The latest issue of Skin & Ink magazine (July 2011), on newsstands now, features my profile on the multi-talented Takahiro Kitamura, aka Horitaka, tattooist and owner of State of Grace Tattoo and State of Grace Publishing in San Jose, CA. Born in Japan but raised in California since the age of two, Horitaka has worked tirelessly to educate and promote Japanese tattoo culture worldwide. In our interview, Horitaka explains what led him on this path. Here's a taste from the article:
"I always had my heart set on getting a backpiece from Horiyoshi III of Yokohama, whose work I found through the Tattoo Time books. Even then, when I had an extremely untrained eye, I knew that this guy was the best. Something spoke to me. But I thought, I can't go there. I can't afford it. A bunch of can'ts. One day-this was around early 1998-I'm making tattoo needles with Jason Kundell and he says, 'Why don't you just call him? The worst thing he can do is hang up on you.' So I got up the nerve and called the number."
That call changed Horitaka's life. Horiyoshi was intrigued by the young American tattooist-and his strange Japanese accent-and told Horitaka, "Write me a letter." He did and Horiyoshi agreed to take him on as a client. When the time for his appointment had come, Horitaka flew to Japan nervous, not knowing what to expect. Horiyoshi's old place was the second floor story of an old house without any sign or even building number. When Horitaka finally found it and walked up the rusted staircase into the studio, there was Horiyoshi with died and permed red hair. It wasn't what he was expecting of a revered tattoo master. When Horiyoshi showed him the sketch of the backpiece, Horitaka was further taken aback. "It was strictly ballpoint pen. I still have it. He took this scribble, blew it up and made a stencil of it. When you see how intricate my back is, you won't believe it. All the intricate patterns were freehand-needle to skin freehand."
During the time he was getting tattooed, Horitaka developed a relationship with Horiyoshi. He would help translate letters sent by fans around the world. He was also encouraged to come to the shop outside of his appointment times and copy the drawings Horiyoshi set out for him. Most important, he intently observed everything that went on around him. "I was amped and inspired. The code, the way people act. Every romantic notion of that Samurai spirit of honor and tattooing all came alive right there." He adds, "Of course I was naive about certain elements, like what types of customers were coming in. In the beginning Horiyoshi said, 'Yeah, I've tattooed some Yakuza [Japanese crime families] but mostly carpenters and laborers.' And I'm thinking, carpenters and laborers don't wear Louis Vuitton. And then little by little he admitted, 'Well, maybe 50% of the clients are Yakuza...well, maybe 80%.' I'm not knocking it because some of those guys were the most polite, respectful clients and seeing that respect was amazing."
Eventually, Horiyoshi formally took him on as an apprentice and gave him the name "Horitaka." "People have asked me: 'How did you score an apprenticeship with Horiyoshi III?' I tell them that I didn't ask for it. It just happened. In any relationship, whether it be man and woman, or master and apprentice, there's going to be some chemistry. We just clicked."
After ten years, however, the apprenticeship came to an end. "Unfortunately, as what happens in many relationships, we started to grow apart. I found it harder and harder to be a Japanese apprentice. There is still an element of following the master's will, and I was never 100% good at that. Growing up American, I was always testing that boundary. I was always one to question authority and that doesn't really work well in the Japanese framework. Sadly, I ended up quitting as an apprentice, but I will always love and respect Horiyoshi III and will never forget all he taught me."
State of Grace has donated $11,577.83 to the Red Cross through proceeds from their "Stand With Japan" tees. They hope to double that figure with a new shirt created by Horitomo, which goes on sale tomorrow. You can buy the shirt (and help with Japan's relief efforts) on www.standwithjapanshirt.com.