The Japanese Tattoo

In the summer of 1982, in my New York studio, I photographed my first tattoo. Immediately after Adrienne arrived, she peeled off her sundress and displayed an exquisitely tattooed dragon down the length of her back. She told me, among other things, that for wedding presents she and her husband had given each other matching bat tattoos on their breasts. Adrienne also had rings in her nipples; she was exotic, and mysterious, and I was enthralled.

That fall I attended the opening of an exhibition of my photographs in Tokyo, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to pursue my newfound interest in tattoos. I knew that the Japanese had taken the art of tattooing to its extremes. Those with tattoos, the Irezumi, were a very secretive group of people, and finding them was my first problem. Their reputation as part of the underworld, and their underground existence, enhanced the obstacles to locating them. Ultimately, it was an American living in Japan, Donald Richie, himself an authority on the Japanese tattoo, who helped me make my initial contact. Following Japanese protocol, Mr. Richie was able to provide me with the customary introductions. He led me to Mitsuaki Ohwada, world-renowned tattoo artist, and my knowledge of Japanese tattooing really begins with my first visit to his studio.

Mitsuaki Ohwada knelt on the tatami-mat flooring next to the prone body of a barebacked young man. Beside him was a rack of sixty steel needles, some highspeed and electric, others spliced into bone, ivory, or bamboo handles tightly fastened with silken threads, and a tray of colors, inks, vegetable dyes, and pigments. Scarcely shifting his gaze from the man's back, Ohwada made instant choices. He took the smallest needles to prick an outline in black Nara ink (sumi) that turned blue as it perforated the living flesh. His light staccato jabs produced holes so tiny you would need a magnifying glass to see them. Later, to shade the lines he would choose thicker points, sometimes clustering his jabbings in superimposed rows, and dipping the needles in different hues—Indian red that glows brown beneath the translucent surface of the skin, Prussian blue, yellow, green. "Red is dangerous," he said, explaining that it contains cadmium, a tin-white metallic element that is risky to the body but makes a tattoo shine. Dot by dot, micrometer by millimeter, an exquisite pattern began to emerge from the quick, deft punctures.

The client lay motionless, meditating, it seemed, to counteract the pain of the needle, although I understand that nowadays most inks are laced with cocaine to deaden some of the feeling. In the intense quiet of the studio, so remote from the atmosphere of a Western tattoo "parlor," I thought of Ohwada more like an artist brush-painting a landscape or an ikebana sensei carefully arranging flowers. Within an hour the session was over. A square inch of a man's body had been indelibly changed for life. Like fine Japanese calligraphy, a tattoo captures an instant for all eternity. There is no going back, no doing it over again, no erasing of someone's mistakes.

That brilliant afternoon in Yokohama was a true introduction to the Japanese art of ire-zumi, literally "insertion of ink," or more classically and elegantly hori-mono, meaning a thing "carved," "sculpted," or "engraved." I left Ohwada's studio that day fascinated by the profound paradoxes inherent in the art. Here was beauty created through brutal means. Power bestowed at the price of submission. Delicate elegance attained by way of violence. And, as I would come to see more clearly as I entered deeper into the tattoo symbology of Ohwada's art, the glorification of the flesh as a means to spirituality.

During the next three years, when I could get back to Japan, I took photographs of tattooed men, and some of the very few tattooed women. Increasingly I found myself compelled by the strangely contradictory aspects of irezumi, stumbling unwittingly into some vast system of omen lore. In ancient Chinese and Japanese necromancy, I learned that the alternation of yin (female) and yang (male) principles controls all human affairs. The simultaneous dualism comprises opposing yet unifying forces of the universe where good and evil, heaven and earth, active and passive, light and dark all come to rest in balance and resolution. The reasons for a person to choose to be tattooed have been variously mooted by anthropologists, penologists, and psychiatrists: to entice good fortune or repel sickness and evil; to prove and display rank or status; to decorate oneself in an act of vanity or out of self-love. Now I was seeing firsthand the tattooer playing with combinations of belief, fact and fiction, transferring fleeting prayers into mortal permanence, disfiguring so as to adorn, and drawing equally from beauty and the grotesque. I saw the tattooee suffering abasement for some promised and supposed superiority, attaching himself to the superhuman by replicating on the canvas of his body the lures of faith, religion, legend, and popular—even vulgar—heroics and romance.

Of the hundred recognized practitioners of irezumi alive today in Japan, Mitsuaki Ohwada is perhaps the most skilled and knowledgeable. A number of examples of his work, some affixed to his own body, appear in the pages that follow. His professional name, and the signature he occasionally appends to his work since World War 11, is Horikin, "carver of gold," to which he adds the dynastic number I. Traditionally when he retires or dies his son or favored disciple will assume the title Horikin II; however, in this case Ohwada's brother is Horikin II. The transmission of occupational cognomen hereditarily or to worthy apprentices has long been the custom in traditional Japanese arts and crafts—Kabuki or pottery making, for instance. Unlike some masters who traced their professional ancestry to the nineteenth-century trade guilds of horishi (tattoo experts), Horikin chose his own name with, of course, tacit approval from rivals in his field.

Horikin was born in the Year of the Rat, a zodiac sign from which he derives his "restlessness" and his "wealth." The rat while being a rodent and a pest is nevertheless depicted in Japanese iconography with "bales of rice," thereby becoming symbolic of abundance and fertility. Horikin assumed his name at age twenty-four, again in the Year of the Rat. His father was a functionary, an instructor at the Police Academy in Yokohama, a member of the rising middle class that sprang into being after centuries of feudalism were destroyed by the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the rapid Westernization of Japan. At the time, tattooists still belonged to the lower castes. They were barbers, street artisans, or carvers of the woodblocks used by ukiyo-e artists for their prints. They catered largely to the "naked trades," porters, palanquin bearers, ricksha coolies, gardeners, postmen, and firemen, whose work exposed them to the open air and for which they stripped down to near nudity. The flamboyant tattoos stratified and classified these laborers. To make matters worse for the reputation of the profession, all Japan had been scandalized in 1900 by the love suicide of Horicho I, Japan's most celebrated tattoo master. He had earlier gained considerable notoriety for his dragons, with which he embellished the forearms of a young English prince (later King George V) and a tsarevich (Nicholas II), both visiting Japan as midshipmen on goodwill naval tours. It seemed as if tattooing was doomed forever to cause scandal.

From his earliest years, Horikin's love for tattoos had to be concealed from the Ohwada family. At age fifteen he began studying the wooden bas-reliefs in temples and shrines, copying on paper their intricate outlines and closely observing their play of perspective and chiaroscuro. His first essays with needles were on skinlike surfaces, hams, sausages, and daikon radishes, and from there he learned control, how deeply to penetrate, where and when to space his perforations. He became adept at hanebari, the fluttering technique unique to Japan, where the needles feather in details and accents. Before long he was experimenting on himself, under his arms and inside his thighs, where he was sure his parents would not see the tattoos. When he reached his majority at age twenty, when all Japanese become adult, or seinen, he revealed his by then much-covered body.

The family was shocked, and his father resigned his government post in shame.

Most people who are heavily tattooed live encased and enclosed in the special, isolated world of irezumi, a realm even now notable for its clannishness. They form a nakama or closeknit group of companions shielded from outsiders. They keep to themselves and are linked to others by a defiant sense of outcaste camaraderie. They claim few intimate friends but boast of their nakama. In Horikin's special case, he not only has a group of fifty or so loyal adherents on whom he can call at any time for any reason but a very impressive roster of international friends and acquaintances, among them Leni Riefenstahl and Issey Miyake. However, the irezumi's life is filled with intense competitiveness. There is always the concern that another master may steal a secret color or pattern or needle technique. They do not advertise. They are listed in no telephone book. Their fame rests on word of mouth, but acquaintances decline to give their addresses. "Tattoo is a territory," Horikin says, "a restricted territory."

Horikin enjoys reminiscing about the good old days. He recalls a predecessor who had only one arm and worked the needles with the help of his foot, while his wife pinned the writhing client to the floor. He remembers the first man to have his head tattooed, Horikame ("carved turtle"), who died in 1932. Crowds parted as he walked down the street, "like the Red Sea parting for Moses," he said. Now that Horikin's hair is thinning, he usually wears a hat in public to conceal his own tattooed head. He also laughs at the weaklings among his customers who cowered during the tattoo's excruciations. Only one out of a hundred clients who have asked him to tattoo their entire bodies have actually lasted to the end. He estimates that of the approximately twenty thousand Japanese today who have half tattoos, no more than a total of two hundred will go on to full-body tattoos. The fact that such complete tattoos cost thousands upon thousands of yen, and demand anywhere from two to ten years to complete are not the only deterrents.

Horikin also tells with amusement of clients who have asked for full tattoos and run out of the studio before he could finish "a dragon's single whisker." Another fainted at the first drop of blood, despite Horikin's assurances he had never, unlike some of his competitors, sent anyone to the hospital emergency room. Still another client became so befuddled after a two-hour session he forgot he was on the second floor and tumbled down the stairs.

In irezumi as in the warrior's bushido an unuttered code prevails. Horikin never touches needle to flesh without at least a week's prior discussions as to pattern, placement, purpose, and desire. He tattoos no one for whom he has little empathy, regardless of the amount of money proffered. Similarly, he will tattoo free of charge if someone pleases him. A curious relationship develops between tattooist and his subject, and the mystery of this is respected.

In my talks with Horikin more paradoxes surfaced. "Tattoo increases the good life," it is agreed. Yet, at the same time no one denies that tattooing shortens the life span. This is particularly true of people whose entire body is lacerated. Too little free skin is left to perspire or "breathe." Whatever the reasons for tattoos, such as beauty, health, strength, wisdom, wealth, and invincibility, longevity for the tattooee seems beyond the asking. Horikin shrugs and says, "You never really perfect your life's work anyway There's always some new place to tattoo, but man dies before his work is finished."

Horikin is indeed a man of many parts, rooted in the past and yet thoroughly modern. An enthusiast of blues music, he has one of the finest collections of rare ukiyo-e prints in the country. From them he has taken inspiration for many of his repertoire of some five thousand large and small tattoo patterns. Each tattooist inevitably puts his own individual stamp on designs as well as his methods of application of the images. Horikin knows these intimately. He is frequently summoned by the Metropolitan Police of Tokyo to help identify bodies. If there is a tattoo, no matter how small, his experienced eye recognizes the tattooist.

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