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… (Click here to read Part I)
Crystal Morey: Wow Ben. Thank you for sharing that, you have told me bits and pieces but I never realized the time involved. Crazy. There is no grey area here in Japan, you do it or you get out. So you were given the name Horibenny upon completion of your training?
Horibenny: Yes. Everybody who I work with has been given a name upon the day they begin working as a professional. It’s a bit hard to get all the nuance without some knowledge of the language and writing system. Since my name is Ben (which in Japanese has a somewhat negative nuance) they decided I should go by Benny or Beni, which means crimson. The shop owner expanded on the name, eventually calling me “Benny Murasaki Costco.” As you can see, the people of Osaka are not a very, very serious sort.
The thing is, “Hori” is an honorific title appended to a name but at the end of the day it is only going to mean what you put behind it. Sailor Jerry called himself “Hori Smoke,” you know? The Japanese have a good laugh about that and still give him plenty of respect.
The point is, I’m happy with my “title” but like all trophies and accolades, it isn’t a tangible concrete thing. Even though I earned it for my apprenticeship in Japan, the reality is that if I don’t work hard to associate “Hori Benny” with quality work, than it’s nothing more than an affectation.
CM: So anybody can give themselves a Hori name, as Hori refers to Horishi (tattooer), but it’s given value when it is received by someone you respect.
Let’s talk about your artwork. You touch on so many genres and yet still maintain a consistent stylistic character with each one. Who inspires you artistically?
HB: I find inspiration everywhere, really. Prior to my tattooing career I was a fervent collector of art books. As an adolescent forced to sit in church, I would get lost in the intricate Gustave Doré illustrations of my bible… though I didn’t yet have an appreciation for the genius of their craft at the time. I really cut my young teeth on John Pound’s Garbage Pail Kids, the skateboard art of Jim Phillips, and the Kustom Kulture designs of Ed Roth. Then as an angsty tween, it was on to HR Giger, Frank Frazetta and R. Crumb. Finally a teenager, I lost my heart for the first time to Alphonz Mucha. My favorite painter became Caravaggio, a man’s work even the Vatican couldn’t bury… but I never forgot Dali, who taught me how to really “see.”
My exposure to art was fairly well rooted in the Occident, so it’s no surprise that I was blindsided completely by exposure to Japanese influences. At first, it was only pure raw exotic appeal. Then later an appreciation for the form and execution of Japanese work; paradoxically both complex and simple by its nature. It is this seemingly incomprehensible dissonance that drives me to want to understand it more deeply.
You can feel it in the paintings of Kanou Hougai, the screens of Maruyama Okyou, the madness of Kawanabe Kyosai… I have a lot of respect and admiration for Japanese manga artists. Creators like Otomo Katsuhiro or Suehiro Maruo who weave entire worlds with a pen. The sheer volume of work they produce and the dedication it took to get there is just unbelievable.
I could go on and on, but the point is, whenever I am in the presence of another artist’s work, I immediately look for a “resonance.” Can I sense something from it? Does any of it reverberate in my head or take up residence in my mind? These aren’t literal questions so much visceral responses to a given work as I surf over it with my eyes.
CM: Jeezus son, you could wax poetic over a carrot! Explain BenHer… your online handle…
BH: That handle from my intoxicated cousin and its spelling has haunted me for over a decade! I was something of an aspiring drag performer/cosplayer in my misspent youth; before it got so trendy that is! But that can of worms and its attendant questions will have to wait for another interview!
CM: Fair enough. Part of your training was learning the tenets and basic aesthetics of Japanese wabori, yet in your body of work it is your eros laced manga inspired pieces that really stand out. What do enjoy tattooing most? Who are your most adventurous clients as far as tattoo imagery goes? What is the strangest thing you have ever tattooed on someone?
BH: Most wabori imagery is from the Edo period, a particularly fruitful cultural era in Japan’s long and proud history. But Japan’s Meiji, Taisho, Showa and the current Heisei periods have their own unique aesthetic. I guess I’m greedy that way – I enjoy paying homage to the past as much as I revel in the modern. All clients are adventurous in their own way, and the consultation stage usually helps them realize this potential. Having the right mindset, and an open-minded client is important. Our mutual goal is a piece that is going to satisfy us both.
I am particularly fond of birds and flowers, especially the latter. Studying Ikebana (flower arrangement) for five years was key to an understanding of balance and harmony common to all Japanese art.
But that being said, the ever evolving modern Japanese aesthetic of manga, stemming from the venerable Hokusai himself, is particularly enticing to me. It brings a sense of fun and life to the mundane. Really look at Hokusai’s manga – we can see so much of ourselves from an era we didn’t even directly observe. It is a medium that compliments tattooing and I believe the two can be fused. For example, erotic hentai manga is part of my starting lineup, as I imagine that Shun-ga erotica was beloved by artists of the Edo period.
I really enjoy female characters, and as always am trying to bring the most monstrous of them to the forefront of my portfolio!
CM: I love it… I have been following your career since we met, what, eight years ago? And you have just made such enormous leaps in terms of composition and design. I love your take on Japanese imagery. While definitely modern in approach, it still maintains that crispness seen in the older more two-dimensional wabori. The eye doesn’t wander, your pieces are bold and not hidden in a psychedelic diffusion of color. I always maintained that one of the cool things about traditional Japanese tattoos is that they are nice and clear and you can tell what the image is from space. I think that although you employ a more new school approach to tattooing, your work emulates the characteristic precision of Japanese tattooing, a feat that makes your work quite unique.
You and I have both lived here in Japan for over 10 years now and have had numerous conversations about how foreigners view Japan and Japanese culture. There is so much here that is subtle, and you have to really pay attention to notice.
Are there assumptions made about the Japanese tattoo world that are false or exploited in the name of sensationalism?
BH: Definitely, though it pains me to say it. Enumerating false assumptions about Japan and its tattooing culture would be exhaustive, but there are some points that are particularly worrisome as they contribute to misinforming the public. Assumptions such as the nature of an “apprenticeship,” the role of Japan’s traditional “shokunin” class of craftspersons, and tattooing’s consistently misunderstood relationship with the yakuza to name only a few.
The Internet is saturated with videos of personalities more concerned with attempting to flaunt their “J-cred” as self-styled authorities on these and other extremely complex subjects. It is practically a pandemic; tattoo artists more interested in becoming tattoo celebrities than producing work they can be proud of. Predictably, the vast majority of these puerile performers possess little to no command of Japan’s language and only a rudimentary grasp of its culture.
Sometimes it’s tempting to despair the disrespectful nature of it all, but in the end I think it’s too infantile to take seriously.
The kanji for “apprentice” that I mentioned earlier is a simple example of this subtle yet powerful difference. I find that each day I learn something new it only reinforces how much more I have yet to learn; a phenomenon which will certainly persist throughout my life. Like an infinitely layered onion, I keep peeling back and discovering more and more beneath the surface of Japan. This learning process is of greater personal importance than proselytizing to others.
CM: Do you plan to stay in Japan? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
BH: It’s funny you would say “ten years.” The Shokunin have a saying; after 10 years, one is finally ready to call themselves a first year student. As of this year, I will have a full decade of life in the Japanese tattooing world under my belt… so I guess you could say that my tools are packed and that I am ready to earnestly begin my education.
Hopefully after another decade I’ll have a decent body of work started.
CM: Your attitude is admirable. I think egos hamper so many talented individuals, and you seem to have put yours down somewhere along the road and never bothered to go back for it! It’s refreshing. On that note I think we should end this, as we are both prone to wordiness! I look forward to watching you continue to create.
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: