By Crystal Morey
Horibenny is one of my favorite monsters. Odder than bacon with legs, he oozes with creative zealotry and possesses an indiscriminate passion for life that is contagious. Benny is one of the first round-eyes to be given and to complete a formal tattoo apprenticeship here in Japan, and by this I mean, he cooked, fetched and lived for his sempai for over four years… A far cry from the ‘two week a year drop in to study and pay money’ apprenticeship awarded to many gaijin deshi these days.
Benny is an accomplished painter, his tattoo work is delicate yet powerful, it often embodies the Japanese tenet that less is more, and his earnest demeanor only lends to his accomplishments as an artists. Ever the student, Ben works his ass of on a daily basis to learn more and push himself further and I’ve had the pleasure of watching him make significant artistic advancements over the past few years. He is not unlike one of those wind-up toys you point and they take off pointedly in one direction… only Ben’s nose is pointed at the moon and with his passion it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he got there…
Crystal Morey: Tell me about your apprenticeship, I know it was a defining point in your life…
Ben Her (Horibenny): I served an apprenticeship here in Osaka that began around 2004. I was younger, fresher and most of all, totally naive. All things tattooing had taken up firm root in my mind and heart and so I packed up my youthful ideals and moved to Kansai, which at that time was a cultural hotbed for modern tattooing in Japan.
Calling it a turning point in my life is probably an understatement; it was really the most powerful change I had yet experienced. There was no way I could have imagined what was in store. There’s a lot to say about how I came into it, and even more about the process itself. Rather than talk about how arduous it was, I think it’s more important to talk about what makes a Japanese apprenticeship unique, and why the word “apprenticeship” itself really isn’t adequate to describe the “Deshi” (弟子) and “Shisho” (師匠) relationship of Japan. The closest word to “apprentice” is made up of the character for “younger brother” and “child.” The closest word to “teacher” is made up of the character “master, instructor” and “craftsman.” So even the words themselves indicate a certain weight of responsibility.
Studying in Japan is not like running toward a goal line so much as it is like running toward the starting line… and in a sense, there is no real “end” to any learning, so my life continues to be defined by it, indefinitely.
CM: What an eloquent summation. I think you did well at touching at the heart of it… and it further illustrates how frustrating it is when the term ‘deshi’ and ‘sempai’ are used incorrectly. Can you go into more detail about your apprenticeship? What it consisted of? How long it lasted? What was expected of you?
BH: The whirlwind version of this epic goes something like this: First, I didn’t get the apprenticeship right away. I moved to Osaka, started showing up at the shop every day, and then getting tattooed before they said yes. Then I was only something of a prospect. I had no idea that this implied that for the next four and a half years I would not take a single day off. Not one. Birthdays, holidays, family deaths… I certainly wasn’t prepared for the road ahead.
My Japanese was adequate, but by no means perfect and I had to learn to talk people, give consultations, explain procedures. If I wrote anything without using kanji, they mocked me, so I redoubled my efforts, studying and drawing every day as I went.
But y’know, I didn’t care, because I felt committed, invincible almost, and I had absolutely no intention of giving up. I had started a whole Japanese body suit on myself and I was going to see it through hell or high water.
Despite my stumbling, my duties steadily increased from only cleaning floors to managing a shop of five artists.
But the whole endeavor started taking time. Nobody was telling me what was coming next, nor when… and I was hemorrhaging the pitiful rookerful of money that I had left. Since no part-time jobs were allowed, I had to stop getting tattooed and cut down on my living expenses. Eventually I couldn’t pay rent and sold everything that didn’t fit into a bag that anyone would buy from me. I had nowhere to live so I started sleeping in the shop, but once they figured that out, I was admonished to cease doing so immediately. I ended up sleeping outside, squatting, fishing for food out of trash cans… fortunate enough to get a handout once and awhile from a sympathetic soul. I was homeless for like, a year.
When I think about it now, I must have been fucking insane. I was malnourished. I began to get splotches on my skin and my ribs were poking through my torso. I went to the hospital with a “borrowed” insurance card and they told me that the only cure for what I had was “food.” As if I had a choice.
The madness of it all… I lost the plot completely. I began to forget why I had come to Japan or become interested in tattooing in the first place. Ironically, it was probably the very youthful inexperience that led me to this point, and ended up fueling me through.
Eventually during this period Wataru took me on as his official apprentice and I began the long hard road to really learning the technical process of tattooing. Though really, what Wataru truly did for me was sacrifice his time and patience in order to rebuild me. Once I began tattooing, small slow and steady though it was, the haze in my head began to clear, once and awhile there were blue skies, and somehow I was able to press ahead.
So much of those years are a smear of memories now. I constantly felt as though there was a lurking terrible void behind me that would consume me at any moment. Even during this period I jotted down thoughts here and there among the drawings in my sketchbook. Flipping through them today is deeply unnerving. Some pages are only vague scribbles, but looking at them culls the odd spot of nightmarish clarity and I can recall the time, place and situation that drove my hand to pen them.
Despite it all, I did learn a lot during that period. Things I had no concept of previously. The realities of a lifelong responsibility, a commitment to a serious work ethic, an appreciation for the amenities of food and shelter, the value of true friendships, the mysterious nature of our existence… and most importantly, the fragility and preciousness of human life…
To be continued… Tune in next week for Part II…
Ben can be found at Chopstick Tattoo in Osaka, Japan.
You can follow his work via his website and blog as well as on Facebook and Instagram: