Crash: Okay, let’s start with a basic history of yourself and then I want you to talk about the shop and it’s crew.
Horitaka Kitamura: Sure man, basic story… Well I was born in Japan and my parents moved to America when I was a few years old. My parents were bilingual so they taught me Japanese as well, which opened a lot of doors for me later on… So I grew up here and probably had a very similar interest in tattooing like many of my generation, I was a skater, turned punk rocker and liked tattoos from my junior high school days. I do recall liking the tattoos in an old Japanese TV show, “the tattooed magistrate” where the hero shows his cherry blossom tattoos before he kicks ass at the end of every episode. So I guess I’ve long had an affinity for tattoos. I know in high school I had already decided I wanted a body suit, didn’t know what the hell that meant or what was good but I just knew that I wanted tons of tattoos!
C: When did you start doing tattoos and how?
HT: Well, I got my first tattoos in high school but I didn’t start tattooing ‘til 1998. After high school, I moved to Santa Cruz to go to school there. I graduated with a BA in Community Studies, something that would prove very useful later on. I didn’t take any art classes, I should have but my focus was different at the time. The Community Studies major is centered around social work and field study. Essentially, you read about a subject and then go out in the field as an intern and then come back and write about it. Inevitably, like with anything in life, things tend to be much different in the “real world” and most of us left with the feeling that research is good but real experience is better. This process of studying, living and observing, and then writing would serve me well later and is the foundation for much of my writings. After college, I moved to San Jose and like most college graduates, ended up working retail instead of something related to my major of studies. After a few years of that and opening a small automotive type shop, I landed an apprenticeship with NewSkool Studios (RIP) with Paco Excel and Adrian Lee. I was a client of Paco’s and he was nice enough to take me in. Adrian, Wrath and Jason Kundell also helped teach me and in 1998 I began tattooing. I worked at a shop called House of Pain for a year and then Marks of Art for three-and-a-half years before opening State of Grace. I know, way too early to open a shop, but that’s just the way it happened, I guess I tried to learn along the way! I would like to say, my old boss at Marks of Art, Scotty Weeks was the best boss I’ve ever had, a real class act!
C: Tell us about State of Grace…
HT: State of Grace was opened September 1st, 2002, so we’ve just hit 10 years and are very happy about that! I could not have predicted the growth that has occurred, the original plan was for a one man type shop ha-ha! I would say the one unique thing about State of Grace was that it was founded with the idea and mission statement of trying to do and promote traditional Japanese tattooing in the United States. I had scheduled to open next to my homie’s bike shop, 45s Forever. The property is owned by the Enriquez family, and Roman Enriquez has been like a brother to me for many years, I could not have opened State of Grace without his friendship and support. We now throw the convention together and always push each other to do better in life in every way possible. But back to the shop, a few months before opening, I got a call from Jill Bonny about work. Jill had gotten my number from Ed Hardy, a mutual mentor to both of us, and was looking for work. I had never met her before but we both had a mutual interest in studying Japanese tattooing and after a few talks, she joined the shop. Jill is a graduate of Cooper Union in New York and brought a strong art background and healthy work ethic to the shop. Back then, Chad Koeplinger- also a brother to me for many years, flew out for a couple weeks and we all built the shop together. I remember Jill and Chad painting our sign on the floor at like 4 a.m. or something like that! It’s been a pleasure watching Jill and her successes, she’s written books, traveled, tattooed and been an essential part of State of Grace.
C: Okay, who else you got? I can’t keep track it seems like you guys are constantly expanding!
HT: I know! We don’t mean to, but as I explain each person’s story you can see why! Shortly after, Horitomo, who I had become close too since we were members of the same tattoo family, wanted to move to the United States. Of course I was ecstatic and didn’t hesitate! We got a lawyer and got him an “extraordinary talent” visa and he moved over! I really feel that Horitomo is one of the top Japanese artists in the world and we are lucky to have him! We recently published his book IMMOVABLE, which I think speaks for itself as far as art, education and what Horitomo is about. A few years after Horitomo came over, Yokohama Horiken wanted to move over and we did the same process! Horiken is a graduate of Tama Art College in Japan and also an amazing tattooer and painter. We love having two native Japanese speakers in the shop and both are versed in hand shading, tebori. Having Horitomo and Horiken allows us, and our clients to get authentic information and experience from Japan. This is very important to me and is something I’ve always wanted for State of Grace.
C: Yes, how many Japanese hand tattooers do you think there are in the States?
HT: I honestly don’t know of too many, Shinji is in New York and they’re a few others, so it definitely is a rare skill in this country. And it’s not just the hand tattooing; Horitomo and Horiken have such a fount of knowledge and do the reading in Japanese to back it up. Everyone loves to do Japanese tattooing out here, but as an American, it can be really hard to get accurate information and reference. We are very lucky to have Horitomo and Horiken at State of Grace.
C: Okay, who else?
HT: Colin Kenji Baker apprenticed with us and is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. He came in as a client, I guess his mom had bought him my second book, and while working on his sleeve, we just hit it off. I had a feeling he wanted to tattoo and asked him if he had samples of his graphic art. Turns out that he had a portfolio in his car every time but did not want to be rude and show it before I asked to see it. I think this says it all, he’s got a great character and it’s been great watching his art evolve. He’s a very well rounded tattooer and is capable in many different styles. I also like that he and Horiken have been making machines from scratch, that is an area I was never good at!