Today's Wall Street Journal Asia features an article by Manami Okazaki entitled Japanese Tattoos: From Yakuza to Artisans, Aesthetes. It's an interesting read, particularly for its focus on traditional Japanese bodysuit tattoos -- Wabori -- and how their popularity has increased among young people who are interested in them on an artistic level, and how they are losing favor among the Japan's criminal underworld, the Yakuza, for whom Wabori was an integral part of their culture.
As Manami writes:
[...] Tattoos are on the decline among yakuza. Master tattooists including Horihiro and Horinami attribute the decline to the economic downturn, while others point to arrests and authorities clamping down on organized crime. Some also suggest yakuza today want to be less conspicuous, whereas in the past, tattoos were a means of distinguishing themselves from the rest of society.
Manami does point out in the article that, despite tattooing's popularity beyond the Yakuza,"the country is as strict as ever when it comes to accepting them as part of mainstream society." She also notes that this strict regard of the art form may have to change as the country will welcome visitors (including those who are tattooed) for the 2020 Olympics. [We noted this in our post on a Maori woman banned from a bathhouse for her Moko.]
Onna yu ("Bathhouse Women") by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) via Wikipedia.
Last week, a bunch of new outlets worldwide picked up the story that a bathhouse in Hokkaido, Japan refused entry to a Maori woman because of her Moko. As MaoriTelevsion.com notes, the woman, Erana Te Haeata Brewerton, was in Japan to attend an indigenous language conference, "staying with a group of Ainu people indigenous to Japan whose ancestors wore tattoos similar to the traditional chin tattoo."
The tattoo bans at bathhouses throughout Japan are nothing new and not really news to many in our community -- it's almost become a joke to pack a long-sleeved wetsuit when traveling to the country if you want to take a soak. The bans are based on the association of tattoos with the Yakuza crime syndicates, and designed to keep the bad guys out. Indeed, Yakuza are heavily tattooed (and often beautifully so). But so are a lot of people who aren't in the Japanese mafia.
The reason this incident is getting media traction is because Japan was just awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympics, which means a lot more tourists, including the tattooed. At the press conference for the Olympics announcement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that "it is important to respect the cultures of foreign countries, considering we will host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and expect many visitors ... to come to Japan."
Perhaps, we won't have to pack our wetsuits after all.
Editor's note: As I'm away on vacation now, we have the wonderful tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman back to guest blog. Her post has some invaluable info on important texts that you want to seek out for your own tattoo education.
RIP Donald Richie
By Anna Felicity Friedman
The news of Donald Richie's death on February 19 prompted me to dig out my copies of his works on Japanese tattooing and brought back a flood of memories of being a budding tattoo scholar back in the early 1990s, when library catalogs consisted of index cards organized in tiny drawers and the only real way to find out about then-obscure works on tattoo history and culture was via word of mouth (Ed Hardy, who was incredibly generous and supportive of my early tattoo history efforts, tipped me off to Richie's work as well as others').
It occurred to me that Needles and Sins readers might enjoy a round-up of some of these earlier works on Japanese tattooing--all but one of which are out of print today. You can find them in certain libraries (and a few via interlibrary loan), for purchase (albeit in limited quantities and often for a considerable price tag), or, in one case, online.
Sandi Fellman, The Japanese Tattoo (New York : Abbeville, 1986, 1987): In 1990, when I found a copy--on clearance--at the RISD bookstore of Fellman's incredible coffee-table book of photography of Japanese tattoos, I had just started getting tattooed and knew I would be sleeved (or more) someday. But these photos astounded me and still fuel tattoo desires today. The sleeve I commissioned in 1993 when I was just 21 years old was directly inspired by the images in this book. A photograph of a shishi tattoo by Horikin on his wife lingered in my memory until I had it inscribed in 2000 on one side of my torso--ten years of image persistence speaks volumes, I think, as to the power of the photographs in this book (as does how wrinkled and worn my copy is from incessantly paging through it). When I looked to find out how rare this book might be today, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the second edition is still in print! And for a very reasonable price (it's even Amazon prime eligible). So go buy it!
W. R. van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan (Leiden: Brill, 1982): Another of the books that Ed Hardy recommended to me in 1992, van Gulik's book impressed me with its incredible level of scholarship--it was perhaps the first volume I had read that made me realize tattoo history could be a serious academic pursuit, complete with nerdy footnotes and scouring of archives. Van Gulik's book introduced me to the phenomenally striking Ainu tattooing as well as the concept of a prehistoric tattoo history that might be recovered from incised figurines. I have absolutely no idea where the School of the Art Institute librarians found a copy of this for me to borrow via Interlibrary loan, given that the book was, and still is, fairly rare (with fewer than 100 copies listed in Worldcat today). I was excited to discover recently that the book is now available via Google Books!
Donald Richie and Ian Buruma, The Japanese Tattoo (New York: Weatherhill, 1980, 1982, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1996): This collaboration between Richie and Buruma features some incredible photographs of older Japanese tattoos, when the style was what I would call more of a folk-art and less of a fine-art aesthetic--not as polished, rougher, more raw. It also has some phenomenal photos of tattoos in progress and amazing candids. The foreword is by Horibun II who offered Richie and Buruma what appears to be then-unprecedented access to his studio and process. For those of you who read Japanese, the bibliography gives an impressive listing of earlier texts about Japanese tattooing to track down. The later 1989-1996 paperback reprints can be found secondhand fairly easily (and for a not-too-terrible price) via Amazon and Abebooks. But the hardcover version is worth seeking out for those of you with the funds to add it to your book collection (it also features a much more compelling cover design than the paperback).
In a city teeming with many of the world's stellar tattooists, David Sena has consistently stood out as one of NYC's finest for his exceptionally strong and vivid Japanese tattoos as well as bold and beautiful blackwork -- some of the best in the US.
I met David over a decade ago at a tattoo convention in New Jersey. Actually, I first met his client with a blackwork aquatic-themed bodysuit, whom I accosted to find out who did the work. He then took me to David, who seemed a bit confused by this short redhead spewing all kinds of questions at him in the usual hyper state I'm in when I excited by exceptional tattoos. Thankfully, I didn't scare him off and we became friends.
As his friend, I've gotten a front row seat to watch the transformation of his large-scale tattoo projects as well as his fire art; however, David describes his work best:
My fine artwork is created with a technique of drawing by burning marks on paper with fireworks and other volatile materials. These techniques are rooted in one of humankind's earliest technologies: fire, and as such they speak to something elemental in the human condition. Inspired by cosmology and the interconnection between terrestrial and celestial fires, my drawings become a record of their creation, a map pointing to the reason for human existence, or rather the outer limits, the infinite, the space not yet grasped. These two means of creating - tattooing and burning-- have a unique synergy, as they both entail physical and ritualistic processes of mark-making while transforming matter/people.David now has a new space to create his tattoos and fine art: Senaspace in NYC's Little Italy. And he's inviting all of you to its grand opening on 12.12.12, from 6-10pm (afterparty to follow). At the opening, there will be an exhibition of his latest works and live fire drawing demo.
David says of the space: "This gallery and tattoo studio is a reflection of my lifelong interest in diverse modes of artistic expression, and my conviction that art is not a luxury but a sublime human need. I hope this space speaks to you on an aesthetic, visceral, and personal level."
I've already visited the studio and it's a gorgeous space. He plans to regularly feature expositions, projects and guest spots by local and international artists in all mediums. So you'll be hearing more from David here.
SENASPACE, 229 Centre St. NY NY 10013, 212-966-5151, senaspace.com
Dana Helmuth makes beautiful Japanese tattooing that follows the long standing traditions of the art form -- more conservatively than the modern genre mash-ups -- but still with its own distinctiveness. They are just as striking from a distance as they are up-close, and they are built to look good to the grave.
How Dana has come to achieve these qualities in his work is no secret: homework, hard work, and a love for tattooing. You'll hear many great artists say the same thing. But for a more in-depth understanding into his approach -- and to get an up-close look at how he works -- check out the live tattoo webcast on TattooNow TV, next Sunday, November 4th. Dana will be doing an interview as well; for a preview on that talk, you can read this Q&A with the artist TattooNow.com.
You'll also get to see another side of Dana on November 8th -- as a musician. He'll be playing live next Thursday. To get a taste of his music and tattooing, here's a video below (put to Dan's own music) in which he does a custom black and grey dragon backpiece in one day.
While at the Paradise Tattoo Gathering, I ran into my friend and tattooist Andre Malcolm. It had been a while since we last saw each other as Dre had moved from NY out to California with his family in 2010, and over the past year he's been busy working as part of the esteemed Analog Tattoo crew in San Jose.
Watching him tattoo at the show, I was reminded how dynamic, bold work can also embody an elegance and a cool. Strength comes from the subtleties as well as the more intense elements. Dre's got that balance and flow down. He's been tattooing for twelve years and knows what he's doing. I asked him for a quick and dirty Q&A and here's how it went down:
How do you approach projects -- esp large scale work -- and create something that is customized to the client?
There's a lot of studying of the body, so I sketch on the main subject matter then I take a tracing of the body.
What references do you generally look to?
I look at a lot of nature, rocks, water, trees, flowers if need be. Japanese prints and paintings. I watch a lot of anime.
What has been the greatest lesson you've learned in your years tattooing?
Any conventions/guest spots coming up?
Whenever I'm in NYC, I guest spot at Saved Tattoo. In 2013, I'm planning to guest at RedLetter1-- I've been telling Phil [Holt] that for the last few years so that's going to happen real soon. Also at Artwork Rebels, and Bolder Ink -- Joel Long's shop. And I've been promising Brad Fink [Iron Age, Fun City and Daredevil] too, so I'm trying to work that schedule out having a family and all.
What's the best way to make an appointment with you?
The best way to get in contact with me is to email me at andretattoos [at] gmail.com or call Analog tattoo 408-292-7766. It really isn't that hard to get in contact with me.
Ok, Shout out time ... Go!
Med, Ces, Yes2 at Tuff City tattoos BX NYC. José Soto, Eddie, Anderson Luna, Adrian Lee, Ron Earhart, Matt Shamah, Jim Miner, ATAK, Troy Denning, RG, Kiku, Marco Serio, Damian Rodriguez, Chis O'Donnell, Scott Campbell and everyone at Saved Tattoo. Michelle Myles, Brad Fink, Big Steve, Mina, Claire -- good folks at Daredevil Tattoo. Yoni Z, Brad Stevens, Horizakura, Kaz. Grimey for hooking me up with a book I lost moving out to the West with the family -- it really meant allot, thank you -- and all the guys at Skull & Sword. Jason Phillips and Sean Pertkinson at FTW Oakland, Phillip Millic at Old Crow in Oakland, Trevor Mcstay and everyone at Dynamic Tattoo in Australia -- super nice shop, super nice family, thank you for treating me so nice, can't wait to guest there again. Geordie Cole at Tattoo Magic in Australia, Owen Williams, Evan Griffith at Tama Tattoo in Australia. William Yoneyama also in Australia -- awesome people, good time. And everyone that has let me work on them: I give you thanks for the trust. If I've left anyone out, I'm sorry. Peace out.
Check more of Andre's work on the Analog site.
I'm excited to be working on the second volume of "Black Tattoo Art," finding artists around the world doing bold, black and badass work. One such artist Laszlo Kis of Windhorse Tattoo in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
What's particularly exciting about Laszlo, or Laci's, portfolio is how he can seamlessly move from heavy, tribal infused pieces to electric Americana to buttery black & grey to Japanese iconography. His artistic diversity is ever-present in his new book documenting his life in tattooing: "Windhorsetattoos by Kis Laszlo" available on Blurb.
Originally from Monor, a Hungarian city near Budapest, Laci began tattooing at sixteen years old in his hometown. He traveled throughout Hungary, working in Budapest, Balatonfured, and Sopron before moving to Sao Paulo, where Misi Karai, a long time friend from Hungary, invited him to work at his studio, Misi Tattoo. After three years, they decided to open up a new studio called Tattoo Tradition, where Kis worked for over five years until going out on his own in early 2010 and establishing Windhorse Tattoo.
When asked why he's chosen not to concentrate on one particular tattoo genre, Laci says he feels it is important not to limit himself to one style in order to fulfill the wishes of different clients: "I believe that, for some strange reason, people know what they will have on the body -- as if the tattoo has been there all along even before they enter the studio. Therefore, I cannot ignore their request, but must work with it."
I was hoping that he'll make a trip to the US soon, but with two young children, he's staying in Brazil for a while. Time to start planning a South America tattoo vacation.
See more of Laci's work on his blog and website.
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.
In our home there are two large tattoo works in progress, which means it's fully stocked with creams, painkillers, vodka, chocolate, and "tattoo sheets" (not the 1,500 thread count kind). Yesterday, I talked about adding to my tattoo collection with more rib work.
Today, Brian writes about his 11th tattoo sitting on his Bodysuit to Fit blog. Brian's got 38 hours already racked up with Mike Rubendall of Kings Avenue Tattoo. Check his post on how the backpiece is evolving ... and what it's like to score appointments with one of the most sought-after tattoo artists.
Dedicating his life to Japanese tattooing and educating others on the art, Kazuaki "Horitomo" Kitamura -- resident artist at State of Grace in San Jose -- not only keeps the tebori hand tattoo traditions alive but also the rich history of the art and the meanings behind its iconic motifs.
In "Immovable: Fudo Myo-o Tattoo Design By Horitomo," he shares this knowledge in a beautifully illustrated 9" by 13" softcover art book. Fudo Myo-o (also known as Acala, which translates into "immovable") is one of the Five Wisdom Kings in Buddhism. His role is to fight ignorance and delusions, and lead people to self-discipline and peace. He is shown sitting on a pedestal, surrounded by flames (among other representative elements), but of course there are many artistic ways to embody this Esoteric Buddhist icon. In these pages, Horitomo presents various interpretations of Fudo Myo-o, often with information on that particular composition.
What I particularly enjoy about this book is how he breaks down the elements of many of his drawings; for example, he highlights the different manifestations of weapons, hairstyles and garments. He even devotes pages to close-ups of postures. It's an excellent study for artists, but also a great resource for anyone fascinated by Buddhist art and stories.
"Immovable" is available at State of Grace Publishing for $120 (US orders) and $150 (outside US).
If you'd like to learn about Fudo Myo-o drawing and design from Horitomo himself, he'll be giving a seminar with Horitaka on July 29th at 10am at the Kings Avenue NYC location (188 Bowery 2nd floor at the corner of Spring St). The cost of the seminar is $200 ($220 by PayPal). Space is limited. More info on the Kings Ave blog.
I also recommend checking out Horitomo's spectacular portfolio, which includes the tattoos shown below.
Last Thursday, Brian and I attended Tokio Confidential, a musical that centers around Japanese culture and tattooing. Yes, a tattoo musical. How could we not see it?
Written and composed by Eric Schorr and directed by Johanna McKeon, Tokio Confidential takes place in Japan in 1879, a time when tattooing was outlawed and underground (although an exception was made for tourists wishing a permanent souvenir). One such visitor is Isabella Archer, a young widow who lost her husband in the American Civil War, and who travels to Japan to find the beauty and magic her husband so often spoke of and promised to show her. Upon arrival, she meets fellow American Ernest and his gay lover Akira who bring her to Tokyo's pleasure district and soon introduce her to Horiyoshi (sound familiar?), who becomes her tattoo artist and lover. Horiyoshi transforms her into a work of art, which leads to a dark end.
... an end I won't spoil for anyone who wants to see the play at the Atlantic Theater Stage 2 in Manhattan before it closes this weekend on February 19th.
Tokio Confidential is meticulously researched (research supported in part by The Asian Cultural Council) and you get the feeling that Schorr is covered in tattoos, although he says in The Huffington Post that he's just a "tattoo voyeur." The cast sing of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblocks prints that inspired traditional tattoo designs, and of tebori, the hand tattooing method. The mostly grey-haired crowd got a full education on the art form. But we wondered if they'd retain it. Beautiful voices carry each lesson within lyrics like "lots of money, lots of pain" and "what have I done," but there are no real choruses to sing and remember once you leave the theater. Perhaps, it would be best if the academics are left in the dialog, and the tunes were catchier. It is musical theater after all.
Beyond tattooing and woodblock prints, Schorr explores other Japanese arts like Noh, which he describes as "one of the oldest forms of what we might call musical theater" that "artfully and seamlessly combine speech, song, and dance." It took me a while in the beginning to realize that the abstraction of the cast's movements were a nod to Noh, and it was a bit distracting; however, I did enjoy the choreography when placed in the context of a Noh performance within the story line.
The cast and orchestra are indeed fantastic, and Jill Paice who plays the lead Isabella has the luminescent skin that tattooists would die to work on. [And that's also noted in the dialogue.] Yet they are given the task to capture the soul of tattooing, to truly convey the experience of transformation, the raw desire to endure pain for art. And how does one do it in a two-hour musical?
It's a valiant effort but almost impossible to accomplish.
For more on Tokio Confidential, see the video below as well as interviews with Shorr and Mckeon, and bios of cast and crew. Tickets are still available for performances through Sunday.
The third and final episode of the "Tattoo Age" profile on Mike Rubendall of Kings Avenue is now online, and like the rest of the Vice TV video series, it is an intimate and interesting look into the personal and professional life of this master tattooer.
The video begins with a discussion of his art collection, which includes never before published prints by Horiyoshi III, and is followed by footage of another passion of Mike's: boxing. Then, the Vice crew flies out to Denmark to interview Henning Jorgensen of Royal Tattoo, a good friend and also a big influence on Mike's work. But the most fun for me was watching the whole Rubendall family playing around in their backyard, presenting the softer, family man side of the intensely driven artist.
And of course, there are great tattoo and fine art images. It all perfectly rounds out a this must-see three-part series. Check Part 1 and Part 2 as well.
Vice is offering prints by Mike as well as other "Tattoo Age" merchandise. Just follow them on Twitter and look out for their contests.
An interesting slideshow and videos on tattoos of the Yakuza, Japan's criminal underground, can be found on National Geographic's "Crime Lords of Tokyo" investigation. The short stories behind the tattoos discuss the transformation, pain and symbolism of the motifs; for example, this backpiece on the daughter of a Yakuza boss, shown above, is described as "Prostitute in Hell." The presentation also makes mention of Shoko Tendo's Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter, which is an excellent read.
Thanks, Niall, for the link!
Today's artist spotlight is on Shane Tan: tattoo artist and punk rock misfit currently killing it at Ink Tank Zurich and privately in Singapore. Singapore is Shane's birthplace, although he claims that he's a direct descendant of "one of those immortal flying ninjas from old Chinese films." I didn't argue with him on this point. Shane likes long walks on the beach, his aura color is pinkish blue, and his favorite meal is 13 magnum tubes from Good Luck Irons. He says they taste like steel chicken & go well with mayonnaise. Again, I didn't argue.
Here's some of Shane's work. More on Horinaka.com.
Our friend Yushi Takei just hit us up with some new work and also added 50 images of his traditional Japanese tattooing to his online gallery.
Yushi will be working at the London Tattoo Convention this upcoming weekend, then doing a guest spot at Frith Street Tattoo from Sept. 29 to Oct. 13. He'll then be at the wonderful Brussels Tattoo Convention Oct. 14-16.
In the August issue of Inked Magazine, on newsstands now, I interview the tattooer's tattooer, Mike Rubendall of Kings Avenue. In our Q&A, we discuss the new Kings Ave on the legendary Bowery in NYC (also posted here), his grueling apprenticeship when he was 17, and what it's like tattooing a dead body. Here's a taste:
What is the tattoo that you've done that sticks out most in your memory?
Read more in the "Icon" section of Inked.
You can also follow Brian's own experience getting tattooed by Mike here on N+S.
Artist Jason Clay Dunn of Tattoo Alchemy in Montclair, CA works in a variety of mediums, including graphic design, digital illustration, traditional painting and airbrush art, but it's his Japanese-influenced tattooing with an "American twist" that captured our attention.
Jason has been documenting his tattoo process on video, and further discusses his work and life in tattooing in this video interview. [Also directed and edited by Richie Merritt.]
You can find more of Jason's tattoo work online here.
Photos by John Agcaoili.
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."
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."
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."
Read more on Horitaka in Skin & Ink's July issue, out now. Also check the State of Grace Facebook page.
On a related note:
State of Grace has donated
Ok, this story is going to dwarf our tee and print giveaway, but hell, I'll share:
A 46-year-old mixed martial arts trainer from Liverpool, Australia ended up winning a full dragon backpiece (shown above left) modeled after that of a video game character (shown right) in the SEGA Yakuza franchise. SEGA Australia held the contest about a year ago to promote the new Yakuza 4 game, which drops today along with the tattoo unveiling.
The backpiece was tattooed by Josh Roelink, of Tatudharma Studios in Sydney, over six months in four-hour sessions with three-week intervals. See images of the tattoo process here.
Josh did not design the artwork for the game -- Horitomo of State of Grace did -- but Josh got his approval to re-create it. There's a great interview with Horitomo from a few years back in which he discusses the design work for SEGA but also his tattoo art and thoughts on Japanese tattoo culture. Worth a click.
For more on Horitomo, check this profile excerpt in Tattoo Artist Magazine. And for more on Josh, watch his interview with BMEtv.
The use of numbing creams and sprays has been a hot tattoo topic (recently discussed here in our Robert Atkinson profile and my new tattoo post). In this guest blog, John Mack is back to share his experience using anesthetic while getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III.
** This post has been updated with further information since its publication **
During my first appointment with Horiyoshi III, I asked what he thought of trying Lidocaine. He replied, "Sure, it's better if it doesn't hurt." Well, all right then. I'll give it a try.
I already had Lidocaine 5% cream (from another procedure) but the taboo against
topical anesthetic for tattooing dissuaded me from trying it, that is, until I spoke with Horiyoshi. Before I went to Japan for my tattoo sessions (combined with a business trip) I researched Japanese law as transporting drugs across borders is a dicey business. According to the Koseirodosho-iyakushokuhinkyoku, bringing your own duly prescribed medical drugs into Japan is permitted.
For my next session, an hour before my appointment, I applied the cream and covered it with Saran Wrap. Even though I washed my hands immediately, my fingertips became a little numb. This stuff really works. And then I went to get tattooed. The project was koi fish on the insides of my thighs, a very painful place to be tattooed. But with local anesthetic, it was completely tolerable. Horiyoshi's son Kazu was observing the session, and commented to me, "Wow, you're really strong." I sheepishly told him the real reason I was taking it so well.
I missed some places with the cream, and I tell you, that was some serious pain. An even more distressing problem with this area was the nerve reflexes that made me move involuntarily. The anesthetic reduced this effect at its source.
When I asked Horiyoshi III for his opinion, he said that Japanese law prevents him from making a recommendation without a license to practice medicine. He did say that personally, he would prefer to not cause suffering, and if the client had a way to avoid it, then there was no reason not to. If the client seeks the therapeutic effect of becoming stronger through the painful ordeal, then that too is fine. He added that there was no particular unfairness in how some people endure the pain of tattooing while others can choose to escape it.
But wait. Isn't pain an integral part of tattooing? Is it really okay to remove just this part of the experience? It certainly removes the macho "I can take anything" element of being tattooed. I'm cheating, and cheaters like me will never make yakuza boss.
Next, I would like to share the technical details of my experience with this controversial approach to tattooing. It is important to note that I have no training in tattooing nor medicine. I can only offer anecdotal evidence to help those who do have qualifications make their decisions.
The anesthetic reduced but did not completely eliminate the nerve reflexes that made my thigh twitch involuntarily as it was being tattooed. Getting tattooed on the floor helped -- Horiyoshi could further arrest my movement by sitting on my calf as he worked (thankfully, he's not very heavy). He also had a sand bag close at hand that he plopped onto my leg to hold it down.
The next area to tattoo was my arms. The result I want for this public area demands that I be an absolutely still canvas. I used the Lidocaine for the outline, and was able to completely relax. During the tattooing of both arms, I did not even come close to tensing my muscles or twitching.
A particularly delightful part of my tattoo experience is my conversations with Horiyoshi. Discussing wide ranging topics in a foreign language over the din of a tattoo machine while not facing the speaker is hard enough. The anesthetic allows me to better concentrate on the conversation.
Nonetheless, a few sessions after the critical outlining was done, I eventually stopped using the Lidocaine on my arms. Being tattooed there is not particularly painful, and not using anesthetic is undeniably more authentic. But I will definitely use it again for my underarms.
If there is a problem with using Lidocaine cream for tattooing, I think it is the physical form of the cream. A potentially inexperienced client must properly apply it before coming under the supervision of the tattooist. It is a bit messy, and is best applied in private where soap and water are available. It must be applied according to schedule, potentially when you are in an inconvenient location. I once had to apply it in the restroom at the Dai Ichi Hotel Tokyo while wearing a business suit. After application, the cream must be covered with Saran Wrap for maximum effectiveness. Why would anyone bring Saran Wrap to a business meeting?
It is essential to remove the cream before beginning to tattoo. I wash it off with soap and water immediately before starting. [The tattooist can also wipe it off.] If you leave the cream on, paper stencils stick to it and disintegrate upon removal. During tattooing, it is difficult to wipe away excess ink. Injecting the cream into the skin during tattooing causes inflammation, pain afterward, and retards healing, but there was no permanent damage the one time this happened to me.
The half life of Lidocaine is 1.5 to 2 hours. This is more than enough for my one hour sessions with Horiyoshi, but probably insufficient for a session of even two hours. A continuous process might work whereby the client applies anesthetic to a new area as the artist tattoos toward it. Kind of like a steel mill.
The spray form of Lidocaine, and the new product, Vasocaine are presumably easier to apply, less sticky, and more foolproof. Lidocaine 5% cream often requires a prescription. This is inconvenient, but I am more comfortable knowing that we are all within Japanese law. If I try Vasocaine, I will just declare it to Japanese customs, and if it is illegal they can confiscate it.
On the trunk of my body, I never really noticed any inflammation after getting tattooed, but on my forearms the swelling is quite pronounced. The vascular constrictor in Vasocaine looks useful for preventing swelling.
If you're not getting tattooed for the pain, the ultimate objective of all this is a quality finished tattoo. On my skin, Lidocaine 5% cream gives the benefits of pain relief and motion arrest without adverse effect on the finished tattoo. In fact I think improves the result by keeping me still and allowing me to extend my bodysuit into areas that would otherwise be intolerably painful.