By Liz Ohanesian
On Saturday afternoon, four tattoo artists went to work inside Little Tokyo’s Japanese American National Museum for the opening of “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in the Modern World.” They spent hours taking ink and needles to flesh, adding to the large, detailed illustrations that already marked their client’s bodies. Crowds gathered and dispersed throughout the day, watching with interest.
Most seemed unfazed by the buzz of tattoo machines. Many of the onlookers here have gone through a similar process. Some had tattooed sleeves that crawled out from under t-shirts. Others had art that peeked out above collar lines or below hems.
Instead, it was two of those tattoo artists working in silence at their stations who could provoke a wince from the crowd. They were practicing tebori. That’s the traditional Japanese way of applying tattoos. In other words, they were using equipment that wasn’t motorized. The artists dipped their instruments into ink before poking repeatedly at patches of skin on their clients. One lay on his back, an arm crossed over his eyes. His stomach moved with breaths that grew deeper as the prodding persisted. Another remained still on his stomach. From certain angles, you could catch the tension creases form on his face.
Tebori is an old-fashioned way of tattooing, but it’s not antiquated. Takahiro Kitamura, known as Horitaka in tattoo circles, is the curator of “Perseverance.” He notes that there are still plenty of tebori practitioners at work. Many of them choose to use machines to outline the tattoos, he says, but they’ll still use their hands for shading. It’s more than an adherence to tradition. He notes that some believe working by hand makes for a better, longer-lasting tattoo.
“Perseverance” is an unusual show in that it both documents and celebrates the art of Japanese tattoos, as well as the impact this style of body art has had globally. Tattoos date back to Japan’s ancient history, but flourished during the Edo period. Despite an extensive history, tattoos in Japan aren’t mainstream. In fact, many who have traveled to the country have reported of signs that ban people with tattoos from certain institutions. Even in the U.S., where body art is relatively commonplace, the Japanese style is extreme in comparison to everyday tattoos. These are not your typical daisy on the ankle. Some people invest in full bodysuits. Others may stick with the trunk of the body or limbs.
According to Horitaka, one of the major misconceptions about Japanese tattoos is that they aren’t “fine art.” Tattoos have some similarities with other traditional Japanese art forms that have found homes in museums. Take the names of the artists as an example. A number of the tattoo artists here are known by names that use the prefix “hori.” Horitaka explains that this word means “to dig or carve” and notes that woodblock prints are often signed by artists whose names also begin with “hori.” It is, he says, something that tattoo artists adopted from wood carvers.
In curating this exhibition, Horitaka is challenging the misconceptions about tattoos. Artist and professor Kip Fulbeck photographed numerous human canvases bearing the work of the best artists in the field. Horitaka selected photos that zoomed in on the art, juxtaposing those with full-sized portraits of the people who wear the tattoos. The goal was to explore the diversity within the Japanese tattoo tradition, while making the show as much about the people as it is about the art. It’s a massive collaboration between the curator, the photographer/designer, the tattoo artists and their clients. For the opening day festivities, many of the clients turned up – some traveling to L.A. from Japan – to model work that can take months, even years, to complete.
Shawn McHenry and Chad Sachman, both from Rancho Cucamonga, are both clients of Inland Empire tattoo artist Espi. They were amongst the models at the exhibition’s opening event. McHenry has a full back tattoo. It took about a year to get that done. He also has work on his leg that’s been in progress for two-and-a-half years. His tattoos tell the story of Kintaro, a folklore hero, and his encounter with a large carp. It’s a tale that relates to McHenry’s work. He owns a koi fish shop and got into the business when he was barely an adult. “If you’re foolish and blind and just want to do it,” he says of the story’s message, “you can succeed.”
Horitaka says that tattoos almost always tell a story. Those may be based in folklore, religion or history. You’ll see narratives unfold down the back, below the buttocks and onto the upper thighs. They might scroll down arms or across the chest.
As Japanese tattoos have increased in popularity, the stories they tell have changed as well. “We’re in a world of fusion now,” says Kitamura. Time-honored tales aren’t the only ones told on skin. Chris “Horishiki” Brand is an artist at Good Time Charlie’s in Anaheim. He’s also part of the L.A.-based art collective UGLAR. For this exhibition, he presented 108 Heroes of Los Angeles. It’s a retelling of Shui Hu Zhuan, a Chinese novel that later made its way to Japan, where it’s known as Suikoden. In this series of tattoos, Brand merges Japanese and Chicano art in a story of rebellion. Photos of the tattoo piece are exhibited in the museum.
Undoubtedly, with narrative-based pieces as involved as these, getting a Japanese-style tattoo requires a serious commitment. Shawn McHenry once went through three days in a row of tattoo sessions, with each one clocking in at about 12 hours. “It got to the point where we would have to stop because of the smell of flesh,” he says.
He says that there is an endorphin rush that comes with being tattooed. That, however, can wear off when you’re in the lengthy sessions that occur with large pieces. He says that, at a certain point, the pain stays in a specific part of the body. It doesn’t move with the needle. Chad Sachman agrees with that sentiment. Last week, he had work done on his lower back, over the spine. “I was actually feeling the pain in my knee,” he says.
As for the artists, their work requires constant study. Horitaka, who owns a tattoo shop in San Jose, spent several years as an apprentice in the U.S. and another decade studying under a Japanese tattoo master. Although he works solo now, he’s not done learning. He says, “I think I’m always going to be a student of the Japanese tattoo.”
By Molly Skobba
Man, Pacific Soul has it all: personality, style and most of all talent. Steve and Paulo can tattoo everything from American traditional to Japanese to what they’re most famous for, their Polynesian tattoos. in addition, they’re located two blocks from Ala Moana beach in Honolulu, Hawaii… (more…)
By Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura and Molly Skobba
I was really excited for Molly to meet Paulo and Blaise Manabe and even happier that she wanted to blog about my Hawaiian braddah! Paulo is an amazing artist, and an even more amazing person. I always work with him when I am in Hawaii and am continually impressed with his tattoos. He is a true master of the Polynesian-style (though he would never let you call him that) and is constantly working to improve his work. He is a great father and has the coolest kid ever. You can find him at Pacific Soul Tattoo or at Zippy’s…
By Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
When I think about good tattooing, I think of art executed by skilled craftsman. In an era of chain stores and mass production, it is always refreshing to see something hand-made. I met Jamie from RePop through my good friend Chris Yvon. Chris told me about Jamie and RePop, and the hand-made goods they produced. The product certainly lived up to the hype! Rings, buckles, wallets and more, all with old world craftsmanship, with some weight -no cheap materials, and a great retro feel…
By Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
I’m a regular guest artist at Pacific Soul Tattoo in Honolulu, Hawaii. Visiting tattooers and working at other people’s shops is a great way to see the world, meet new people, learn new things and expand your horizons. Working with Steve Looney and Paulo Manabe is a great experience, they are both amazing people, both as tattooers and as friends. Steve has a very unique history and specialty and I wanted to sit down with him and talk about the often misunderstood Polynesian tattoo.
I’m too old for this shit, but damn, what an adventure! I thought I could write something short to share the TAM Road Trip journey and give TAM Blog a little more content. I believe the potentials we have with the TAM Blog are pretty evident, and given enough time, can be fashioned into something powerful, entertaining and educational…
By Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
Tattooers love to travel… I recently got to catch-up with Danny Boy as he was running up and down California. His wife was getting tattooed by Horitomo at my shop and they crashed at my house for the night. We chatted a bit over coffee and I was especially eager to ask about the New Amsterdam Tattoo Museum. This project is the brainchild of Henk “Hanky Panky” Schiffmacher, a living legend of tattooing and one of the world’s leading tattoo historians. The opening is scheduled for later this year… (more…)
By Horitaka and Horiyuki
[*Note from Editor* We’re sorry to say that Pinky passed away December 2nd, 2010. We’re leaving the story as originally written, when Pinky was still with us.]
Pinky Yun may be one of last great strong holds of a bygone era. His career began in Hong Kong tattooing sailors for the mob and his life’s journey led him to opening a shop in Japan and later multiple shops in California. His flash continues to inspire generations of tattooing and he is best known for his definitive interpretation of tigers, panthers, dragons and of course pin-ups. The most well known pin-up he designed was his famously iconic Suzy Wong, which was popularized by Sailor Jerry… (more…)
By John Niederkorn
As the dust settles from the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan to its foundation, tattoo artists including Jeff Gogue, Mike Godfrey, Horitaka, Chad Koeplinger and Japanese resident, Shige, have come forward to donate their time and artistic talents to help raise money for people of Japan. (more…)