Horiyoshi III, is probably the world’s most famous tattoo artist and, unlike your average tattoo gun wielding North London monkey, the title ‘artist’ is more than apt. Somerset House are currently holding an exhibition of his silk paintings – Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III. These stylized depictions of both natural and mythic worlds are simplistically transparent and deceptively alluring. Tattoo art endures on the skin giving it potentially immense evocative power, yet it so often misses the mark spilling past taboos into the tacky and commonplace. In Japan illustrating the body tells a different story akin to the intrigue of these silk paintings.
Traditional Japanese culture, further encumbered by the hefty linguistic barrier, is notoriously impenetrable to outsiders, making Horiyoshi's world seem planets away. To help bridge this distance I spoke to German Alex Reinke or, as Horiyoshi III himself calls him, 'Horikitsune' - ‘the tattooing fox’ (fuck yeah!). Alex is Horiyoshi’s second apprentice in the Yokohama studio (the first being his son) and the only Westerner fully trained in traditional 'tebori' methods. Tebori uses an instrument of bamboo and needles to manually drive ink into the skin and has been done the same way since late 18th century.
Tattoos took off in Japan as early as 10,000 BC in variant guises including the Ainu women, who strikingly tattooed their faces in imitation of their Gods. Social attitude towards the art form has oscillated dramatically with a tempestuous relationship to notions of criminality and menace.
At times used to demark criminals in a practice similar to the Roman branding of slaves, tattoos once signified persecution from mainstream society. As the practice died out, covering the marks gave rise to tattoos as decoration. Skin art has gone through periods as fashion statement and status symbol, but never lost its link to the underworld and subclasses. Only legalized in 1948, Irezumi are still banned from public gyms and hot springs. The Yakuza has a lot to answer for this.
Like Jedi, the elite tattoo craftsman are live-in apprentices to their masters for years of hard graft and ‘a feudalistic relationship’, learning an insanely skilled trade. When they’ve earned their stripes the master awards them with a title - ‘Hori’ the prefix of Horiyoshi's title, literally translated means ‘to carve’ - pretty darn cool. These sparse wiki-gleaned nuggets of info were enough to inspire a quasi-mythic awe around Japanese tattoo art for me, so I asked Alex whether this was romanticized bullshit.
Horiyoshi III(first row third from left) with the Yukuza
Alex: "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."
Perseverance is a must – Horiyoshi III inks up lots of foreign celeb clients (Alex wasn’t giving away any names, but Antony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers is one known customer) who patiently endure six month waiting lists. A full body irezumi requires sacrificing your body as a canvas for an hour weekly for two years; this is no drunken mistake but an intense commitment or, as Alex puts it, ‘a serious tradition for serious people’. Designs and motifs come from mythology and the season chosen for each body suit dictates the nature of the decoration.
Alex: "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."
Though Californian tattoo king Don Ed Hardy introduced Horiyoshi to electric needles back in the seventies, many still opt for the tebori. This may sound like ritualized torture but aficionados argue that it is more organic as the ink 'lives' below the skin, evolving with the wearer. Some of these deceptively elegant instruments are on display at Somerset House, but however you dress it up, the price of an irezumi is evidently major agony.
Though Yakuza clients have waned and businessman are now sporting irezumi, the taste of the profane is clearly still a major draw. Having a full body suit is to flirt with danger and celebrate bravado. Practitioners and theorists alike argue that criminality is part of the essence of tattoo art, which celebrates counterculture. Taking that away perhaps dilutes the whole tradition and for this reason many hope for tattoos to remain unaccepted by the mainstream. I asked Alex about society’s attitude towards tattoos.
Alex: "In Japan, unlike in the West, the shock factor of tattoos has not vanished as the reasons to get tattoos are very different. In the West, a tattoo underlines your individuality but it Japan the practice connects you to a group – it may delineate your involvement with a gang like the Yakuza so it is very much an expression of collective identity. In the past ten years however this is changing and all sorts of people are having irezumi to express themselves.
The reaction towards showing tattoos in public [FYI - even irezumi are designed so as to be concealed below traditional Japanese clothing] is still extreme and can constitute others leaving the room or changing train cabin. This is because if Yakuza show theirs it is a sign of aggression designed to intimidate."
It seems then, that inking in Japan intriguingly straddles respectability and criminality. There is a web of implication in regards to individual and collective identity – a bold statement concealed below the clothes, brimming with hundreds of years of folklore yet personalized to the contours of each individual’s skin.
With traditions breaking down, underground body modification scenes have began to crop up in Tokyo, including the bagelhead trend which sees young people injecting saline into their foreheads (see below). I asked Alex for his opinions on these fads and whether it is replacing the thrill of subversion associated with tattoo art.
Alex: "A psychological factor plays a big role and we live in a rather twisted world where there is an inner need and necessity to be different from others. The ‘freaky’ body modification scene is hard for me to understand and upsetting as a conservative tattooist – it is not healthy. I think it is the logical outcome of a society that has evolved in a stunted way, tolerating things that were once deemed outrageous but retaining their disdain all the same."