In November, we posted on Manami Okazaki's Wall Street Journal article entitled Japanese Tattoos: From Yakuza to Artisans, Aesthetes, in which she explored how traditional Japanese bodysuit tattoos -- wabori -- were losing favor among Japan's criminal underworld, the Yakuza, and gaining popularity among young people who are interested in them on an artistic level. You can read Manami's full WSJ article here.Horikazu, photo by Michael Rubenstein.
The article, however, was just a peak into the tradition, artistry, mythology, and magic of Japanese tattooing. For a more in-depth exploration of the art and culture, Manami has published, through Kingyo Books, "Wabori, Traditional Japanese Tattoo" -- a gorgeous 256-page coffee table book, that is not only beautiful to look at, but also provides insightful context in which to view the works. That context is an extensive and exceptional collection of oral histories and interviews with Japanese tattoo artists, compiled in English over a 6-year period.
As noted in the foreword, the goal of these oral histories was not only to showcase the artwork, but also offer the reader a glimpse into the psychology of the artists as well as their personalities. Manami achieves this goal in her discussions with masters who include Horiyoshi III, Horihide, Horitoku, Tokai Horihiro, Horiyasu, Horimitsu, Horinami, Horicho II, Nakamura, Horitoshi, Horihisa, Horihito, Horimasa, Horikazuwaka, Horitsuna, and Horiren. Manami also interviewed Motoharu Asaka, master artisan of woodblock prints, and Shoko Tendo, author of Yakuza Moon, a memoir on life as the daughter of a Yakuza boss.
Horihito, photo by Irwin Wong.
The oral histories are particularly engaging as they paint very vivid pictures of the artists' experiences in this underground art. For example, in his interview, Horiyoshi III muses on first time he saw a tattoo, as a child, at a public bath. He also talks about the meanings and rules in tattooing, working with the Yakuza, and how it was luck that brought him his 10-year apprenticeship under Horiyoshi I. He says, "90 percent of life is timing and luck, and people with bad timing and bad luck are basically fucked." Accompanying that Q & A are wonderful photos of Horiyoshi I, II and III, as well as Horiyoshi III's work from the seventies through today.
For stories harkening to the early relationships formed between Japanese and American tattooers, Horihide's interview is a must-read. Horihide shares stories on how he was "astonished" when he first witnessed tattoos with color on American servicemen in Japan; he learned that they had been tattooed by Sailor Jerry, and so he began corresponding with Jerry in English for 4 years. They later met, exchanging American color inks for Japanese tattoo motifs. There's also a great photo of Horihide tattooing Sailor Jerry in Hawaii.
Moreover, Manami does an excellent job of offering a history lesson on Japanese tattooing in her introduction. She also highlights stunning images, from various photographers, of the Matsuri festivals -- one of the rare occasions when people with traditional Japanese tattoos can be seen in their full glory.
In all, Wabori is a wonderfully curated collection of art and stories, offering unique insight into traditional Japanese tattooing and also inspiration for further masterful works.
You can purchase Wabori on the Kingyo website as well as Amazon.com.
Horimitsu, photo by Irwin Wong.
Yesterday, the LA Times published "Horihide still practices the dying art of hand tattoo" -- Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore's article on the Japanese tebori master Oguri Kazuo aka Horihide. It's a fantastic read and one that I wish was ten times longer to get a greater sense of the rich tradition this master carries forth as he continues to tattoo at age 79.
The article follows a Japanese-born American software manager, Motoyama Tetsuro, as he goes to Gifu, Japan to finish a tattoo that began decades ago. Here's a taste:
With old masters passing away and young apprentices lacking the patience to learn the painstaking craft of tebori (hand tattooing), many followers believe its days are numbered.
Software managers have not made up the bulk of Horihide's clientele. Yakuza and geisha wear much of the master's art. And while the popularity of tattooing expands beyond the underground in Japan today, it still holds deep social stigma -- as evidenced by Osaka's crazy right-wing mayor ordering government employees to reveal whether they are tattooed, then basing employment decisions on this. As the article notes, this stigma still keeps artists like Horihide "under a cloak of secrecy" -- or at least out of the spotlight for the large part, making profiles like this in a mainstream publication a rare treat.
Horihide also talks about his start in tattooing as an apprentice at the age of 19, where he suffered beatings to learn the craft. There are some great quotes, which left me wanting more. So I did a search and came up with this 1996 essay for Tattoos.com in which Horihide muses on his life as a teenage gang leader to becoming a tattoo artist and later meeting Sailor Jerry. Also a must read.
Great stories and a bit of history.
Our go-to source for historic photos, including but not limited to tattoos, is The Selvedge Yard. What's particularly cool about the site is that editor JP also puts the images in context with interesting background info.
Our most recent fave, which Pat dug up, is this post on Japanese tattooing in the 40s called:
Ancient Art of the Japanese Tebori Tattoo Masters: Ink in Harmony.
Images include the one above of "A group of traditionally tattooed gamblers," hand-tattooing (tebori) on women, and preserved tattooed skins, among other beautiful photos. They illustrate the words of legendary Japanese master Horihide, which were taken (in their entirety) from his personal story told on Tattoos.com. Here's a taste of that story:
When I was an apprentice, feudal customs still existed in Japan. The apprenticeship was one of the feudal customs called uchideshi in Japanese. Normally, pupils lived with their masters, and were trained for 5 years. After 5-year training, the pupils worked independently, and gave the masters money that he earned for one year. The one-year service was called oreiboko in Japanese, the service to express the gratitude towards the masters. The masters usually told new pupils about this system, 5-year-training and 1-year service, when they began the apprenticeship.
[I chose this particular quote to shut up whiny tattoo apprentices today who think they have it so rough.]
For much more of Horihide's stories on Japanese tattooing--from apprenticeships to traditional designs to the tebori technique to tattoo thieves--go to the original article on Tattoos.com.
Our past posts on The Selvedge Yard: