Results tagged “irezumi”

02:40 PM
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On the Dangerous Minds blog, a post entitled "Yakuza: Beautiful hand-painted vintage portraits of tattooed Japanese gangsters" naturally caught my attention. As I'm a big fan of the blog, I was surprised and disappointed to find the post to be seemingly a cut-and-paste history of Japanese tattoo traditions from a few internet resources, and also no attribution for the photos other than "via" links to sites that previously posted them.

One of the links was to this old Tokyo Telephone post, and that site led me to a source of the photos transferred online: the "Tattoo" Flickr album of "Okinawa Soba (Rob)." And here's where it gets good.

Rob scanned photos from prints, negatives, and books, researching the sources and also pointing out some interesting info behind his finds. For example, for the first photo posted above, he credits "The Tattooed Post Runner" [not identified as the criminal Yakuza as per Dangerous Minds] to Kimbei Kusakabe, photographed in Yokohama, circa late 1880s; photo No.88 in his 1893 Commercial Catalog. He further notes that the photos were printed from the same negative, but points out the vastly different tattoos. Then, my favorite part, he adds a little Q&A:

Q : Are these old "Japanese Tattoo" photos entirely fake ? Were the tattoos painted on photos of men who actually no tattoos on their bodies?

ANSWER : The men are tattooed FOR REAL. But their real Tattoo ART is covered over by the imagination and paint brushes of the studio colorists --- ART covered by ARTIFICE.


ANSWER : The old wet-plate collodian negatives were not very sensitive to the color of the real tattoos on the skin, and they were barely visible on the prints. In fact, they were sometimes so hard to see that the colorists just made up their own designs as they went along, each one coloring the photo differently, using their imagination to guide them!

Q : Can you trust that the tattoos painted on other old Japanese photographs are faithful to the real tattoos on the men's bodies???

ANSWER : NO !!! However, there were those times when the tattoos were visible enough, and the colorists conscientious enough, that the finished coloring work DID CONFORM to the underlying tattoos. Every print must be taken on an individual basis.
In other photos, you'll find more commentary on these hand-colored tattoo prints. It's definitely worth a look.

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07:02 AM
antonkusters_yakuza_060_L1002275.jpgantonkusters_yakuza_tattoo2.jpgantonkusters_yakuza_tattoo3.jpgThe Yakuza, Japanese organized crime families, have found their way onto this blog for many years because of the elaborate tattoos they wear, often created by masters of the craft. There is so much mystery, myth and lore surrounding the Yakuza that the tattoos are only just a part of the intrigue.

Seeking to better understand the Yakuza, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters went to Japan and, after gaining unprecedented access by one of the leading crime families, he spent two years photographing the underworld syndicate, from boardrooms to bath houses, including their tattoos. In 2011, Kusters published his book Odo Yakuza Tokyo, and most recently, The Economist created a short film about Kusters' project: Japan's Yakuza: Inside the syndicate.

The video, embedded below, has Kusters offering fascinating stories behind the images. The photographer also provides more on the project on his site:

YAKUZA is a personal visual account of the life inside an inaccessible subculture: a traditional Japanese crime family that controls the streets of Kabukicho, in the heart of Tokyo, Japan.

Through 10 months of negotiations with the Shinseikai, my brother Malik and I became one of the only westerners ever to be granted this kind of access to the closed world of Japanese organised crime.

I share their complex relationship to Japanese society, and show the personal struggle of being forced to live in two different worlds at the same time; worlds that often have conflicting morals and values.

It turns out not to be a simple 'black' versus 'white' relationship, but most definitely one with many shades of grey.

The book seems to be out of print at the moment, but the video is a great watch.

[Via BoingBoing]

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!

08:36 AM
Into_You_Wall3.jpgPhotos above and the portrait of Daisuke Sakaguchi below by Nick Delaney.

On view at London's iconic tattoo studio and art gallery, Into You, are fantastic new works by Daisuke Sakaguchi, from canvas paintings to skateboards, and also collaboration pieces, such as jewelry with The Great Frog; artful sex toys with Illicit Touch; and a gorgeous vintage Yamaha motorcycle with Black Skulls. It's an incredibly diverse collection, but with all pieces imbued with Sakaguchi's evident passion for Irezumi, traditional Japanese tattooing, and Ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese woodblock prints. The show closes this Thursday, October 21st, so head to Into You, from 12pm - 7pm, and don't miss it.

It's wonderful that an esteemed artist has teemed up with an esteemed tattoo studio, making his work accessible to all, especially as his art has been shown in quite exclusive venues. Just last year, Sakaguchi's stunning hand painted transformation of the 1935 BT Phone Box was auctioned at The National Portrait Gallery by Sotheby's, followed by his one off "Chikara" bicycle helmet being showcased and sold at the Legacy List 2012 exhibition at the Sotheby's London Gallery. He also created a collection of hand-painted limited edition Faberge African Ostrich eggs for Selfridges London.

Daisuke_Sakaguchi_eggs.jpgPhoto above by Nicola Saint-Marc.

Currently, Sakaguchi is learning to tattoo by master artist Alex "Horikitsune" Reinke, who has created stunning tattoos on Sakaguchi. I asked the artist about his tattoos and tattooing. Here's a bit from our chat:

Are you heavily involved in the design process of your tattoos?

In regards to me being a customer, I put forward the motifs that I would like along with the essence that I would like it to convey. However I give Alex the freedom to layout the placements and the composition. He knows best. As an artist and designer myself, I totally appreciate that a creative person needs the space and opportunity to execute the best work possible.

Have you ever been asked to design tattoos for another?

Yes, I have designed some small tattoos for friends of mine. I enjoy designing tattoos as well as creating paintings that are an expression on tattoo imagery. These are some of the reasons why I am very passionate about continuing to learn about the art of tattooing itself.

Daisuke_Sakaguchi.jpg As you've said, there is that strong influence of Irezumi and Ukiyo-e in your work. What was it particularly about these arts that drew you in?

As a Japanese man born and brought up in London, I had two upbringings. At home, both of my parents spoke to me in Japanese. At school, I spoke English. I learnt both English and Japanese cultures simultaneously. I am a fan of all kinds of traditional, modern, conceptual and visual art. It is Japanese art that I saw was so relevant to my blood line and ancestors from a symbolic perspective. It was also something that I was just naturally drawn to purely for it's beautiful aesthetics.

The more I looked at it, the more I wanted to research what all the motifs and stories meant and to see how I can incorporate these messages in to my own paintings and visual art work.

In addition to tattooing, Sakaguchi has some exciting upcoming projects: His friend, Wendy Meakin, the art collector and dealer, has recently purchased a vintage 1940 UK Test Bomb, and he will be painting on to the bomb to give it a brand new life. He says, "We love the idea of taking something that is a symbol of destruction and creating a new positive purpose for it. It will become a powerful peaceful statement piece. The test bomb will be reborn as the "Love Bomb"!"  Sakaguchi will also be collaborating with Steven Marlow to create a custom built and hand painted guitar.

If you can't make it to London to check Daisuke Sakaguchi's exhibit at Into You, you can get a taste from this 3-minute video (below), by Rino Pucci, of the opening.

Black, white and red / Daisuke Sakaguchi -- by Rino Pucci from Rino Pucci on Vimeo.

04:10 PM
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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.

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03:39 PM
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Prolific tattoo artist Paul Timman, who works at LA's famed Sunset Strip Tattoo, teamed up with San Diego housewares company Ink Dish to create tattoo-inspired tableware.

Paul has designed four different sets: Irezumi (shown above), Cherry Ink, Tattoo Lotus, and Tribal Lines. [The Irezumi line was featured in Metropolitan Home's Design 100 last year.] All are made of microwave and dishwasher safe 'A' quality porcelain.

You can buy the pieces as a set or individually online and at retailers including Fred Segal, the Walker Art Center, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, among many others. Price compare via Google Shopping.

For graffiti lovers, there's New York Delft and London Delft porcelain dinnerware collections by design team Lovegrove & Repucci shown below. They're having a sale now, so the five-piece set, complete with their carry case "FidoBag," runs you $100.

Bon appetite!

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01:10 PM
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The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has an exciting new exhibit on view until January: Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints. Here's a bit about the show:

"Tattooing became an important feature of Japanese urban popular culture in the early 19th century, influenced strongly by the success of a series of woodblock prints featuring Chinese martial arts heroes with spectacular tattoos, vividly imagined by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Tattoo artists copied designs from the prints and invented new designs that were, in turn, depicted in later prints.

Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints explores the social background, iconography, and visual splendor of Japanese tattoos through the prints that helped carry the art from the streets of 19th-century Japan to 21st-century tattoo shops all over the world."

The Hudson Sun applauds the show and offers further background (and highlights) on the prints, photos, manuscripts and other artifacts. One particularly interesting piece of info is this:

"Under the Skin" is surely the first exhibit at the MFA or any Boston museum inspired by a curator's new tattoo.

After having several bats, a Japanese symbol for good luck, tattooed on his shoulder a year ago, [curator Abraham] Schroeder said he and [assistant curator Sarah] Thompson began thinking about the complex role tattoos have played in Japanese art and culture.

In doing so, the exhibit goes beyond presenting beautiful works of art over the centuries but offers context and history for the viewers.

if you can't make it to Boston, MFA offers on online tour of Under the Skin here. A must see.

And for those in NYC, the Japan Society also has an exhibit on Japanese prints:
Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

[Thanks, David, for the link!]
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

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.
12:08 PM
Here's another great tattoo anecdote by guest blogger John Mack, an American who has been getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III for nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II,
and Part III.

Before sharing these stories here, I first related them to Horiyoshi III to make sure he felt they were accurate and appropriate for blogging. I also suggested topics that would be off limits, but he waived these restrictions and encouraged me to share all my experiences.

Horiyoshi had forgotten, or simply didn't notice, many of the events I found memorable. Telling my Horiyoshi stories to Horiyoshi himself was fun for both of us. Today's anecdote is the one that seemed to amuse him the most.

Around 2006, a foreigner was getting tattooed by Horiyoshi. In the West, it's customary for the client to receive detailed aftercare instructions, and so after his session, the foreigner looked puzzled when Horiyoshi finished without saying anything. Realizing it wasn't going to be offered, the client specifically requested instructions on how to take care of his new tattoo.

Horiyoshi replied in English, "Don't touch." 

It seems the Master (like our Editrix) subscribes to the LITFA school of tattoo aftercare.

Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos.  As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.
11:12 AM
Here's the third installment of a series of guest blogs by John Mack, an American who has been getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III for nine years. You can read Part I here and Part II here.

By John Mack

4560164655806_1L.jpgIn about 2004, Horiyoshi III was working on my back at the Isecho studio when in comes this Yakuza boss and his, um, assistant. It was apparent from his attitude, speech, and armed escort that he was a really big cheese.

I have mixed feelings about the relationship between the Yakuza and tattoos. I endure discrimination in Japan because of the association.

On the other hand, I owe a debt to the Yakuza for keeping traditional Japanese tattooing alive during that dark century before the current tattoo renaissance.

Anyway, the boss came to discuss a tattoo design with Horiyoshi. After he finished with that business, he turned his attention to me.

"That's a weird looking dragon," he commented.  I suppose he was referring to the acid trip proportions of my dragon.

The boss and his assistant leaned over me to further scrutinize my back. This was alarming, as I would rather not confront underworld figures while lying naked and prone on the floor.  Chuck Norris would never approve.

The boss quizzed Horiyoshi about other tattoos I might have on the front of me. Always eager to meet unusual people, I engaged them in a bit of chit-chat, but the boss was more interested in talking than listening.

After a while, they left. I had survived my encounter with the Yakuza. The only pain endured was that of the tattoo.

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

For more on tattoos and Japan's underworld, see this National Geographic video:

12:39 AM
Last week, we introduced you to John Mack, an American who has been getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III for nine years and is sharing some of those tattoo experiences in a series of guest blogs here. That first post caused some controversy in the comments section, and we continue to welcome your thoughts on this series (and all N+S posts). The photos in each post show a progression of the tattoo work as the stories go on. Here's Part 2.

johnmack02_earlyback.jpgBy John Mack

Having decided on Horiyoshi III to tattoo my back, I made plans to return to Japan in 2001 for my first sessions.

I vividly remember walking up the slope from the train station to the Isecho studio. These would be my last moments without an enormous tattoo in my skin. I waited in front of the bank as instructed, where Horiyoshi's son Kazu, then a teenager, came on a bicycle to meet me. He guided me to the famously obscure studio.

Once we arrived, I restated my specifications:  a dragon with black scales, red belly and yellow dorsal fins, full size with background. This was all the direction Horiyoshi needed. He rummaged around in a drawer labeled "Dragons" and pulled out a sketch of a dragon's head.

I lay down on the floor and he sketched something on me with a brush. He then prepared to tattoo whatever it was into my skin. I asked to first have a look. Horiyoshi seemed slightly taken aback, but motioned toward the sticker-encrusted mirror. I saw a dragon's face with a disturbingly huge claw next to it. I commented on the psychedelic proportions. 

"It looks cooler that way," he calmly assured me.

I assented.

You don't engage someone like Horiyoshi III and then second guess his artistic judgment. Especially if you are as artistically impaired as me.

When he started to outline my backpiece, I crossed that line, a line that over subsequent years would inexorably progress toward my extremities.

In my next guest post, I'll tell you about my encounter with a Yakuza boss there.

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

01:47 PM

Yesterday, 60 Minutes aired a feature on the Yakuza, Japan's own mafia, which you can watch in various video clips of online, including this one above.

And like most talk on the Yakuza, the program talked a good deal about their Irezumi, the full body tattoos that are a standard mark of Yakuza (other than "the smell of the wolf" that let's the criminal underground know when they are in the presence of one of their own).

It's an interesting article overall and some great video footage online. Worth checking out.

The one part of that tattoo discussion that got many viewers talking was this statement by Jake Adelstein, a Yakuza expert (but not a doctor):

"The tattoos are so dense that it's very hard to sweat, which means when you can't get rid of the toxins in your body, that's also very hard on the liver."

So I got a few emails and Facebook messages asking whether tattoos make us sweat less?

Like Jake, I'm no doctor, but I did some quick searching and found that Dr. Dawn Richardson has answered this question on Velo News. After giving a great explanation about the skin and how tattooing works, she then discussion tattoos and how they could affect sweat glands:

"I searched the medical and tattoo literature for a definitive answer on just how much sweat-gland damage occurs, and came up empty. I spoke with Tanya McKeehan from the American Academy of Micropigmentation. She insists that the dearth of medical information and research on such damage in tattooing is because there isn't any. There are about 100 sweat glands per square centimeter of skin, so it would be hard to imagine that all are damaged. I suspect that many of them survive intact. Those that are damaged may not function at 100 percent when healed.
I would recommend having major work done in the off-season to allow the skin ample time to heal and train back up to maximum sweat-gland function before [bike] race season. Even with a full suit, there are many bare areas that have no ink at all and are completely undamaged."
Just watching the beautiful heavily tattooed people running the NYC marathon yesterday past my apartment, I witnessed many a misty sleeve, so yeah, I'm gonna say it: Don't sweat it; your tattoos will not lead to liver damage.

What leads to liver damage more is a hard partying -- no stranger to the Yakuza lifestyle nor my Halloween Bash this weekend -- and so to stay healthy, I'll be laying off the booze more but not the tattoos.

Thanks, Lara, for the links!
12:37 PM
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Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi III is legendary for his exquisite full body suits, inspiring legions of tattooists worldwide. Naturally, getting an appointment with him is no easy feat, but now you can wear the artwork of Horiyoshi III without the trip to Yokohama.

His new clothing line, Horiyoshi the Third, has released their Men's Fall/Winter 2009 Collection and it's a sexy set of tigers, demons, and other traditional wood block print imagery -- without the bedazzlement of, say, an Audigier monstrosity. The line is produced in Japan on a limited run basis -- a lesson learned perhaps, after seeing how Ed Hardy's licensed designs were bastardized.

I particularly love the subtle extras like the Hanya pendants on the zipper pulls or the fine sleeve detailing. The accessories are also beautifully designed, but with the catalog link broken, I can't tell ya how much they'll hurt your wallet.

Read more about the collection on The Freshness Mag online.

You can purchase the clothing at Alan Bilzerian in Massachusetts and Brown's in London but I also found a number available on like the Dragon Head hoodie, the "Wall Street Ogre" hoodie and the White Snake tee.

Will have more on the Horiyoshi the Third brand, especially when the women's line comes out.
12:17 PM
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When I returned from Greece two weeks ago, I was greeted with a stunning coffee table book in the mail that instantly took me on another trip: SHIGE, the 328-page full color hardcover that is at once a personal journal and breathtaking exhibition of one of today's great Japanese tattoo artists.

Take a look at Shige's online portfolio and now imagine that properly showcased in 10x13" along with his stencils, paintings, photos from conventions and guest spots, and personal family photos.

Indeed, Shige's devotion to his wife and partner Chisato and baby girl Ayaka, is not only ever present in the book but in person at tattoo events; it's important to note because it offers a glimpse into the man behind the art -- art so masterful, it can be intimidating. But his warm smile and watching him play with Ayaka, whom I've watched go from stroller to toddling around conventions, puts clients at ease, allowing them to enjoy the full tattoo experience.

Beyond his character, Shige is known for a particular style of Japanese tattooing that pays homage to traditional artistic elements of Horimono but not a strict interpretation, bringing to his work many other influences.

In his foreword to the book, Master Horiyoshi III best describes Shige's work:

"Around 1994 Shige's work clearly shows that he was strongly influenced by Filip Leu of Switzerland. However, he read art books and studied about aesthetics from various art worlds. As a result, nowadays, Shige has created his own original world that merges elements of Japanese tradition and Western art elements. His tattooing has begun surpassing not only traditional tattooing but also art."

Horiyoshi III's  mention of Filip Leu is significant because Shige himself says in the book that meeting the third-generation tattooist changed his life. Shige never had an apprentcehsip and is a self-taught tattooer, but by getting tattooed by Filip and developing a friendship, he saw Japanese tattoo art in a different way -- that one "didn't have to conform to any particular style but could create freely and with his own imagination."

Many personal photos of Shige, Chisato and the Leu family illustrate the book -- my favorites are watching the process of Shige's own body suit by Filip.

yoko.jpgThese snapshots bring the reader in at the beginning of the book, engaging -- and endearing us -- to Shige but also prepares us for the stunning body suits and the personal stories of their wearers, like that of Yoko Uki, shown here (see more here).

A must read is Yoko's account of how she came to Shige for her full body suit, the difficult reactions she received in her native Japan, and how she found acceptance at international tattoo conventions, like the first one she went to in London in 2005. I remember running up to Yoko in the bathroom at that convention and completely devouring her artwork; she was so gracious turning around, lifting her arms, posing for pics, both of us giggling. Meeting her was the highlight of that show for me and she talks about how our appreciative response to her changed the way she lives with her Horimono.

That sense of community and belonging that, yes, still remains with us, is a thread that binds the Shige book, presented through the personal journey of one artist.

It was my own vacation, however, that led to this later posting on the book and so the hardcover is now sold out (and it sold out fast) BUT the paperback will be released in the Fall and I promise to give you heads up as soon as I get word from Horitaka of State of Grace who puts out the best books on tattoo.

Meanwhile, enjoy Shige's portfolio online or take a trip yourself to his Yellowblaze studio in Yokohama.
02:53 PM


Regardless of which side of the tattoo-art-crossing-over-into-the-mainstream fence you're on, let's at least agree that sometimes it's a good thing, especially when it's tasteful.

Paul Timman, a tattooer working out of the venerable Sunset Strip Tattoo in Hollywood (whose client list has included names like Jesse James and Rob Zombie) has recently been applying his handiwork to Ink Dish, a tableware line that marries some nice tattoo-inspired artwork with some classy-lookin' place settings. Available at a decent number of retailers, Timman's line of Irezumi work was recently chosen by Metropolitan Home as #2 in its Design 100 issue.

Here's what Paul had to say:

"I was excited about this project from the beginning. I knew that if we did our jobs well, we could bridge the gap between mainstream society and help to introduce tattooing into everyday life -- without the process of getting tattooed -- and hopefully give people an appreciation of tattoo art or even help to create a fondness for tattooing in general."

Check out where to buy here.

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