10 of the world’s best Japanese tattoo artists: pt2- Horiyoshi III

I’ve been collecting tattoos since 1985, doing them since 1990, and publishing TAM since 2003.

This is Part 2: Horiyoshi III – 10 of the world’s best Japanese style tattoo artists.

Horiyoshi III (no connection to Horiyoshi II, from the last post), is Yoshihito Nakano of Yokohama, Japan, and is our featured artist today. Horiyoshi the 3rd is perhaps THE most respected and celebrated tattoo artist in Japan’s history. His work is admired and studied by experts, artists and collectors worldwide, and with more than a dozen books available on Horiyoshi’s life and work, it’s easy to understand why he is unarguably considered the preeminent Japanese tattoo master of this or any era. His work is EPIC! Beautiful! And Groundbreaking! While still remaining rooted in centuries of tradition.

TAM horiyoshi backpiece tattoos dragon
Horiyoshi III tattoos & at work

It was during the first year of Tattoo Artists Magazine’s existence that I found myself given the sudden chance to travel to Japan and meet this legendary tattooer, Horiyoshi III. TAM was still brand new at the time, so having a friend send along my request to Horiyoshi, asking to feature him and his work in the new magazine project opened up the chance of a lifetime- an invitation to come visit Horiyoshi’s studio and museum. It would be the realization of a lifelong dream to see Japan, (having become obsessed with Japanese art, history and lore as a young child after watching the mini-series “SHOGUN” on television, and then discovering the amazing filmography of Akira Kurosawa and books of translated Japanese legends by Lufcadio Hearn in my teen years!) Hell yeah! I could NOT have been more excited! Thanks to the help of our friends and guides, (Gus & Ernesto of Wizards Supply), tattooer Todd Hlavaty and I spent 10 days traveling from Tokyo to Yokohama and Nagoya to Osaka and back. We travelled bullet train from shop to shop, slept very little, ate lots of noodles (as well as some unknown meats), and basically stood out like sore thumbs everywhere we went.


It was a true honor to sit and watch Horiyoshi work for a couple of days and he was very generous with his time, treating us as honored guests. We met his wife and son and his many apprentices at the shop and the museum in Yokohama, and on the last day or our visit Horiyoshi took us to the private studio space that once belonged to his own respected master, who’s art and books still decorated the small space. Horiyoshi was kind and engaging, and I’ve never seen anyone tattoo like that, before or since. His understanding of the subject matter coupled with the mastery or his drawing and tattooing techniques are legendary…to get to watch him at work, (45 minute sessions, 8 hours a day), was humbling and awe-inspiring. I sat stunned as he filled in scales on a giant dragon backpiece and line a chest-panel and half sleeve of intricate chrysanthemum blossoms amidst layers of crashing finger waves, all with no preparation or drawing on the skin. As a friend aptly put it later, “That’s why he’s considered a ‘MASTER’!”  -Indeed!  We met some great people along the way and saw some terrific sights, but the highlight for me was receiving a small cherry blossom tattoo on my hand from Horiyoshi III as a gift and good luck wish for the TAM magazine project. I’ll never forget it!

Horiyoshi cherry blossom on Crash TAM tattoo
Horiyoshi III lined this small cherry blossom with a machine and filled it in traditionally, by hand. (He also signed it.)

That was nearly 12 years ago and Horiyoshi’s fame and influence have only increased since then, influencing many of the artists coming up in this series of artist profiles and hundreds (or thousands) of others! One of the most significant things shared by Horiyoshi III is the Japanese concept of Shu-ha-ri, (from the martial arts, traditionally), but which Horiyoshi applies to his own growth as a tattooer, and as a challenge to those who come after. Shuhari means to study diligently and master what you have been taught by your teacher until it is perfected, then break from the tradition in a creative way and, finally, to pave your own way!

More body suits by Horiyoshi III
More body suits by Horiyoshi III, each representing hundreds of hours of work!


Part of Ed Hardy’s introduction to Horiyoshi’s article in TAM #4-

 “Horiyoshi III provides valuable insight for anyone approaching Japanese tattooing. He is, of course, one of the great masters of that tradition and has had an incalculable influence on the advancement of the art-form. Japanese tattooing has always been enormously attractive to Western enthusiasts and the primary inspiration for the emergence of decorative tattooing the West at both the seminal points of the mid-19th, and again, mid-20th centuries. Part of this appeal is that tattooing is a legitimate expression of Japan’s ancient and complex culture. The images, or style, while exotic to outside eyes (hence attractive, as tattooing in its essence is an “exotic” practice) are grounded in a subtle philosophy of Nature and Humanity that continues unbroken of thousands of years. At best this style is an unbeatable combination of power, finesse, and finely developed craft.

Part of Horiyoshi’s genius is his awareness of the entire cultural spectrum; he reads voluminously and is a real scholar in addition to being a great visual artist. Once supports the other. The tradition he upholds is in complete antithesis to the “instant gratification” or “sound bite” culture pervading most of the contemporary world. the style has power because it stands for something and is subtly symbolic of primal forces in the natural world, as well as human history. His pragmatic, cautionary points need to be taken to heart by anyone with the impulse to learn about, or do, Japanese tattooing. It’s essence cannot be quickly absorbed and as he emphatically points out, the whole subject is only a kernal expressing a vaster culture outlook. …Horiyoshi lays it out cold: unless we belong to the tiny percentage of people who actually come from an indigenous culture with ancient roots and accurate history, and are willing to work hard, it’s almost impossible to “get in”. “

Front and backpiece tattoos by Horiyoshi III
Front and backpiece tattoos by Horiyoshi III

Thanks, Ed. Thanks to Nakano, and thanks to all the masters mentioned in these introductory articles. We’d be nowhere without you.

More to come! Next week- Mick Tattoo  and then Filip Leu!!


PART 1: HISTORY of Japanese Tattoos, and Sailor Jerry:  http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/11/22/worlds-best-japanese-tattoo-artists-1/

PART 2: The Master, Horiyoshi III: http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/11/25/10-of-the-worlds-best-japanese-tattoo-artists-pt2-horiyoshi-iii/

PART 3: MICK TATTOO: http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/12/14/worlds-top-japanese-tattoo-artists-pt3-mick-tattoo/

PART 4: FILIP LEU: http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/12/24/filip-leu-worlds-top-japanese-artists-pt4/

PART 5: CHRIS TREVINO: http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2015/01/16/chris-trevino-top-japanese-style-tattooists-pt5/

 Love Japanese Tattoos or know someone who does? GREAT GIFT!

BUY this set of TAM collectible issues at a discounted price!

REGULAR PRICE $125– ON SALE for just $70!! 

BUY the TAM Japanese BUNDLE SET here!!
BUY the TAM Japanese BUNDLE SET here!!

Horiyoshi’s cover for TAM #4 shown below! Buy a digital copy TODAY!

You can read the rest of Ed’s intro and Horiyoshi III’s article by downloading a copy of Tattoo Artist Magazine #4 DIGITAL EDITION or pick up the TAM vol 1 hardback book which reprints the first five sold out issues.

Horiyoshi's cover for TAM #4! Buy a digital copy TODAY!

Tattoo Artist since 1990 and creator/publisher of Tattoo Artist Magazine since 2003

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