Guest Blog: My Tattoo Experience With Horiyoshi III, Part 1
12:20 AM
Editor's Note: In our survey, many of you wanted to read more personal experiences from other tattooed readers:  not the reality show "every tattoo has a meaning" thing but stories on creating the design, choosing the tattooist, the vibe of the shop, the artist's bedside manner, plus any fun anecdotes. Well, I've got something gooood for you. In a weekly series, guest blogger John Mack shares his stories on getting tattooed by Japanese master, Horiyoshi III. Here is Part 1.

By John Mack

horiyoshi-top.jpgI've been getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III for nine years now. Originally attracted by his first class tattooing, I also had the pleasure of getting to know a fascinating and intelligent individual. I've experienced a side of Japanese society that I otherwise would not have encountered. This has been by far the most interesting application of my Japanese language skills.

Getting tattoos all over your body is never boring, but an unexpected bonus has been the amusing anecdotes I've accumulated. I'd like to share some of them with you. I'll start with how I met Horiyoshi III and how I chose him to transform my skin.

I had admired tattoos since I was a boy and had dabbled in hidden tattoos. In 2000, I decided that at last it was time to go big with a backpiece. I began my search for a local San Francisco artist skilled in Japanese style tattooing, but Japanese style was not enough. For me, Japan itself was an essential component of this adventure. I decided to go directly to the source of the art form.

On my next trip to Japan, I interviewed two artists. My first consultation was with Horitoshi, whose art I had long admired. I arrived punctually for my appointment. An apprentice greeted me at the door. I was cordially invited to sit down to discuss to the tattoo. The apprentice brought us tea. I held forth in my most formal Japanese. Horitoshi responded in kind. Now this was first class. They made the people at Brooks Brothers look like fishmongers.

I explained that on my back I wanted a traditional dragon with black scales, red belly and yellow dorsal fins. He examined my back, took careful notes and agreed to tattoo a dragon on me. Horitoshi was not just Japanese style, this man was the real thing--a first class craftsman with impeccable etiquette.

The other consultation was with Horiyoshi III. He told me to just show up any time. Such informality is so uncharacteristic in Japan that I called a few minutes before my arrival to make sure it really was okay. When I arrived at the Noge studio, he was tattooing a client. The client did not seem to mind my intrusion; I myself would later come to welcome the diversion provided by such visitors. Horiyoshi listened to my plans as he worked. During his next break, Horiyoshi took a brief yet thoughtful look at my back and agreed to tattoo me. Horiyoshi had that rare balance of familiarity and formality, confidence and humility possessed only by those few who are accomplished and intelligent, while also managing to be pleasant people.

Success. My top two choices in the world of tattooing had agreed to accept me as a client. Both men were professionals I could trust. I liked both Horitoshi's more muted and traditional work, and also Horiyoshi's louder, evolved yet traditional style. Either way, I was in for a sublime tattoo experience.

In the end, the tiebreaker was not skill or style, but location. Getting tattooed requires a huge time commitment, and Horiyoshi's Yokohama studios were more convenient. The three-hour round trip to Horitoshi's studio from my usual base of operations was too much. Ironically, I once lived just down the street from Horitoshi's studio. Too bad I missed him then.

Having made my decision, it was time for action. I'll tell you about the first tattoo session with Horiyoshi III in my next guest post.

Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos. People are no longer welcome to just show up at his studio without an invitation. As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.

I think it is in really poor taste to ask two different tattooers about the same tattoo....this sort of research should have been done way before even approaching the artist. worse yet, it almost sounds like you were auditioning two legendary tattoo masters..while i am sure you meant no disrespect, i can't help but be really irritated by your actions. and you almost brag that you were "accepted" by both "top choices"...both these masters have been crushing tattoo work since long before you started getting tattooed, in a time when it wasn't trendy or easy.... both of these men deserve to be treated with the respect they have earned.

Calm down tattoo fan. As you said, he meant no disrespect. The truth of the matter is that some people, especially the ones who are new tho this thriving wonderful world of modifying our bodies, just don't have the knowledge to give respect in the way you are describing. There are no books about it, it is not on the internet and there is no "how to get Tattooed without disrespecting the artist" manual. It seems to me that this person went above and beyond to get what they thought would be the best choices for a tattoo artist. Guess what, they were right and they got the tattoo that they wanted. From an amazing artists who is legendary. Do you have tattoos? If you do, you should remember your first or at least understand the excitement of wanting to share that with people that understand the culture. Have you been tattooed by horiyoshi III? Just a question because if you have not, it seems like you could possibly be jealous. I'm sorry, but it is a different day and age and people of all backgrounds ages, and the misinformed can get tattooed by ANYONE. (apparently) While i understand where you are coming from because i have met lots of people like you that would respond to this in such a crude way, i do not agree with your thoughts. Congratulations on your adventures with Horiyoshi III. i can tell you this...I am jealous for sure!

i routinely make a 2+ hour round-trip for tattoo sessions and i can assure you, it's not fun navigating the long island expressway when you're bleeding and wrapped in plastic. if i knew of a closer artist with a comparable portfolio and demeanor, i would certainly consider a "change of the guard."

personally, i don't find anything classless/tasteless/offensive about consulting both of these masters - and yes, i believe that there is definitely a situation involving "acceptance." i know that i certainly wouldn't be surprised if either hori had refused the project (or if they've done so in the past or would do so in the future). the sheer act of asking "will you tattoo me," is an act of respect. to choose one master over another is a personal choice - one that also should be respected.

(or to make a crass comparison) as guy ritchie will tell you: just because madonna wants to fuck you, doesn't mean you should say "yes."

Is there some unwritten etiquette rule in Japan that I don't know about - where it's not okay to due diligence and then make an informed choice? Haven't we all researched artists, looked at their work, talked in person with them before deciding (I sure hope so)?

The location decision is one I can relate to; we all have life choices we are balancing.

Looking forward to the next post.

John Mack here. I'll tell you the mistake in etiquette that I did make. My mea culpa from an earlier draft got edited out, but here it is:

I neglected to contact Horitoshi to inform him of my decision and thank him for his time. I deeply regret this faux pas. I owe that fine man an apology.

Consulting multiple artists was not an error. When contemplating a business relationship of any importance, you evaluate multiple options. All successful people do this.

A professional's calendar is riddled with appointments with prospective clients who for whatever reason decided to go with someone else. It's not a problem, and likely for the better. All professionals understand this.

I would love to see more post like this one. Details about the artist, the ideas that lead up to getting tattooed, the process...gods why can't there ever be a tattoo show like this.

I have to agree with the majority here. It was perfectly acceptable to meet with both artists and choose the one that worked best for the author. Should he have concted Horitoshi? Yeah, sure. Not the end of the world though. It's not as if he took one artist's design and shopped it around on a bargain hunt, or went in with the, "Hey, bro, can you hook me up?" atitude. John, count me among the jealous!
Cheers all!

It is fine to get consultations from multiple artists before deciding on one, but to get to the point where an artist has agreed to do a design for you (and for all you know could be drawing it up already) and then ditch him without letting him know is highly disrespectful. Having said that, this is a very interesting story despite that faux pas and Tattoo fan is certainly making mountains out of molehills.

On an unrelated note, is horiyoshi refusing new clients because he is preparing to retire from tattooing? I read an interview with him where he said he would be tattoing 'until his hands gave out', is this no longer the case?

My first appointment with Horiyoshi III was riddled with errors on my part, so I read with interest your experience!

I just wanna say, put some pictures of your tattoo please. It's hard to follow the story if you don't put any pictures of the actual tattoo. thanx


Thanks for the encouragement.

I never imagined competing with reality TV tattoo shows. Oh well. This is my literary debut; I gotta start somewhere.

The economics of TV forbid a reality show like this. No TV producer is going to hire a film crew to follow me around Tokyo and Yokohama for years. TV producers need to make up fake adventures so they can capture something in a reasonable amount of time.

Real adventures are hit and miss; they ebb and flow over long periods of time. I had the luxury of noticing after the fact that certain moments in the past decade might make amusing stories. I invested nothing in my reality show, so I can produce it for free and give it away. Traditional media can't touch that.

Keep those suggestions coming about the elements you want to read more (and less) about. Let's develop the genre, and get other guest bloggers come forward with their own tattoo reality shows.

I'd like to hear more about how your knowledge of the Japanese language and time in Japan contributed to you understanding of how to approach both Horitoshi and Horiyoshi.

My experience was pretty difficult in that even though I'm Asian, I'm not Japanese and there was lots I did WRONG (haha...) when faced with someone as traditional as him. I like the personal element here and agree I'd never want to see this stuff sold to popular media.

Funny post :) Especially the comments! I don't want to start a debate Thanks all for expressing your views.

Hi John,

Fantastic story. Do you know who Horiyoshi is referring new clients to at present?

This is something I wanted to do, however, if he is not taking on new clients, I would only want to see the people he reccomends.



I knew someone would ask. I will have to get a list for interested people like you. The official place to look is Horiyoshi's web site, but lately it does not appear to be updated very often.

Re-reading this supremely interesting post and comments -- John you may want to point people like Timbo to Alex Rienke's new website. He refers to this issue there.

Horiyoshi is no longer taking new clients due to him having to go to the hospital three times a week for his kidney failure. I assume this is the reason he is no longer taking new clients, only finishing up older work. I have a hand written letter from him in regards to this, after I contacted him.

Hope this helps. And its a terible shame that he can no longer begin new work...


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