Results tagged “horiyoshi III”

12:17 PM
Horiyoshi III art.jpgArtwork by Horiyoshi III.

Thomas Hooper art.jpgArtwork by Thomas Hooper.

Titine Leu shirt.jpgApparel artwork by Titine Leu.

This Friday and Saturday, November 13 & 14th, more than 1,000 artworks by international tattoo artists will be sold at The Peter Mui Collection of Original Tattoo Art Auction. This is arguably the largest collection of tattoo art to ever go up for bid, created by some of the world's most renowned artists, such as Horiyoshi III, Filip and Titine Leu, Horitomo, Bob Roberts, Thomas Hooper, Robert Hernandez, Guy Aitchison, Michelle Wortman, Leo Zulueta, Roger Ingerton, Kim Saigh, Stephanie Tamez, Jondix and much, much, much more.  

The auction will take place in NYC at 22 Little West 12th Street, and bids can also be made via email, phone/fax, and online. Bid online via Liveauctioneers, and also via Invaluable.

On Liveauctioneers, here's a list of items for bid on November 13th, and items for bid on November 14th.

Peter Mui was a musician, actor, and designer, who founded the tattoo clothing brands Yellowman, Misplaced Cowboy, Samurai Surfer, and Mui Mui. It is because so much of the artwork from tattooers was sought for apparel that the majority of the items for auction are torso-sized original paintings -- some crafted on templates for sleeves, and others as tank tops, as shown here; however, there are also original flash sheets and paintings on canvas, board, and paper, among other mediums.

Mui died in 2009, leaving this massive collection to his family, who chose Guernsey's auction house for this sale. In this CBS TV piece on the auction, Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger states, when asked who potential buyers are, "You know, I get asked that a lot, who is going to be the big buyer in this auction or that auction. And the answer is, you never know. It's always a surprise," adding, "I'll bet you that 50 percent of the work will get sold to people who don't have tattoos, probably never had interest in it, but see the excitement, the beauty in some of these works." He also anticipates that some works will go in the tens of thousands, "30, 40, 50,000, we think."

Also in the CBS report, tattoo historian Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman is interviewed, although, on Facebook, she makes it clear that they did not consult her on the weak pop tattoo history lesson that is thrown into the piece. On social media, she also notes that it will be interesting to see what the sale prices end up being. If you look at the starting bids, some start as low as $200 while others start at $6,000. Dr. Matt Lodder commented that, from a tattoo art collector's perspective, some pieces appear to be highly undervalued while others significantly overvalued. He noted that some original flash sheets have minimums that go for not much more than prints sold at conventions or online.

Personally, I think there are a number of factors in the valuation of the pieces -- including how much artwork is already in the market by a particular artist, and let's not forget an artist's "platform" and notoriety, which can be derived from those reality TV appearances, can also play into the bidding.

There are some concerns I have with the auction: first, Dr. Lodder pointed out that, on Twitter, Valerie Vargas, stated that none of the works listed as hers were created by her. How many other artists are incorrectly listed -- and is it by mistake or fraud? Also, I question the fairness to the artists.

Over ten years ago, Peter Mui contacted blackwork tattooer Daniel DiMattia (whom I was married to at that time), sent him these clothing templates to design, and offered a one-time flat fee for them. I thought the fee was significantly low for the market, and Dan did not participate. I wonder what deals the other artists were offered. I don't think it was in the "30, 40, 50,000" range.

That said, it is an impressive collection, and assuming that most are works created by those they are attributed to, it can be a great way to get your hands on originals by one of your favorite tattoo artists. I'll be seeing how the auction plays out online this Friday and Saturday.

Bob Roberts shirt.jpgApparel artwork by Bob Roberts.

Filip Leu shirt.jpg Apparel artwork by Filip Leu.
Jondix art.jpg
Artwork by Jondix.
02:34 PM
irezumi.jpgKuniyoshi  print.jpgHoritoshi III drawing.jpgA fantastic exhibition exploring Japanese tattooing, in various mediums through different periods, is now on view at The Ronin Gallery in NYC. Entitled "TABOO: UKIYO-E AND THE JAPANESE TATTOO," the exhibit encompasses the work of ukiyo-e masters Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kunisada and Kunichika "celebrating the world of tattoo duing the Edo and Meiji periods. Also exciting are the original paintings and drawings of master tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, along with the contemporary art photography of Masato Sudo and mixed-media work of American artist Daniel Kelly.

The best part: the 76-page catalog packed with beautiful imagery and tattoo history is available as free ebook [embedded below]. The hardcopy catalog and prints can be purchased here.

I highly recommend taking the time to read through it. You may also find inspiration for your next tattoo!

08:00 AM
Rose Hardy

claudia-de-sabe-big-1.jpgClaudia De Sabe

UPDATE:  In just a little more that a month, the fine art exhibit "Time: Tattoo Art Today," on view at Somerset House in London, will close on October 5. Our friend Serinde recently visited the show and sent photos, which we've posted to our Flickr stream. Serinde described the show as "surprising, striking, and above all extremely well executed." If you plan on attending the wonderful London Tattoo Convention, make sure to put this exhibit on your must see list while you're there.

Garnering rave reviews in London, "Time: Tattoo Art Today" presents the fine art of 70 some of our finest tattooers around the globe, including Filip Leu, Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi III, Paul Booth, Guy Aitchison, Kore Flatmo, Rose Hardy, Mister Cartoon, Chuey Quintanar, Volker Merschky and Simone Pfaff, among other artists. "Time" opened at Somerset House in London last week, and drew a great deal of media attention, highlighting just how skilled the artists in our community can be in mediums beyond skin. For a glimpse into the exhibit, the BBC offers this video.

Curated by tattoo artist Claudia De Sabe and publisher Miki Vialetto, the tattooers were asked to create a new work for the exhibition on the theme of time. Here's more from Somerset:

The resulting collection ranges from oil painting, watercolours and traditional Japanese silk painting to paint layering on real skulls, airbrush and bronze sculpture. Time and all it infers (such as life and death) is a classic, common motif in tattoo art, expressed through a vast variety of iconographic combinations. For example, the popular inkings of butterflies, blossoms and the handled cross signify life, while memento moris such as skulls or the goddess Kali denote death. Many of these symbols are also present in the original pieces displayed.
See more works from the exhibit on the museum's site and on Miki's Tattoo Life site.

"Time: Tattoo Art Today" will be on view at Somerset House until October 5, 2014. All artworks on display, as well as the show's catalog, prints and other memorabilia, are available to purchase at the Rizzoli Bookshop.

Horiyoshi-III.jpgHoriyoshi III
filip-leu-big.jpgFilip Leu
07:46 AM
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.

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.

Japanese tattoo.jpg
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

Horimitsu.jpgHorimitsu, photo by Irwin Wong.

Wabori Japanese tattoo.jpg
Horikazu, photo by Michael Rubenstein.
03:20 PM
Every now and again, I get asked by the fine folks over at The Daily Dot to talk about two of my favorite things: tattoos and technology. While my previous piece focused on tattooists who are utilizing the social-media power of Instagram, my current piece "Tattoos to Go" steps it up a notch to discuss my top five favorite apps for your smartphone/tablet.

Click over to the article for direct links to apps from Tattoo Now, Sailor Jerry, Horiyoshi III and Tattoo Culture Magazine!

04:10 PM
Horiyoshi art .jpg
London's Somerset House is exhibiting silk paintings and photographs of Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi III in a special series entitled Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III.

The arts center describes the work:

Kokoro means 'heart' in Japanese; it is the 'feeling', the 'inner meaning' that underpins the Japanese approach not only to art, but to Japanese life as a whole. It is what makes Japan quintessentially Japanese. With this selection of paintings by Irezumi master Horiyoshi III, we hope to make you 'feel' Kokoro; leading you on a journey where the typical japanese nature and legends take life in silk paintings and photographs.

Internationally renowned tattoo artist Horiyoshi III is a great supporter of traditional Japanese culture, history and craftsmanship but yet he embraced the modern western world, observed it, understood it and changed his art, evolving but keeping it japanese; this is ultimately the power and essence of Kokoro. It is a spirit that knows no time or physical limits.
The exhibit is open daily from 10am to 6pm until July 1st and admission is free.

Those who can't swing a London trip can purchase the limited edition "Kokoro" book online from Kofee-Senju Publishers for 199 Euro plus shipping.

For more on Horiyoshi III's work, as well as some historical information on Japanese tattoo, check Don't Panic magazine's article "Horiyoshi III Inks Japan." In it, Kate Kelsall interviews Hiroyoshi's apprentice and assistant Alex Reinke, aka Horikitsune, of Holy FoxTattoos in Germany. Alex is renowned for his own masterful interpretation of Irezumi. He offers his thoughts on Japanese tattooing:

The mystery involved in a Japanese tattoo is beyond Western comprehension as all the designs have deep philosophical meaning. They are heavy with messages of great virtue and portraits of the human condition, so important to the Japanese - to wear a Horimono or Irezumi [that's a full body suit tattoo to you and I] shows character, personality and perseverance and the tattoo master is purveyor of all these things. [...] Basically everyone carries the same designs like koi (carp), dragons, heroes and tenyo (she-angels) but the tattoo artist adapts the story for each individual, changing clothes, expressions and shades to fit that person.
Hit up Don't Panic for more discussion on the art.

Hiroyoshi III.jpg
05:14 PM
horiyoshi iii app.jpg
Tons of tattoo-related apps have flooded the iTunes store, but a number are indeed worthy of precious space on your iPhone and iPads. Two such apps, which share the work of Horiyoshi III (one of Japan's foremost tattoo masters), are  Horiyoshi 3 and "100 Demons."

The recently released Horiyoshi 3 app is a digital compendium of "photos and drawings for an intimate view of his life and works" -- with some never-before-seen sketches. There are also images of his studio and his Yokohama tattoo museum. You can do a keyword search through images and bookmark your favorite images. They can also be emailed, which could be handy if you want to give your tattooist some ideas for your next work (for inspiration, not copying of course). It's available on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch for $4.99.

The "100 Demons" app is the digital version of the Master's 1998 book of illustrations of Japanese demons and mythological creatures and warriors -- which is no longer in print nor available digitally elsewhere. As stated in its iTunes description, "By working closely with the original publisher, we have been granted exclusive rights to release the book in this form. In addition, Horiyoshi III himself has personally reviewed and approved this release." The chapters are easy to navigate and images can be viewed in picture frame mode for a better look. It's available on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch for $9.99.

Both are worth the money, especially for fans of Japanese tattoo art.

100 demons.jpg
12:28 PM
horitaka photo by John Agcaoili.jpg
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."

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."

horitaka tattoo.jpg
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."

horitaka tattoo2.jpg
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 $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    
02:03 PM
Full Coverage third edition.jpgFull Coverage Adrian Lee.jpgIn 2006, Adrian Lee and the NSKolectiv unveiled Full Coverage, a project in which their Suits Made to Fit "homework assignment," documenting the creation of full bodysuit tattoo designs on paper, was now put on living bodies -- thirty-three bodies transformed by eight artists: Adrian Lee, Horitaka, Paco Excel, Matt Shamah, Ron Earhart, Nate Banuelos, Jason Kundell, and Phil Holt. [See this trailer on how the project developed.] 

The Full Coverage two-volume hardcover, with photographs by Max Dolberg and NSK illuminating the process from concept to creation, was released as a limited edition. It begins with an essay by Horiyoshi III followed by Adrian Lee's introductory text. The book sold out within one month. A second edition was released. Sold out. Used copies on eBay. Sold.

Now a revised third edition has been released that is 240 pages (11x14") of tattoo masterworks in a beautiful hardcover slipcase. It can be purchased for $80 on Last Gasp.

For purists, a rare copy of the first edition Japanese version of the book is being sold on the Analog Tattoo online store for $250. Other books available are Bloodwork Sleeves (350-page hardcover of 67 sleeves by 30 tattooers), Action Reaction & Suits Made to Fit. All gorgeous additions to your tattoo library.
05:56 PM
johnmack14_leftinnerthigh.jpgThe 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.
08:23 AM

Yesterday, the Nowness premiered its film on Horiyoshi III: a beautiful collage of tattoos, historical imagery and scenes from Yokohama (home to his studio) surrounding an interview in which the master explains symbolism in Japanese motifs, his methods, the culture of tattooing and how he wants to see greater acceptance of the art.

Entitled Horiyoshi The Third: The Skin Carver, photographer and director Johnnie Shand Kydd's not only looks at Horiyoshi's master craftsmanship, but also "examines the recent influence of tattoos in fashion while taking a look at the tattoo legend's latest clothing and accessories line."

More on the Horiyoshi The Third street wear line here.

[Thanks to Evan and Zhan for the links!]
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

Previous Posts:

09:45 AM
horiyoshi III tattooing.jpgJohn Mack continues his weekly guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X & Part XI.

Horiyoshi III answered the phone and listened intently. "Sure, come by any time!" he told the caller. He hung up and explained to those of us in the studio, "A Dutch company is doing a television program on koi (carp) and they want some material on koi tattoos." Horiyoshi returned to tattooing me, declaring with a bemused smile, "I'll do anything for irezumi."

And he does. Horiyoshi opens his studios and techniques to anyone who can promote and enhance the art of tattooing. I already told you about the frequent visits by journalists.

Once I arrived at the studio to find Horiyoshi examining a pile of aluminum stock. I inquired what he was up to. "People do not know how to make tebori equipment that can be properly autoclaved," he explained. "So I'm going to make some and sell it so people can copy them." Indeed these tebori kits are now on sale on Horiyoshi's web site, where he writes humbly:

Nothing makes me happier than seeing the tattoo world advance. Be it tools or whatever, if I find something good, I do not want to keep it to myself. It is with this feeling that I publicize and sell this kit...

This is what I am currently using and what I think works best. Of course I do not think that my own method is the only way. People all have different ideas, and I think it would be fabulous if someone could use this as a step toward an even better design.

Another time, a guy with a computer was industriously scanning a pile of the tracing paper sketches that Horiyoshi uses as the basis for his tattoos. [I assume the images found their way into one the books of his sketches.] I asked Horiyoshi why he publishes his core intellectual property. He answered, "I want them to serve as inspiration for other artists." 

Anything for Irezumi.

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

Photo credit: Martin Hladik, Tattoo Master Magazine

10:02 AM
Horiyoshi dragon.jpgJohn Mack continues his weekly guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIIIPart IX and Part X.

When in Japan, I love chatting with the locals in small neighborhood bars. In the comfortable anonymity of these places, I sometimes reveal that I'm tattooed, and often people want to see. If the situation is right, I oblige them and take off my shirt.

Then the most surprising thing happens:  sensing a rare opportunity, other customers and bar employees join in by pulling back their clothing to reveal tattoos -- and it's usually over half the men and women present doing so. Many of the Japanese I've met in these situations think that their compatriots don't have tattoos, but the reality is that they don't show them.

There's a stereotype that tattooed Japanese must be part of the criminal underground, the Yakuza. However, in my experience, only one person I met admitted to a Yakuza connection. He was a civilian, but his father was a Yakuza gangster who wore a dragon tattoo.  He had an amusing story about his boyhood.

When he was a child, his father threatened, "If you're bad, this dragon will bite you!"  That scared the hell out of him.

Like many Yakuza, the father was missing portions of his fingers.  Instead of revealing that he had chopped off his own fingers in atonement for gangland transgressions, the father claimed to have been mutilated by a fan. The boy spent his summers in mortal fear of electric fans.

His father left when he was young and had been largely incommunicado thereafter. Nonetheless, on his chest, the son bore the same dragon tattoo as his father.

A dragon not unlike the one Horiyoshi III gave me (shown above).


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

02:34 PM
John Mack continues his weekly guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII and Part IX.

horiyoshi iii female backpiece.jpgIn all my time at Horiyoshi III's studios, I have seen a female client just three times.

The studios have no private room.  My appointments were always in the afternoon, so initially I guessed that perhaps women's appointments were in the morning when somehow greater privacy was afforded them. 

As I've already told you, there was often a squad of male apprentices and tattoo enthusiasts present.  Undressing and getting tattooed in front of them would surely give pause to most women.  It certainly intimidated me at first.

I avoid talking about other clients, so I did not ask about it for many years, but in 2009, I finally inquired with Horiyoshi about his female clientele.

"John-san," he said in a slightly incredulous tone.  "Now, how often have you seen women in my studios?" 

I admitted that most of the women I had seen were journalists.  I asked why he had so few female clients.

"They just don't come here.  It's hard for them to undress; it's uncomfortable.  Personally, that's better for me.  Frankly, I would rather not tattoo women."

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.
08:16 AM
John Mack is back with another guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII and Part VIII.

johnmack09_munewarisuji.jpgIn 2005, Horiyoshi III finished my backpiece, yet I was in the grip of tattoo addiction and still had more time reserved with the master. The very next day we continued with munewari, the front of my torso.

I had only a backpiece for just one day. [See an image of that backpiece here.]

I commented to Horiyoshi III that tattoos are addictive, and he corrected me:

"Tattoos are not an addiction; they are a collection.  A tattoo collector is just like a conventional art collector who buys a painting, hangs it on the wall, and then moves on to acquire the next, unique piece.

Tattoo collecting is a spiritual pursuit, while addiction is a physiological need.  Addicts repeatedly take the same drug over and over without limit.  A tattoo collection has variety, and it has an end.  Once you collect the whole set, you're done.

As you complete your tattoo collection, you yourself become art."


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

08:00 AM

John Mack offers another guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII.

In a comment to my last post, a reader inquired about the difference between machine and the tebori (hand poke) tattooing. I was just going to tell you about that.

As for how it feels, the location matters much, much more than the method. The main sensory difference is the sound and cadence of tebori. After this video above of Horiyoshi III doing tebori winds up to full speed, I can almost feel it myself.

Horiyoshi explained that it is the result attained after about four years that makes the biggest difference. He said that a machine works best for outlining because its precise, thin line does not spread over the years while tebori does spread into soft, smooth gradients ideal for shading. He had an almost poetic way of stating it in Japanese that went something like, "The disadvantage of one method is an advantage in one application, and the disadvantage of the other method is an advantage in the other application."

Horiyoshi then commented, "You like tebori better, don't you, John-san." This man can see right through me. I guess I do like tebori, not because it feels any better, but because it's a rarer and more authentic experience that yields a superior result. Both methods use needles, and getting stuck with needles hurts.

For the past few years, Horiyoshi has used a machine exclusively. When I asked about this, he said that as one ages, it becomes difficult to perceive fast-moving objects. He dramatized by waving his hand past his face, then making a mystified expression as if he had missed something.

As you can see in the video, your skin moves around quite a bit during tebori, but with a machine, it stays relatively stationary. So, no more hand tattooing for this master.

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.
08:05 AM
horiyoshi III backpiece.jpgJohn Mack is back with another story about getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part I Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI.

During the first years of my visits to Horiyoshi III, all manner of tattoo devotees were constantly present: foreign and domestic apprentices, Horiyoshi's clients, Horitomo and his clients, journalists, even graduate students researching their masters thesis or doctoral dissertation.

Quite a few of the apprentices and clients I recognized from photographs in the various books about Horiyoshi's work. This photo of was taken by Mr. Handa, who appeared in Takahiro Kitamura's book Bushido: Legacies of Japanese Tattoo. This book influenced my tattoo choices, and here was one of the characters from the book taking pictures of my tattoos! What a role reversal. [See a larger image of the above on Flickr.]

Everyone took advantage of the opportunity to brandish their tattoos. Japanese of many occupations change clothes for work, which allowed the apprentices to show more skin, and of course we clients had to expose our tattoos. Outside the studio, tattoos could be displayed only at public baths and once a year at festivals, so this was a welcome respite from the disapproval lurking out there in the real Japan.

Everyone was polite, yet quite interested to see each others tattoos in progress. When I undressed, those present would take the opportunity to scrutinize me. Privacy was not a part of this experience. Nonetheless, I became accustomed to it, and I too was able to observe many superb tattoos.

johnmack07_tattoomaster.jpgAround 2007, the scene changed. The hangers-on were gone, and Horiyoshi and I were regularly alone during my appointments. Journalists, sensing the the opportunity to record the end of an era, descended on the studios, where Horiyoshi welcomed them. I found it interesting to listen in on the interviews and even got the opportunity to comment myself.

Once in 2008, I arrived at the tiny Isecho studio to find it jammed with photographic equipment, a columnist for Tattoo Master magazine, an interpreter and a photographer. They took this fine cover photo for the Spring 2009 issue right there in that tiny room.

The mix of clients has changed over the years as well. In the early years of my experience, most appeared to be construction tradesmen, followed by non-Japanese, then Yakuza.

In 2009, I mentioned these changes in clientele to Horiyoshi and asked about the current mix. He gave the following estimate by profession:

  • * 60% Craftsmen and tradesmen. I found that many of these clients were themselves tattooists.

  • * 10% Yakuza.; Horiyoshi added that there are other tattoo artists whose clientele is almost entirely Yakuza.

  • * 30% Other.  "You're in this category, John-san," he told me with a grin.

As for nationality, 30-50% are non-Japanese. "In fact, today all appointments are with foreigners," Horiyoshi commented one Saturday in 2009.

Rather than the mark of the Yakuza, these days a traditional Japanese bodysuit just might be the mark of a "foreigner."

Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos. As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.
08:07 AM
Here's John Mack with another story about getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

The client before me inspected his freshly colored skin in the mirror while gingerly dabbing it with a tissue. He and Horiyoshi III were discussing the motivation for getting tattooed as I listened with interest. I understood the main idea, but I knew there was more. So the next chance I got, I asked him for clarification. Here is what he said:

We get tattooed for our own self satisfaction, but just like any social animal, people crave having an impact on others.  When your tattoos are recognized by other people, you see their reaction, which in turn makes you feel good.  If you lived alone on a deserted island where nobody else could see your tattoos, then they would be much less interesting.

It's just like anything else in life.  We do things like work primarily to support ourselves, but we also live in a society, where we like to see our career success recognized by others.

This opportunity to ask a master at the top of his craft anything I want has been one of the supreme pleasures of my life.

Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos.  As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.
12:26 PM

lincoln tattoo.jpg
Today is President's Day in the US, a day to honor Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, and most of us do so by spending bills emblazoned with their portraits in the big sales going on. And then there are those like DeShawn Stevenson of the NBA's Wizards who just take it a little too far. [I'd prefer the Benjamins.]

But despite the large image I stole above, today's news review ain't about bad baller tattoos. It's largely about insanity like tattooing babies, magic Buddhist ink, augmented reality tattoos and more. Let's get to it...

The most horrific is the news about an Ohio man who tattooed a one-year-old baby. Yes, a baby. The mother was visiting his home, and in some inexplicable moment, he tattooed a dime-sized letter "A" on the baby's buttocks.  

We've all heard of shops getting shut down for tattooing minors, most recently in South Dakota, and facing fines like new regs proposed in Maryland -- but never something as mind-blowing as this.

I have no more words here on this -- I can't even wrap my head around it -- so let's cleanse that image with more positive headlines...

Tattmandu Tattoo Studios in Colorado has raised over $5,000 in their "Ink for Haiti" charity as clients lined up around the block yesterday for the studio's heart tattoo special.

Finally, a positive spin on tattoos in the workplace:  The Portland Tribune reports that tattoos are becoming more acceptable at work, even in corporate offices. The article goes on to say that Portland maybe be ousting San Francisco as the nation's tattoo mecca. Here are the stats:

"A city-by-city survey of tattoo shop listings bears out Portland's standing. San Francisco has a population of about 808,000 and 70 tattoo shops listed in its Yellow Pages. Portland's population is 580,000 and it has 73 shops. Seattle has only 40 shops and Phoenix 36. Los Angeles lists 167 shops, but its population of 9.8 million is more than 10 times that of Portland. On a per-capita basis, Portland has far and away more tattoo shops than any major city in the country."  

Even USA Today is getting in on the art's popularity with their new Tattoo Tuesday column where readers share their tattoo stories.

That's not to say that visible tattoo bans at work will all go away any time soon. We've talked at length about dress codes and tattoos for military, police, firemen, and other public workers in the US but it's an issue discussed around the world. Recently, in Denmark, prison guards were told that "visible 'biker gang type' tattoos on the hands, arms, neck and head are in this way not desirable." The problem is that officials have not defined what exactly is a "biker tattoo" and how new tattoo guidelines would be implemented.

And in Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard decried the country's "raunch culture," saying that many heavily tattooed women were "making a mistake." She added: "I worry for them. How they're going to feel about it in the future." Well, Gillard should worry about her own political future in underestimating tattooed women as active voters. In many countries, politicians feel they can get away with such statements because they assume our anarchic lifestyles and rampant drug use keep us from the polls. We'll continue to prove them wrong.

In the magical and "augmented reality" front of tattooing ...

Buddhist tattoos are gaining popularity in Singapore, not just for their beauty, but for what some believe are their mystical powers. At least that's what a sales rep from a company specializing in Sak Yant tattooing says. Speaking to the press at the Singapore Tattoo Convention, he added: "Sak yant is now widely embraced by the general population because of people's need for a form of spiritual support, aided by the social acceptance of tattoos."

Finally, the magic of having animated characters come to life on your skin has been created by Think an App in Buenos Aires. Geeky Gadgets explains: "The software technology recognizes AR bar codes on curved surfaces, the tattoo looks like a very simple and boring square until viewed through a camera." Here's video of it below:

And with that I'll leave you to enjoy your own wild reality.
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