By Crystal Morey
I dropped Bunshin Horitoshi’s shop today. I adore his work, particularly his underwater creatures and I think that, for an emerging artist, he’s done a remarkable job creating a signature style for himself, while still adhering to the strict canon of wabori (Japanese traditional tattoo motifs). His work is simple yet bold and flatters the form. There is a wonderful playfulness to his illustrations, which mirror Horitoshi’s own personality and it is this levity that make his pieces so appealing and unique.
CM: What first attracted you to tattooing as a profession?
Horitoshi: I grew up in the ghettos of Osaka and seeing men and women with tattoos was very commonplace during my childhood. I’d been to onsen (public bath houses) with my father and seen his friend’s bodysuits so there was never that “bad-boy” appeal for me. I went to school to join the fashion industry. It wasn’t until I attended the 1999 Tokyo tattoo convention and saw tattoo work from the likes of Filip Leu, Luke Atkinson and Mick from Zurich that I became enthralled.
I saw a guy with an amazing snake tattoo on his stomach, it was so powerful, there was no background and it had so much impact… I approached the guy and asked who did the tattoo. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. He told me and I immediately sought him out and began getting tattooed by him.
I was a student back then, and poor, so I would go get work done once every other month and as he was tattooing me I decided I wanted to do a formal apprenticeship with him after I graduated. I saved up for about a year and a half (because with a Japanese apprenticeship you don’t make any money) and then I became his apprentice.*
CM: How long are Japanese apprenticeships? What does an apprenticeship consist of?
Horitoshi: It’s case by case. I was there every day, all day, just in case I was needed. Some people go just on the weekend and work during the week but I’d planned ahead and saved money so I could focus entirely on my apprenticeship. I watched every time my teacher tattooed.
I cleaned, made ink, bought supplies, ran errands, took care of any arrangements that arose, served tea and beer to guests, things like that. My apprenticeship lasted for two years and I have been tattooing a total of nine years now. I do traditional Japanese hand poke method because that is the method of my teacher. I did outline and shading by hand as well up until 2006. I use a machine for that now, because it is faster, but I am still not 100 percent comfortable with machines.
CM: What’s the difference between tattoos done by machines and tattoos done by tebori?
Horitoshi: It really depends on the skill of the tattooer. I don’t think one method is better than the other. I know some amazing machine-only tattooers whose pieces heal beautifully, and I’ve seen some tattoos done by hand that were quite rough. I find with tebori I can make my black work really solid and clean, and in the case of my tattoos, the parts tattooed by hand heal a lot quicker.
CM: What kind of jobs did you hold prior, in order to save money for your apprenticeship?
Horitoshi: Ha-ha… I was a waiter in a hostess club and also a blow-job bar here in Tokyo. I was a bicycle flyer guy, you know those illegal sticky flyers you find downtown that advertise erotic massage or girls for hire and just have a pic and a phone number? I rode around at night sticking them to lampposts and in phone boxes. So illegal! Ha-ha…
CM: Ah-ha! No way! Insane. A blow-job bar huh?
Horitoshi: I was only a waiter!
CM: Ha-ha-ha… Aaaanyway… You know I am a fan of your underwater creatures. I love your blowfish, crabs and lobsters. Who do you use for reference when you draw?
Horitoshi: Ukiyo-e masters, you know, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi -they are really good, so how can I create something better than them?
CM: Hmm, I don’t think your pieces look like Hokusai or Kuniyoshi, per say. I look at a lot of tattoos and I can tell exactly what image some tattooers referenced, ha-ha-ha down to the page number they pulled it from, and I don’t get this from your images…
Horitoshi: I look at a lot of photo books of you know, fish and frogs as well. You have to know the small details of the animals. How they move. What their bodies look like.
CM: Do you like the underwater creatures in particular, or did you do one and someone came in wanting something similar and it snowballed?
Horitoshi: Yes like that! I started doing them, and the more I did the more requests I got. Ha-ha, I like them too so it’s okay.
Me: If you could do a backpiece tomorrow completely of your own design what would you do?
Horitoshi: Whatever the customer wants but Japanese backpieces are tricky because they connect everything and must unite the bodysuit, the back is the main piece. If someone asked for something like a fugu (puffer fish) backpiece I wouldn’t do it cause it’s too small of an image for that huge space and it would look strange if I blew it up. I always think about, you know… balance.
CM: Do you get a lot of requests for bodysuits?
Horitoshi: No, I am still earning the trust of my clients. I have only been tattooing for nine years.
CM: A lot of your clients are foreigners too, correct?
Horitoshi: Yes, ha-ha probably because I can speak English and I like to do guest spots and conventions abroad, so they know my work. I don’t advertise, my shop is a traditional custom tebori shop and all my clients here are recommended by previous clients.
CM: I understand. Just one last question and I’ll let you go…..What happened in Minneapolis?
Horitoshi: Ha-ha. Ugh! Nightmare! I was turned away at the border last year on my way to Philadelphia. I’d been to the States 12 or 13 times over a five-year period without the necessary paperwork and that time they flagged me, found a couple of business cards for tattoo and bike shops and started making phone calls.
I wasn’t sure what was going on or being said, so I sat there saying nothing and in the end and they put me on the next plane home. It sucked I ended up flying from Narita to Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Narita… So I flew around earth in two days! I really miss Philly too!
CM: Ouch. That does suck! We need to find you an American wife! Ha-ha! Can you clean?
Horitoshi: I’m very clean!
*Author’s Note: Bunshin Horitoshi intentionally does not mention the name of his former teacher because he no longer belongs to that family. He currently studies under Shinjuku’s Horikyo.
(Bunshin Horitoshi can be reached for appointments through his website… http://www.bunshin-horitoshi.jp/ and you can view current tattoos on his Facebook page as well… https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bunshin-Horitoshi/122466511107772?sk=info)