Guest Blog: How Horiyoshi III Designed My Bodysuit
11:26 AM
horiyoshi III tattoo irezumi.jpgJohn Mack offers his final story in this 13-part series on getting tattooed by Japanese master Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years.

I arrived for my appointment to find a woman discussing the tattoo she would be getting. She was there with her boyfriend, whom I had recognized both as a client and from photos in books about Horiyoshi's work. She was undecided about the design and asked Horiyoshi III, "Is there anything that you have always wanted to tattoo onto a woman?" 

When I later commented on this artistic latitude, Horiyoshi told me that, in fact, he dislikes this kind of freedom. When he got such requests in the past, he would draw up a design, but then the client would not like something about it. He needs the client to specify the basic theme.

For myself, I wanted the beauty of a Japanese tattoo more than any specific image. As with all matters related to Japan, I also desire authenticity. The intricate relationship between the images in a Japanese tattoo are beyond me--this was a job for an expert. I would make my preferences known, but ultimately, Horiyoshi III would be my guide.

I already told you that for my back, I specified a dragon with black scales, red belly and yellow dorsal fins, full size. It turned out that these would be the most detailed instructions I'd ever give Horiyoshi. Later, when it was time to fill in the dorsal fins, Horiyoshi recommended orange because "it looks cooler that way."

When it came to the front of my torso, I wanted a mixture of designs, but choosing the right combination was a job for a Japanese master. I wrote Horiyoshi a long fax that specified mainly what I didn't want: macabre, violent or religious scenes, nor humans or human creations like weapons or buildings. I asked him to help me choose a combination of images from the natural world: plants or flowers, plus real or mythical creatures with scales or feathers.

It wasn't until the day that he was to start that we discussed the design in earnest. He suggested a munewari format with chrysanthemums and two dragons. "We'll have the two dragons facing each other, the one on the right facing down, the one on the left facing up," he said, sketching on his copy of my fax. "You're tall, so for you we'll make the empty stripe down the middle wider."

He once again rummaged around in his drawer marked "Dragons," found a suitable image for the upper dragon's face, and began tattooing. The next day, he repeated with the lower dragon. Why dragons tattooed all over my body? I like how they look when rendered as tattoos. Simply, that's the real reason.

After we finished my munewari, we began discussing the design for the insides of my thighs.  Horiyoshi initially suggested images with Edo period erotic innuendo:  mushrooms on one side to represent male and a wolf on the other to represent female. I'd thus far stuck to wholesome images, but I became intrigued with the idea of branching out and acquiring something more lurid, and this was the perfect location. But meanwhile, Horiyoshi seemed to become less enthusiastic about such images for me. I pressed him, and he said he had some sketches at the other studio, where my next appointment was scheduled.

Once again, the day to start the tattoo arrived without a concrete plan. Horiyoshi III produced a file folder and laid out several sketches of couples engaged in various mischief. He had already tattooed over half the surface of my skin, yet this was the first time he presented me with a choice of flash where I would select an image, and say, "I want that tattoo."

Without seriously examining any them, I told him, "This isn't right for me. My tattoo collection does not include humans."  With some sense of relief, he immediately suggested koi (carp), and I agreed. The erotic sketches disappeared, but were not replaced with a selection of koi sketches for me to chose from. Instead, we returned to our usual arrangement:  with no further input from me, he rummaged around in his koi drawer, selected sketches that he felt were appropriate, and tattooed them onto me. I didn't even know what color they would be until I saw them in my skin.

Next up were my sleeves. We both knew that this was an extremely big deal, as I, like many Japanese tattooed people, usually conceal my tattoos. This was my first tattoo that would not be hidden by a T-shirt and short pants. We were to start the following day, and as usual I was still undecided on the design. He flashed his mischievous grin.  "John-san, it's tomorrow, you know," he chuckled, raising his voice slightly for emphasis.

For my arms, I initially considered hanafuda, Japanese playing cards. Hanafuda would make a great tattoo (as seen here) for a professional poker player, but for me, it wasn't the right theme as I really don't care for games at all. Horiyoshi did suggest an interesting approach to a hanafuda tattoo: use the symbols on the cards in a valuable hand, but render them in the tattooist's usual style, skipping the card format.

What I initially wanted for my arms was koi. No, Horiyoshi said, all the koi on your body must be contiguous. [It would've been nice to know that earlier this week when I got them on my legs!]  Another phoenix?  No, I already have the maximum of one. Tigers? Tigers have fur, not scales. Even more dragons?  Horiyoshi was unenthusiastic.

He suggested chrysanthemums and peonies. He explained that since peonies bloom in Spring and chrysanthemums in Fall, together they represent the whole year. Further, flowers can be added one by one, so I can stop at any point.  He noted that flowers already appear throughout my existing tattoos.

This sounded good. I like gardening, so flowers are meaningful to me. And as these tattoos would be seen on occasion, I wanted neutral images that broadcast no particular message.  Well, no message beyond "heavily tattooed."

So we settled on this motif. Before starting, Horiyoshi checked with me one more time, "A combination of chrysanthemums and peonies on each arm, right?"  He had never been so careful. I confirmed, repeating his words as if we were launching a torpedo.

Pushing the artwork down to my elbows, I once again crossed that line.

Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos, and we all keep him really busy.  As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.

I'm grateful to Horiyoshi III for showing me the deeper, truer Japan that without him I never would have known.

Thank you, Marisa, for being my editor and to all of you for reading. I chose to publish on this site because this is where I could reach the most discriminating, erudite tattoo enthusiasts.

This is my final regularly scheduled guest blog. I'll reload with more stories next time I go to Japan and have more tattoo adventures. Meanwhile, feel free to friend me on Facebook.

John Mack

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Great story. I wish more people (clients and artists) took time when figuring out the work that is to be done forever on the body. The days of artist like Horiyoshi III seem to be disapearing as 99.9% of the population that wants tattoos is more into the fast food style tattoo. Get it quik and get it now.

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.
are you on Myspace?

for Horiyoshi III:
Respect, long life and good health!

I love that you trust him so implicitly. For me, it's all about finding an artist I really trust and then letting them do their thing.

Amazing work. I am very jealous, thank you for sharing your stories with us.

It seems apparent to me too that the tattoo process yields unusually poor results for too many people.

Sorry, I'm not on Myspace.

Yes, the first step is to choose an extraordinary tattoo artist. The second step is understanding that you are not an extraordinary tattoo artist, and art is the artist's job.

Don't get jealous, get even. Get some really great tattoos for yourself.

and everyone,
Thanks again for reading.


What can i do to help Tebori from fading away into history?

sorry i skip alot of lead in...

I'm not really the one to ask how to preserve tebori. I suppose that teaching it or learning it would help.

FYI, Horiyoshi III did most of the tattooing in the image above by machine. The tattoo machine is quite a capable competitor. That's probably the greatest threat to tebori.

I know at NY adorned HORIZAKURA (shinji) does tebori style tattooing. I am not sure if or how much he uses a tattoo machine in his work. I have been trying to decide if I should get my Japanese work done by machine or traditional style.

To add on: I know that tebori is alive and well at State of Grace in San Jose, CA. Horitomo hand shades, as does Horitaka (I'm not sure, but I think that Horitaka may use tebori by request only). And Yokohama Horiken, another fine tebori artist, is moving there this summer.

Failing that, a handful of Japanese artists visit the States every year and work conventions (like the San Jose Convention the last weekend in October, the Sacramento Convention Father's Day weekend, and the National Convention (which I believe is happening today!).

For fans of Japanese tattooing, I can't recommend the tebori experience highly enough. It's just one of those things you have to feel for yourself. And the effect is unmatched. I once heard someone say something to the effect of, "Machine tattoos look best two days later. Tebori tattoos look best 20 years later."

I like your Blog and i want read more.

This site appears to recieve a great deal of visitors. How do you advertise it? It gives a nice unique twist on things. I guess having something useful or substantial to talk about is the most important thing.

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