On May 22 the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan held a “sub-culture night” centered around the Japanese traditional method of tattooing, featuring master artist Horiyoshi III, his son, and two of his students. A big square futon wrapped in clean white sheet lay on tatami mats in front of the head table.
The night began with an introduction of two of the master’s admirers from Europe: Horikitsune (Alex Reinke) and Senju Horimatsu (Matti Sedholm), both serious tattoo artists in their own right. Horiyoshi III, wearing a light blue suit, joined them on stage and embarked on a history of tattooing in Japan.
It seems tattooing, called irezumi or horimono (body-suit tattoo) in Japanese, has enjoyed a long history that has seen its popularity crest and crash several times. Horiyoshi detailed the story, which dates back to ancient times. Citing two dusty and stained tomes he brought with him, he spoke about the various reasons people tattooed themselves in the past. Apparently it’s written somewhere that 500 Buddhist monks got tattoos at one point, a fact the artist has his doubts about, due to the proscription of cosmetic alterations to the body under Confucian doctrine.
Horiyoshi also noted the often-quoted fact that at times prisoners were forcibly tattooed, sometimes on their face. Still more interesting was the fact that, besides yakuza (organized criminals), tattoos have enjoyed popularity among the common people at several periods in Japanese history, always ending with an official edict from the shogun that marked a period of decline. Despite a total of four prohibitions of tattooing over time, both tattoo artists and the people who sport their designs have managed to survive and thrive up to the present day.
Next the two European artists spoke about their own involvement with tattooing. Mr. Reinke, a student of Horiyoshi III, talked about his early interests in Buddhism and his decision to travel to Japan to meet the master. Mr. Sedholm spent nearly ten years as a tattoo artist in the Western tradition, drawing what he called “robots and monsters, easy images with very little meaning.” Once he was exposed to the work of Horiyoshi III, he sensed the deeper cultural reverberations in the folk images and the stories they told. Both artists testified to the growing celebrity of Horiyoshi III abroad, calling him “Japan’s No. 1 ambassador of tattooing to the world.”
Next came the tattoo fashion show, featuring six models proudly wearing Horiyoshi III’s art.
Body of Work
After the fashion show Horiyoshi gave a live demonstration for about eight minutes. FCCJ video cameras projected detail of the work on screens at either side of the room as the master’s right arm worked smoothly back and forth, embedding red ink into the outline of a flower on the shoulder of a female model. Later he showed a collection of implements – older, unhygienic bamboo needles, early bauxite prototypes of his own design, and finally, the sterile tools that he uses today.
It was a fantastic night—a chance to hear a master artist not only speak about his work but perform it, and a chance to see finished products as well as works-in-progress. At one point near the beginning of the fashion show, one of the models who spoke English said that until four years ago, he’d been a high school teacher. He’d had no piercings or tattoos of any kind, but after seeing Horiyoshi’s work, he decided to get a full body-suit. It took two years to complete. “I’m a bit jet lagged,” he said, having just returned to Japan that day from an international competition that he’d won. He presented Horiyoshi III with the trophy.
Despite the connection between yakuza and traditional tattooing in Japan, it seems there is yet another surge of average people who have fallen in love with the art. The models were a reminder—their nervousness was evident from the start, especially the two women, who exposed goodly sections of their posteriors to exhibit Horiyoshi’s work. After the modeling section of the evening was done, the models left the room, but returned at the end in regular clothes to take a bow. The massive applause they received from an appreciative crowd of journalists and aficionados unravelled their tension into huge smiles. It was somehow the most gratifying part of the evening.
Earlier on, Horiyoshi III spoke of the bond that grows between artist and patron that exceeds a simple business relationship. Over long months and years the artist inserts his work slowly into a living canvas through thousands of small wounds. The models’ pride in the process and connection to the art was every bit as on-display as the work itself. They were not unlike a family, joined by ink and the choice to wear ancient stories, myths and legends, all animated by Horiyoshi III, the paterfamilias.