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.”
The seventh in a series of films chronicling the travels of the gypsy gentleman. A travel documentary profiling the world’s greatest tattooers and the world’s most fascinating places. www.gypsygentleman.com live now!!
Interview by Tim Hendricks
Tim Hendricks: Do you plan on ever mellowing out with the traveling or do you want to keep going?
Lindsey Carmichael: I love it. I have to backtrack a tiny bit and say that I was at Gold Rush when these changes came about in my life, right after I turned 40. I was kind of feeling closed off and slightly alone in my life… (more…)
Interview by Dan Sinnes
Dan Sinnes: What do you think about the new generation of tattooers? Like people who tattoo for three years and are amazing tattooers?
Steven Burlton: It’s just like we were talking about. They’re well on their way. Of course it’s way easier to get into it and the facets are all open now. There’s no limit to what you can get a hold of, as far as reference materials and supplies and stuff like that… (more…)
Interview by Brian Kaneko
Brian Kaneko: So you do all Japanese tattoo art on people, but what others aspects of that culture do you use in tattooing? For example, how your studio is set up, how you interact with clients, etc. Also, what is your approach to a new client who will be starting a large piece with you?
Shad: My studio is a private studio by appointment only. First, the customer contacts me by e-mail, which is the easiest way to get in touch with me. We can talk about the design… (more…)
Courtesy of Gomineko Books: Gomineko Books is proud to announce our newest publication, Adam Kitamoto’s Myths, Gods & Legends. This is a brilliant collection of Kitamoto’s illustrations and tattoo work, highlighting his keen eye for Japanese nuances and aesthetic… (more…)
By Chris Crooks
It has been a really busy few months at White Dragon Tattoo in Belfast. It has been an honor to have Ching from East Tattoo and Takami from Japan guesting at the studio. We decided that it was a great opportunity to work together on something. It is rare to have three japanese style tattooists in the same studio, and most definitely the first time something like this has happen in my country… (more…)
Courtesy of Salior Jerry: Chris Trevino is an expert in traditional Japanese tattooing who earned the nickname “Horimana” after studying for five years under the legendary master Horiyoshi III. His elaborate, full-body representations of Asian symbology remind us of the later works by Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins aka Horismoku. Trevino now runs Perfection Tattoo in Austin, TX which was founded by Bob Moreau in the late 70s… (more…)
Winner will be chosen by May 15th, 2012.
(Contest is for tattooers only.)
By Molly Skobba
Shigenori Iwasaki is a remarkable being. Sorry, just had to get that out there. Taki and I spent two-and-a-half days with Shige, his adorable family (beautiful Chisato, plus cute-as-a-button Ayaka) and a family friend nicknamed ‘Mister’. We started out the mini but extremely action-packed adventure at the famed Yellow Blaze Studio…
By Molly Skobba
I briefly met Horikiku at the Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts last October, and first got to witness him in action. I didn’t get to see a finished piece in person at the convention, the weekend was just too crazy, and so I was super stoked to get a chance to photograph some of his current clients in Japan. (more…)
Courtesy of Gomineko Books: Our new Japanese Mythical Creatures book is finally in the works. Illustrations of Kappa, Kirin, Baku, Nue, Kitsune and Tsuchigumo from over 120 different artists world wide. Reserve your copy today through the website: www.gominekobooks.com.
By Molly Skobba
I had a hard time writing this blog. It took me longer than usual, with more restarts and edits before send off. I realized that it’s because BloodWork: Bodies is such a gigantic project with so many facets and possible approaches in writing about this book. It is epic not only in content but also in physical stature with 2 volumes, 900 pages and weighing over 25-pounds filled with massive pages of outsized and extravagant photos that bond the human form and visual art seamlessly…
By Crystal Morey
There are a million differences between the Kanto (Tokyo) region and the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) region of Japan. The ramen tastes different. They use different words and expressions. They stand on the opposite sides of the escalator. There are more tacoyaki (fried octopus fritters) shops down in Kansai than convenient stores. In Kansai people just forget to sleep. They go to work, then go out, then walk outside the club or karaoke bar at 5 a.m. and say, “Oops! It’s daytime!” go home, take a shower and do it all over again. It’s insane. Kansai is also home to some off the hook tattooers and is the birthplace of Japanese new school tattooing. 21st century wabori. Strongly influenced by manga, graffiti and graphic design these pioneers have taken Japanese tattooing a whole different direction and the results are incredible. One of my favorite shops in Kansai is Harizanmai in Kyoto – home of Gotch, the owner and Gakkin. These guys have been consistently putting out unique, mind-blowing tattoos for years now and their work continues to evolve. I snagged Gakkin this weekend for an interview…
By Molly Skobba and Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura
First off, I want to express how absolutely honored I am to have been tattooed by the renowned Horitomo. Not only did he take the time out of his incredibly busy schedule, but also he tattooed a one-point tattoo on my hand -something he does not do often. It was incredibly kind and generous of him and I am so very grateful.