:: from Tokyo Journal Back Issue , Interview by Dr. D. Vice.
Art can quite literally get under your skin sometimes. Especially when applied under the pressure of up to 36 specially sharpened needles. Dr D. Vice visited the studio of top Japanese tattoo artist Horitoshi, looked into the eye of the needle, pricked up his ears, and finally got the point.
Dr D. Vice: When and how did tattooing in Japan get started?
Horitoshi: According to the “Gishi-wajin-den” (an ancient Chinese Wei dynasty account of the early Japanese), the people of the Japanese archipelago already used tattooing some 1200 years ago as a means to identify tribes or for religious reasons. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, used tattoos to prevent evil spirits from entering the human body.
Traditional Japanese tattoo, the art that I am practicing today, can be traced back about 300 years to the mid-Edo period. Back then, prisoners were being tattooed according to their crimes for easy identification. After their release, these ex-convicts would seek the services of specialists (irezumi-shi) who would tattoo flowers or other patterns over or around the prison marks in order to conceal their past. Over time more complicated patterns evolved, developing into elaborate full-body designs and finally becoming an art form. However, in the old days the ex-convicts as well as their tattooists were generally regarded as outlaws or yakuza.
It is only recently, through exchange with western-style tattoo art, that the traditional Japanese tattoo is being recognized as an art form and is slowly shedding its stigma.
ddv: Through these western influences getting a tattoo in Japan has become quite fashionable in recent years. Today you can see young kids, even young women, sporting all kinds of tattoos — all part of an ongoing body modification trend . . .
h: Yes, but these are mostly western-style tattoos done by machine that can be done within a few hours. That is completely different from what I am doing. Some of my full-body tattoos take up to five years to complete.
ddv: What about firefighters? Don’t they have some kind of tattoo tradition too?
h: In the Edo period many firefighters (hikeshi) had tattoos that were meant to protect them. Their work was quite dangerous, climbing up on roofs and high places to locate fires. They had to be very courageous, and tattoos were believed to raise their spirits.
ddv: What about the actual technique used in traditional Japanese tattoo?
h: Japanese traditional tattoo is all done by hand. However, due to contact with foreign tattoo artists I have recently started using machines for doing the sujibori (outlining work). The machine makes outlining easier and faster, and even allows for much smoother lines than would be possible by hand. All the rest, all the coloring and so on, I am still doing by hand. That’s why some of my more complex works can take several years to complete.
ddv: How did you become involved in this art?
h: I am originally from Sapporo, Hokkaido. The first time I came to Tokyo, I was only 15 years old. Very early on I started to get my own tattoos and most of the people around me had tattoos of one form or other.
I started in earnest to study the craft when I was about 21 years old. I basically learned it all by myself. A friend of mine, who had started irezumi two years before me, was also a good source of information and help. It took me ten years before I could support myself as an irezumi artist. And it took me even more years before I truly mastered the art.
ddv: Are you passing on your art to others?
h: My son, Horitoshi II, already operates his own studio. And at present I have about 17 deshi (apprentices).
Young people today can acquire their skills much easier than before. In my time, I had to work with trial and error, often using my own skin to try out some new technique or new type of pigment and so on. My friends and I also used to tattoo each other a lot, and in the process ended up with lots of mistakes. I had to do everything myself, looking for the most suitable type of needle, getting black ink, mixing the right colors, selecting designs. Today’s apprentices don’t have to worry about this. It’s all here. They just have to watch me work.
ddv: How do you select your deshi?
h: There is no exam or anything like that, but I do study an applicant’s resume and take a good look at them. I know by looking at a person if he is suitable to work under me. There is no point in having people that quit, so I am very careful to choose students that I feel will stay until they have fully mastered what I can teach them. Out of ten students there may be one who resigns within the first three years.
ddv: Are your deshi living with you?
h: My students only visit the studio for two or three days a week. Everybody comes at designated times on designated days. For example, this boy here [points to his attendant] comes to the studio today and tomorrow from 11a.m. to 11p.m. They all do other jobs to pay for their rent and food.
ddv: Any special curriculum for your apprentices?
h: For the first three months the new deshi must learn proper manners and etiquette. If I tell them to clean, they must clean. If I tell them to do this and that, they must do this and that. Next I teach them sterilization. After six months they may start actual tattooing under me. They will continue for another three years. Students who haven’t reached perfection after that may stay on for another two years.
Before, I did not let my students handle the needle for the first three years. All I taught them were manners and etiquette. Today, they handle the needle after six months by tattooing each other. They have an easier life now, except that they still have to stay here many hours.
ddv: Do many of your students open a studio of their own?
h: Not so many. There are only five or six that have done so. And then there is the “Horitoshi family” — one in Taiwan, and one in San Fancisco. Though they haven’t gone through the deshi system, they follow my style and I consider them like kind of younger brothers.
ddv: How do your customers find you?
h: A lot of it is by word of mouth, but people also contact me because they have read about me in magazine articles and like my style.
ddv: How do customers decide on a certain type of tattoo?
h: The first step is a meeting where they can look at my design samples. There is a common misperception that the kind of tattoo that I do can be done within a matter of hours or perhaps days. However, applying the tattoo by hand, just a few square centimeters actually requires an hour of painstaking work.
Then there are some customers who think they can get a full-body tattoo within a one-year period although in reality it will take about five years.
For example, the customer you just saw visits three times a week. He chose a design with nine dragons. He has already been coming here for over one year, and we haven’t even started the fifth dragon yet. It will take another year before I can start applying the color. Altogether this tattoo will take five years at the current pace.
ddv: How many customers are visiting you a day, and how much time do you spend with each?
h: Currently, I have three customers coming here three times a week, and then there are other customers that come at more infrequent intervals. Depending on my physical condition, I work on a customer for 60 to 90 minutes. I cannot spend too long on a customer because I have to attend several customers a day. For example, today I worked on the first customer for 90 minutes, then another for 150 minutes.
At my age, the appropriate workload is four customers a day, 90 minutes per customer, or six to seven hours a day. Some customers request sessions that last two or three hours, but I decline this as much as I can. Towards the end of such marathon sessions my concentration becomes less, and then I am not satisfied with the result of my work.
ddv: Do a lot of customers quit before the tattoo is complete?
h: A lot. Approximately 80% give up prematurely.
ddv: Is it because the customers are losing interest, are running out of money, or cannot stand the pain?
h: It takes a certain amount of character to endure the pain and to see the work to completion. After a few sessions I can usually see whether a person will be strong enough to finish what was started. Also, if a person cannot stand pain, then I cannot do a good job. It is very hard to do a good tattoo while the person wriggles and moans in pain.
ddv: How much does it hurt?
h: Very much. Do you want to try?
Another reason why people are quitting is that they are moving to a different part of Japan. In such a case they maybe seek out another hori-shi (traditional tattoo artist) in another town. In fact, some of my present customers’ tattoos were started by other hori-shi.
ddv: How many needles do you use?
h: It depends on the type of work and on the particular part of the body. It is anywhere between 5 or 6 to 35 or 36 needles.
ddv: Are there any work-related hazards to your health?
h: You get very tired from the work. Sitting on the floor for hours at a time, the knees become very tired. Actually, my knees have become so weak, that I can only walk a short distance before they start to give me trouble. The constant needling motion gives you stiff shoulders, and the wrist is also prone to inflammation.
ddv: How about your eyes?
h: Not so much. Anyway the eyes are going to get tired whether you use machines or tattoo by hand. It depends on how many hours you work.
ddv: Is it difficult to “draw” on a living, three-dimensional canvass?
h: Some hori-shi are using paper as a template on the skin. However, I draw completely freehand. Because my drawings are very complicated, they also make me tired very easily. In any case, the first task is the sujibori (doing the outlines). After that, the gradations and colors will follow.
ddv: Artists working in oil can usually change their mind and redo certain parts of their paintings without any penalty in terms of quality. But once ink is etched into skin, there is no return, is there?
h: Irezumi requires full concentration. You cannot allow the smallest mistake. A master at my level cannot make a mistake. Someone who tattoos his friend, and ends up drawing a hand with six fingers, can always apologize. But if a customer is paying money . . . !
ddv: What type of ink do you use?
h: Because people in Japan always used the same ink for writing, the black ink hasn’t changed much for the last 300 years.
ddv: Over the last 300 years, has anything changed at all?
h: The method of disinfecting has changed dramatically. In the Edo period, they used alcohol. Then, in the Meiji period they started sterilization by boiling. Nowadays sterilizers commonly used in hospitals are the norm.
ddv: What characterizes the design?
h: Many of the designs are based on stories taken from Japanese history and mythology. I want young people to always remember and appreciate traditional Japanese design. I don’t like to mix in western elements. I don’t want Japanese design to vanish. I want my students to inherit my style and respect traditional irezumi.
ddv: What about the colors?
h: Today, most of the pigments used for creating colors are imported. Maybe there are Japanese pigments, but it will take a long time before I can use them on my customers. I must try them on my own skin to test whether the color will fade. I need at least one year to test. Look here [Horitoshi shows his left leg full of color spots], I tested colors on my leg before. Young people today don’t have to do this.
ddv: Do you develop special relationships with your customers, after seeing them several times a week for many years?
h: I have a group called “Horitoshi-mutsumi,” people who have received a tattoo from me. We get together once a year or so. Of course not all customers will attend all the time. Out of 100 customers, perhaps only 20 or 30 people come.
ddv: Horitoshi sensei, thank you very much for your time.
h: You are welcome. tj
:: from Tokyo Journal Back Issue , Interview by Dr D. Vice.