As sadly we now live in the age of the disclaimer I must state this before going any further: all the answers to the FAQ on this page are solely the opinions of the author of this website and are nothing else.
1. Can you direct me to a traditional Japanese tattoo artist in America?
This is by far and away the most common question I am asked; I’m afraid the answer is, I can’t. I do not know of any in America or in any other part of the world other than Japan.
2. Where can I read more about traditional Japanese tattoos in English?
Some of the books in English available at the moment are at best misinformed, full of errors or sensationalised to the point of tackiness. At the moment I cannot name a single exhaustive, academic horimono reference in English that is both robust and informative in the way that the Japanese book Bunshin Hyakushi is.
3. Aren’t tattoos in Japan the mark of yakuza organised criminals?
Unfortunately Hollywood, Western and Japanese writers and the media have portrayed Japanese tattoos in a very negative light; note how many so-called reference books and tattoo experts talk about ‘yakuza tattoos.’ Just because many yakuza are tattooed does not mean those who are tattooed are yakuza – in most countries of the world tattoos are common among the criminal element of society. In America many crack whores and paedophiles have tattoos, however, people do not call them ‘crack whore tattoos’ or ‘paedophile tattoos.’ I believe the same applies to horimono. A visit to any tattoo artist’s studio in Japan should instantly dispel this misconception.
4. How do I make the bamboo needles for tebori? Or where can I buy them?
In the wrong hands, a lot of damage can be done with them. They are not made or sold like a kit or a toy. Most tattoo artists jealously guard their own special way of making their tools.
5. Does tebori hurt more than a machine?
It is a matter of opinion. Certainly the skin heals quicker, and there is less inflammation and bleeding than machined work, but the pain lasts for several days and the skin feels ‘bruised’ rather than ‘burnt’ since the needles used are different and have to be forced into the skin by human strength alone. In very sensitive areas such as under the arm or the backside, the pain is enough to make some people quit altogether.
6. Where can I see photographs of traditional Japanese tattoos?
Keibunsha‘s books are expensive but in my opinion are the gold standard.
7. Can you translate my name/word/phrase into kanji?
Kanji tattoos have absolutely nothing to do with horimono and you are wasting your time here. There are plenty of American companies on the internet who will sell you a lovely photocopied kanji ‘translation’ of your name for money. I suggest you look using Google for such people and do not return to this website.
8. Can you give me the names of some other websites or books about horimono?
9. I am considering travelling to Japan to get tattooed. How much do most artists charge and how long does it take to complete a tattoo?
The industry standard at the moment among traditional artists is 15,000 yen an hour. Depending upon the artist, and whether or not you choose to have tebori (increases time by about 60%) the time it takes differs. A complete body tattoo can take from about 80 to 200 hours. Most artists work in 2-hour shifts. A fairly standard routine is a two-hour session, once a week, for a year or so.
10. Please give me directions to the tattoo artist ………’s studio in Tokyo
If you cannot speak Japanese to at least the 2nd Level of the Japanese Proficiency Examinations (Nihongo Nōryoku Shiken) then you are best advised not to go alone and instead to take a native Japanese speaker with you to visit the artist. This will avoid any serious problems resulting from language misunderstandings or cultural differences. The ideal situation is to ask someone who has already been tattooed by that artist who can take you there in person.
11. I am living in Japan and am looking for a good tattoo artist in my area
Try the magazine ‘Burst,’ available in all bookshops. The ‘Tattoo Burst’ special editions out every month have studio listings in all parts of the country. Or ask a person with tattoos you like where they got their work done.
12. Please write my name ‘Colin’ into your writing
Please refer to FAQ number 7.
13. Who is the best artist in Japan? Who is best avoided?
The best artist is a matter of opinion. It depends on which style you prefer, Kansai or Kantō. My recommendation is to have a look at the Keibunsha/Jitsu-wa Document book/CD-ROM entitled ‘1000 Tattoos’ which shows colour photos of work by over 100 current Japanese tattoo artists. For tattooists who should be avoided, anyone who advertises in English language magazines, or uses the words ‘parlor’ or ‘American Tattoo’ in their description of their studio, I think is best avoided if you are looking for real horimono.
14. If I travelled to Japan to be tattooed, would an artist be prepared to tattoo just a small part of my body?
15. How do you make sumi ink?
Good quality solid (not liquid bokuju) sumi, usually sakura from Kobaien, is ground in a suzuri in water until the right consistency is achieved. Some artists then add small amounts of green soap, ethyl alcohol, glycerol or witch hazel – these ingredients are a matter of preference. A stick of sakura brand sumi costs about thirty dollars; higher quality brands suitable for tattooing such as baikaboku or itsutsuboshi cost about a hundred dollars each. Beware of Western tattoo suppliers selling inks under the names of ‘sumi shading ink’ or ‘kurosumi.’ Yet again greedy American companies are quick to exploit a famous name to make money. As much as they might assure you it is the real thing, it is not. Firstly, the cost of making amounts as large as 500ml of liquid sumi would far outstrip the retail prices of these goods that one sees advertised. Secondly it is made from pine, which is a Chinese method of manufacture. Lastly, real sumi is perishable and cannot be stored for longer than about a day; this is because the binding agents in it are derived from vegetable oils and glue which are unstable in solution.
16. In horimono, what is the meaning of koi carp?
Koi represent endurance and strength – they can live as long as humans and are said to be very persistent. Their whiskers also represent wisdom, and fresh blood drawn from a koi is said to be a most potent tonic. Koi have the affections of Japanese people since they have been kept as pets for nearly 800 years. On the public festival known as Children’s Day, children fly tubular flags fashioned and painted like koi, in the hope that they too will grow up as strong and good as koi. The history of koi goes back further in China, where the legend of koi that migrate up the waterfalls of the Yellow River turn into dragons dates back to prehistory. In Japanese this is known as tōryūmon.
17. Where can I buy sakura sumi?
At the moment I know of only two places on earth where you can buy this brand: the Kobaien factory where they make it and their outlet shop, Sasakawa Bunrindō, both in Nara city, Nara Prefecture. Apparently they had a branch in Tokyo from many years ago but I have yet to locate it. They do not sell over the internet but I imagine Sasakawa sell most of their goods mail order over the telephone to anywhere in Japan. The shop is open everyday except Sunday. The factory holds more erratic hours of business (it’s closed all weekend and some Wednesdays) and sumi is only made for six months of the year.
Sasakawa Bunrindō Nara City, Sanjōdōri Suminaga-chō. Tel: (Nara 22)-4922
The two beautiful ladies who work the shop are very courteous and knowledgable, so if you make the effort and do some research beforehand, a visit to the shop is most rewarding.
If you use any kind of sumi for tattooing remember that it does go off quickly, so only make as much as you need each time you tattoo. And never use any form of liquid sumi or bokuju, as this contains many preservatives and caustic chemicals that are harmful to the body and quite unsuitable for tattooing.
On a recent visit to the Bonten family tattoo supply shop in Sakuragaoka, Yokohama Prefecture, I found they stock the Itsutsuboshi brand of Kobaien sumi. This is more expensive than sakura, made to a higher tolerance and containing a natural fragrance, but is perfect for tattooing purposes and will save you a trip to Nara if you live in the Kantō region.
I would recommend not using the sumi that is sold with calligraphy kits that are cropping up in Western art supply shops these days. The suzuri supplied often is made from stone that is too soft, resulting in stone dust in your ink, and the sumi is the cheapest possible Chinese-made stick that often contains animal or industrial oils and besides, has a horrible brown hue to it. Either way this sumi is not suitable for tattooing.