in Japan, but stylish tooth gems have been sold for over a decade as dental products. I heard from a dental wholesaler that people didn’t use to know about tooth gems like they do today, so they stopped manufacturing them.

——I wonder if that’s because people think dealing with the inside of your mouth has to be done medically.

Dr. Zara: It seems like one reason is that if you don’t get it done medically, the gems come off quickly. A nail technician told me that their tooth gem came right off when they applied themself. I’m assuming they didn’t use a medical-grade adhesive. I use dental adhesive, so you can brush your teeth without the tooth gem falling off. I have clients who’ve been able to keep their tooth gems on for over a year. 

——I’m interested in what sort of aftercare you provide. 

Dr. Zara: I take that into account, so before I apply the tooth gem, I treat the client’s teeth too, like their cavities. Recently, more of my tooth gem clients also get their dental work done by me. Some get their teeth cleaned periodically and change their tooth gem. 

——They trust you as a dentist. I see that you have tools for braces. Are those for grills too?

Dr. Zara: I got a request from someone who wanted to be like an “American girl with braces on,” so I combined actual braces and grills to make that. They don’t function as braces, so you can easily take them on and off. 

——That’s interesting. The possibilities are endless if you have ideas.

Dr. Zara: My strength is being able to meet such demands using my expertise as a dentist. 

——I hear that the dental industry is a hierarchical one. How do your peers react to you being both a dentist and grill expert?

Dr. Zara: I haven’t told my professor at the university hospital I worked at, but I’ve never been in trouble or got hate because of it. At most, people are like, “What you’re doing is different.” My peers think it’s cool.

——What challenges do you want to take on?

Dr. Zara: I recently tried encrusting diamonds into tooth caps, rather than grills. They’re basically the same as regular dental tooth caps, only they’re encrusted with diamonds. They look like grills on the surface, but you could eat and brush your teeth with them. There isn’t an official name, but some people abroad call them permanent grills. Rather than taking on a challenge, I want to try doing things only I can do with my skills and license alongside creative people.

——Do you think the culture surrounding grills and tooth gems will grow in popularity in Japan? 

Dr. Zara: I do, but I don’t think there’s a need for it to permeate. There’s no point if a counter-culture becomes mainstream. I think this culture is great because it’s still underground. But I’m all for the rest of society learning about the culture. We’d live in an ideal world if it were normal for people to know about grills and tooth gems and have the option not to get them done. I feel that the bar of fashion and culture will be raised that way. In our neighboring country, South Korea, tooth gems are normalized already.

——Among people who understand the latest fashion and hip-hop culture, grills and tooth gems are pretty common knowledge.

Dr. Zara: It feels like now that we live in a society where masks are common because of covid, the fanbase of tooth gems has changed a bit. There’s been an increase among people working at companies, it’s not just dancers and rappers anymore. 

——I’ve grown more interested in the topic today. 

Dr. Zara: That’s all you need to feel. You’ve got nothing to lose by learning about it.

Photography Shinpo Kimura
Text Tommy
Translation Lena Grace Suda


Shuichi Aizawa

Born in Miyagi Prefecture. After editor of street culture magazine and catalogs, he joined INFAS Publications in 2018. After working in the editorial department of “STUDIO VOICE”, he currently belongs to the “TOKION” editorial dept. Currently, He enjoys parenting.