Horiyasu - The Perfectionist

Published: 29 April, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 224, April, 2013

In the traditional downtown area of Tokyo, Asakusa, is the studio of one of Japan’s top traditional tattoo artists. Horiyasu’s work is nothing short of breathtaking – the compositional perfection of his work, the sophisticated use of colour, and the bold line work is indicative of his absolute mastery of the art form.

To see his work in the flesh is to witness and appreciate the exquisite power and elegance of Japanese tattooing work at its finest. Horiyasu is also known for his laid back, charming personality, and is one of the most respected artists in the Japanese tattoo industry.

When did you first see a Japanese tattoo, and what were your impressions?

"When I was around nine or ten years old; I was in a sento (public bath). Even during that time it wasn’t common that you would see tattooed people in pubic baths, as there was a separation in society between people in criminal organisations and ‘regular’ citizens. The impression it left was, how would you say it – extremely powerful – it had a lot of emotional impact, and I got a more cumulative interest in tattooing after I started getting them myself."

When you saw the tattooed person, did you instantly assume it was a yakuza member?

"Well, this is in the Kansai prefecture 50 years ago, and that world was entirely separate to ‘normal’ people. Even so, it looked very cool, I think it is something that resonates to the Japanese soul, even from that young age."

When did you first get tattooed yourself?

"When I was 20 or 21 years old? When I was in Kofu prefecture, and I was doing morning baseball, my colleague removed his shirt and was tattooed. The feeling of attraction I had to Japanese tattoos since I was a child was revived, and I asked where he had it done. The illustration and outline was probably Horiyoshi II and Horiyoshi III was doing the colour gradations. It was done donburi style and was really powerful."

Isn't that kind of lucky you went to a master straight away?

"Yes, ha ha… maybe it is a good coincidence and good timing. During those times, Japanese traditional tattoo artists were limited in number; it’s not like now, where there are plentitudes of artists. It was a really specialised job and it was something that was considered to be a level much higher to regular artists, and even within these brilliant artists, Horiyoshi II’s name really stood out."

During those times, it’s not like you look in the telephone book and call the tattoo master, how did you initially meet Horiyoshi?

"Oh, I had to receive an introduction via my friend."

What is the difference between Horiyoshi II and Horiyoshi III’s work?

"Horiyoshi II illustrations were similar to that of Shodai Horiyoshi, whereas when it went to Horiyoshi III, the colours, illustrations and tattooing style changed dramatically. The colours were more brilliant, and he was able to utilise a wider variety of motifs in the illustrations, coupled with his outstanding technical skill."

Is it true that you used make samurai swords before becoming a tattoo artist?

"Yes, I was a sword smith for 16 years, starting when I was 21 years old, a year after I started getting tattooed. I was in Iwate prefecture at the time. My friend who was the friend of the sword smith asked me to help him. At the time I liked swords too, I collected them.

"I would go around eight in the morning and you can’t use a (electric) light because the blade reflects sunlight, so using the early morning soft sunlight, ’til night you would sharpen blades. Therefore, during the summer, you can work for longer, until six, and during winter, you can only work ’til four. I was working without electric lights the whole time."

What exactly does the work entail?

"Polishing the blades, removing things like rust and rendering the shape beautifully, and to show the exquisite nature of the surface. I think to show this beauty is the skill and talent of the sword smith."

Who was buying blades?

"Hobbyists, similar to collectors, however they are extremely expensive, both the blades themselves and to pay for me to sharpen the blade. The blade itself, the sky is the limit – there are some that are worth millions and some that are priceless, the oldest ones are from the Heian period, around 1300."
How long were you doing this for?

"15 or 16 years."

How long did you want to be a tattoo artist for?

"Since I was getting tattooed myself, but I went into the blade apprenticeship first. However, blades are a luxury and if there are no clients, you can’t survive, no matter how skilled you are. When I was starting there were many blades, but for 15 or 16 years, that really dwindled. It is sad, but you change gears and move onto the next thing. Subsequently, I moved into the direction of tattooing and I also think that is a good thing too."

Did you find it psychologically challenging to go from being a sword smith with great skill for 15 years, and then to go back to starting from scratch as a tattoo artist?

"Yes very much so, however because I was working with blades, the notion of working with needles and to sit all day wasn’t that hard to transition into."

How did you learn?, I’m guessing not by looking on the internet and buying tattoo kits online!

"I was learning myself, but I didn’t know where to get machines, colours, needles… I didn’t know anything. But in Morioka city there was a horishi who is a bit older, and I was going to him and watching and learning. After a year I was able to obtain a machine, although at first I was doing it by hand (tebori). I was introduced to Gifu Horihiro and he told me how to set up the needles and how the machine moves. I went from Iwate prefecture to Gifu prefecture numerous times to learn. He did the outlines and the colour with a magnet machine, the rest by hand. When I saw the speed in which he works, I was astounded.

"Eventually, by watching these masters, I started to make my own machines."

When did you start to achieve the compositional perfection of your work?

"Ha, ha, it’s not perfect! I started to feel comfortable after around ten years, the machine configurations are really difficult, and you are never satisfied with your work. Until the day you die, you are perpetually training.

"Last year I started to use a coil machine. I went to Gifu Horihiro’s place and he switched to a coil machine, even though he is ten years older than me and I was really impressed by his work ethic and his perseverance. He can work quickly and the gradations are well done as well, and so taking a cue from that, I started as well."

Has your work changed as a result?

(jokingly) "Yes, the machine is so fast my hands can’t keep up and tattoo straight lines!"

When did you start working as a tattoo artist, and who were your initial clients?

"16 years ago, in Asakusa, although I was tattooing out of my house for a few years before that in Ibaraki prefecture. Because I opened a studio in a suburb I didn’t know anyone; a lot of my clients at the time were from other prefectures and saw my work in a magazine, or things like this. Asakusa is rife with yakuza, but they don’t really come to me. As local gang members they go to tattoo artists that have been around for a long time in the area that the syndicate already has relationships with. It’s not like I am separating, nor denying them though.

"As a result, I have mostly craftsmen, architects, construction workers, artisans and drivers coming to me. Historically, construction workers thought tattoos were cool, and dapper, and I think it is a continuation of this. I think for these types of artisanal people with Japanese blood flowing through them, if they see Japanese tattoos, they begin to want them."

What kind of motifs do these craftsmen want?

"Human characters like those from suikoden, samurai characters, dragons and carps. They like the story, as well as the aesthetics."

How about women?

"In my case, the most common case is that the husband is fully tattooed and then the wife gets work as well, but it’s pretty rare I tattoo women, especially as I don’t tattoo small pieces at all.

"Generally, it’s getting more mainstream and I am getting younger people who are beauticians, hairdressers, or whatnot. The perception of people in crime organisations getting tattoos, or people in the shadows is diminishing. It’s getting more fashionable. Conversely, the restrictions of people with tattoos in places like pools, hot springs, gyms is getting worse – some beaches are banned."

Isn’t it ironic that tattoos are getting fashionable and acceptable but the restrictions on tattooed people are getting worse?

"Yes, basically a really small amount of tattooed people commit crimes and then there is a tendency for everyone who has tattoos to be considered to be a criminal. However the reality is, people who don’t have tattoos are also committing a lot of crimes!"

What are the fundamental differences between Japanese and Western tattoos?

"Wabori is something traditional, so there are lots of meanings that go with it. As the body is a whole canvas, there is a tale for each piece. Ukiyo-e woodblock illustrations are the basis, and the background, such as the clouds, and water is of paramount importance.

"I use the work of Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, Kunitoshi. The work I use the most for reference is Kuniyoshi – it is intense and there is a movement in the work."

Why do your clients get tattooed?

"I was touched by some people, someone who lost their kid to a car crash, or fatally sick, they put their after-death name, then an image of Kannon. They can change their lives like this. Tattoos can be somewhat lighthearted, you can get them as souvenirs, but many Japanese put them in often at a turning point, like if they lose a kid, and can’t move on, when things are tough. During times like this, they often insert ink to make them strong."

How does this make you feel?

"I feel a lot of responsibility as a result. But because I feel responsibility I make sure each line is given my fullest attention. When I am tattooing I can forget everything and become immersed. I can feel fulfillment, and the client’s joy."


Text & Photography: Maki