Crystal Morey Talks to the Unconventional Gakkin About Japan and Tattooing
By Crystal Morey
There are a million differences between the Kanto (Tokyo) region and the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) region of Japan. The ramen tastes different. They use different words and expressions. They stand on the opposite sides of the escalator. There are more tacoyaki (fried octopus fritters) shops down in Kansai than convenient stores. In Kansai people just forget to sleep. They go to work, then go out, then walk outside the club or karaoke bar at 5 a.m. and say, “Oops! It’s daytime!” go home, take a shower and do it all over again. It’s insane. Kansai is also home to some off the hook tattooers and is the birthplace of Japanese new school tattooing. 21st century wabori. Strongly influenced by manga, graffiti and graphic design these pioneers have taken Japanese tattooing a whole different direction and the results are incredible. One of my favorite shops in Kansai is Harizanmai in Kyoto – home of Gotch, the owner and Gakkin. These guys have been consistently putting out unique, mind-blowing tattoos for years now and their work continues to evolve. I snagged Gakkin this weekend for an interview…
CM: How long have you been tattooing and did you do apprenticeship?
Gakkin: 13 years, I started when I was 21 and of course I did apprenticeship, I worked so hard! Ha-ha. I moved here, to Kyoto about 5 years ago. I used to work at Chopstick Tattoo in Osaka.
CM: Who did you apprentice under? How long was your apprenticeship?
Gakkin: I started my apprenticeship at Chopstick. At that time, there were four tattoo artists there, so I was able learn a lot of things from each of them, I observed many kinds of tattoos. After a few months I became Gotch’s apprentice exclusively. He was working at Chopstick before he opened Harizanmai in Kyoto. I learned not only the basics of tattooing and painting but how to clean and serve tea… ha! I was lucky, I finished my apprenticeship in just eight months. I was working 15 hours a day as an apprentice, and drawing six hours a day. Now I can say I was young…
CM: Why did you want to become a tattooer?
Gakkin: I was studying at a school of fashion design, but soon I found myself bored and stopped going. After school, I was in Chopstick everyday to get tattooed, I was so impressed that they were drawing on skin! It was just a natural thing for me to decide to become a tattooer, no special reason really… I just thought it was cool.
CM: Who have you been tattooed by? Who would you like a tattoo from still?
Gakkin: My first tattoo was by the owner of Chopstick, he’s not tattooing anymore, and I’ve been tattooed by Ton (from Chopstick), but most of my tattoos are made by Gotch (his sempai at Harizanmai) I have a full body suit, I like his dynamic outlines. I’d like to get tattooed more, but have just small spaces left now. I hope to get tattooed from Genko, Esther Garcia (Butterfat Tattoo in Chicago) and Bunshin Horitoshi someday.
CM: Your work is awesome. I definitely see Gotch’s influence. You do mostly Japanese motifs… Is this what you like or is it what customers ask you for? What is your favorite imagery?
Gakkin: Thank you, yes I really like to do Japanese imagery. I’m doing truly 21st-century Japanese works and it’s exactly the style of tattooing I want to be involved in. It’s not new, it’s not old but it is a new approach to traditional Japanese themes. My clients give me good ideas, they know what I like to tattoo, and sometimes they leave the entire design up to me. Namakubi are one of my favorites and I like blood stuff too, and Shunga is so interesting to do.
CM: Shunga is becoming very popular, even outside of Japan! What is the craziest tattoo you have ever done?
Gakkin: Right! everyone likes pussy and dicks… and I’m one of them. Ha-ha!
I finished two or three Shunga or rape back pieces, but I can say the tattoo of the blood with red ink in the ear was most scary… I tattooed the little deep part… Terrible…
CM: Oh I saw that one!!! Insane!!!! Do you have any other crazy customer stories?
Gakkin: A few years ago, my customer asked me to tattoo with just black on his nipples… He wanted me to just make them black. It was his first tattoo. Why? I have no idea!
Some other guy brought his girlfriend’s photo and wanted a tattoo of somebody raping her! I liked the idea… Oh one more… In Amsterdam I tattooed someone’s tongue with just the outline of dick, I get a lot of requests for tattoos like that!
CM: Dicks in strange places? Oh dear! Your Japanese tattoo work is not traditional… it is definitely progressive. Do you still feel it is important to follow wabori (traditional Japanese tattoo) rules? For example tigers should always go with bamboo, rabbits with the moon, maple leaves should not be in the same illustration as sakura, things like that? Do you still follow those rules or not?
Gakkin: Yes, I know my work is not so traditional, and I do want to create a unique style, but I think it’s important to keep some rules… Of course, I follow those traditions, you don’t want to put momiji and sakura in same drawing! That’s stupid! I can create unique tattoos and still follow these rules, for sure!
CM: So you do believe the rules are important. I agree. Is there anything you would like to tattoo still? If you could do a backpiece completely of your own design, what would you make? What’s the ultimate Gakkin piece?
Gakkin: Now I do freehand work that fits the customers body. With large tattoos, especially on women I design the tattoo so that is compliments the body… it doesn’t have to be solid, I like to keep skin space. If I can choose the design for a backpiece… I want to do huushiga!!!
CM: What is huushiga?
Gakkin: Political satire. About the fucking Japanese goverment. Huushiga is hard to explain. Kyosai used to draw a lot of huushiga for his generation and I want to do the same but aimed at Japan today.
CM: Interesting. You have been traveling a lot lately for guest work and conventions? Where can people find you in 2012? Is there any place you want to go still?
Gakkin: Yes. I’ve been traveling and working all over the world since 2005. I’m still working out 2012, but I know I will be in Brighton for guestwork and Chicago… and Melbourne and Vancouver! I’m looking for the place I can move someday.
CM: You want to move out of Japan? Why?
Gakkin: If it’s possible. It’s a dream… what do you think? What will Japanese tattoo business be like in 10 years?
CM: People are poor right now but I think tattooing is steadily increasing in popularity here. More young people are getting fashion tattoos. More foreigners are traveling over here to get tattooed by authentic Japanese horishi, but it will never be like it is in America, Europe or Australia where tattoos aren’t so shunned by mainstream society and good artists are booked out for months. You definitely will have a more prolific career in another country. Where do you want to go?
Gakkin: You are right, I agree Japan will never be like foreign countries. Still I’m busy here now, I don’t want to stress out about where I am going to be in 10 years. I just wanna do big pieces everyday and just work hard to create my own style and make tattoos I’m proud of. As far as places I want to move… Hmm, I like Brighton in England, Chicago in US, also Melbourne in Australia… but I’m still undeceided. Anywhere I can talk English or Japanese… Ha-ha. So if anybody is interested in having me work with them… let me know!
Gakkin can be found at Harizanmai in Kyoto, Japan.