Horiyoshi III is the undisputed master of traditional Japanese-style tattooing and has an unparalleled influence on the local and international tattoo industry. He has produced 11 art books and is the founder of the Yokohama Tattoo Museum, which displays the collection of tattoo memorabilia he has acquired over the years. In addition to being respected for his breathtaking tattoos and artwork, he’s respected for his work ethic and his philosophy, which encapsulates the downtown, artisanal spirit of traditional Japanese tattoos. At 65, in the twilight of his career, Horiyoshi III is still renowned for his intricate and visually powerful full-body tattoos and highly respected for his dedication to the art of Japanese tattooing.INKED: When you first became a tattoo artist and asked your sensei to take you on as an apprentice, how did you approach him?
Horiyoshi III: I was going to get tattooed by Horiyoshi, so I sent a letter out, and there was no reply, and then I sent it again, and again, still no reply.
Is it normal to send out letters?
The best is an introduction, actually.
What did you write in the letter?
Firstly, a self-introduction. I wrote [explaining] that I was working as a tattoo artist, but in my own style and [that I was] amateurish. As such, I didn’t really know which parts of my work could be improved, and I couldn’t seem to progress as a result. So I explained I would like to be an apprentice.
Seeing there was no reply, I went there and asked directly. When I was talking to him, he came to realize that I was quite serious, and that despite working at the time, I was prepared to become an apprentice and not make any money. He thought that was admirable, so he accepted. Horiyoshi II was actually on a trip, and because of that I was able to become a student. When I talked to Horiyoshi II later he said that he wouldn’t have accepted me had he been there, so it was good timing. Basically, 90 percent of life is timing and luck. People with bad timing and bad luck are basically fucked.
What happens in an apprenticeship?
I was cleaning, helping with all the daily chores, basically [I was] a member of the family. You can’t say no. It’s kind of a feudalistic relationship; what your superior says to you is the word. However, the challenge of overcoming these elements, which are rigid and difficult, is the charm of being an apprentice.
Describe a typical day of your apprenticeship.
You wake up at 7:30 and eat breakfast in the mess hall. Then you clean, and make the sumi [black ink]. At 8 a.m. we would open the door for the clients. There were no such things as bookings; it’s first come, first served. So some people would turn up at 6 a.m. When we opened, the people who had never been would have a consultation, and while they were having their consultation, my superior would come. When there were no clients it would be free time—but it’s never free. I was always drawing, or making needles, or sharpening them, making tools, and always cleaning.
Would you say it’s the same as apprenticeships in other traditional crafts, say, making swords?
Yes—it’s the same for yakuza and the craftsman, and there is that [same] characteristic of live-in apprenticeships.
When you were starting, who was getting tattoos?
Yakuza and [other] underworld types and artisans, not businessmen. Maybe 60 percent were yakuza, and the rest were craftsmen, construction workers, or laborers.
Why were they getting tattooed? I used to take a survey to ask what the impetus for getting a tattoo was, and 80 percent were like, “It’s cool!” If you asked, “Why is it cool?” then you would get replies like, “Because it is beautiful,” or “Because it is courageous.” But basically they start with the cool factor.
How do the yakuza treat you?
Now it’s not so much the case, but they used to really take good care of you because you are decorating their bodies. If you really improve them, they want to do good for you. Tattoos are permanent, and they have a job in which they have to appear cool. They really treated me well; they would invite me to meals and give me pocket money. I once got a tip that was more than the price of the back piece.
Do you still get yakuza clients?
Now it’s nearly zero. It’s a little sad. Matsuda Osamu, a tattoo researcher and Hosei University professor who researched Japanese traditional tattoo culture, said that Japanese traditional tattoos are something that is outlaw or counterculture in nature, that they shouldn’t be socially acceptable as it is a sacrilege to tattoo. I think that kind of theory holds true.
Now that tattoos have become a fashion accessory for some, do you think the fascinating elements have gone away?
Yes, if it is purely for fashion. It’s the same as putting spice in a bowl of ramen—or, say, if you are a woman, finding guys who are a bit dangerous attractive, rather than a guy who walks like a robot and has his shirt totally buttoned up. There is [still] that villainous aspect that is appealing.
What is the dynamic between the tattooing families in Japan?
Before, there was very little communication. Now there is a lot of cross-communication. Craftsmen usually kept things secret, the technique and materials.
How about now?
Are there still those secretive aspects? Not really, so it’s becoming less fascinating. [It used to be that] Japanese craftsmen really hid their techniques, so when … they died you didn’t know how they made their craft, as they didn’t write it down. They only taught by explaining [their techniques] to apprentices or their son.
What will happen with tebori, the hand-inserted tattoos? Are you worried that technique will die out because it’s so time-consuming to master?
The characteristic flavor of tebori can’t be replicated with a machine. Conversely, in the future, there are even more people who will want to do it; as things get digitalized, there are still people who want analog things, people who go against the tide. Think of paper. You can make as much as you like with machines—to do it by hand is really time-consuming and physically taxing, and there is little financial incentive. But there are still people who want to train to make handmade paper, and I think it will never disappear. There are people who seek out these kinds of thing—not everyone, obviously—but there are those who have a kind of resistance to plentiful things. They want something really fantastic. They cherish the positive aspects of doing it by hand.
What exactly is the difference in tebori and machine work?
If you use a machine, when you are finished the work is 90 percent complete. But with tebori, no matter how much you work on a piece, it is only 80 percent complete, but that lack [of completion] is what makes it appealing. After five or 10 years, the tebori tattoo matures, but with machines, there is no maturity time. With tebori it is like the sumi [ink] is living under the skin. That’s a big difference. Also, in doing tattoos by hand, there is the charm of spending each other’s precious time [together]. No matter how good the tools and materials are, if you don’t take the time, you won’t get a good result. And tebori in particular is really partial to this ethos, as you aren’t relying on the power of a machine—you are purely using your own senses.
What is the most difficult thing about doing Japanese tattoos?
The most difficult thing in art is the overall balance and the various gradations. In Japanese tattooing, for example, with a dragon, even if you can draw it, you need to ascertain what kind of dragon [it is]. I think Japanese traditional tattooing is really difficult if you want to learn it properly because it is the world of instinct. Even if you read 100 Japanese culture books you can’t memorize Japanese tattoos. There is history, custom, culture, and a sense of seniority. And there are rules within Japanese tattooing that you have to adhere to. Including myself, there is no Japanese tattoo artist who understands Japanese tattooing completely. It is really that difficult.
How do you achieve such balance in your work?
It’s a sense once you get used to it. For example, a flower looks unnatural if you tattoo it straight across, even though there are flowers that grow straight. But if it is at an angle it seems more natural.
How do you feel about other styles of Japanese that aren’t traditional, such as Filip Leu’s?
As a culture it is really good when you see, say, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. For example, in the Meiji period, the Japanese were wearing kimonos whilst wearing Western hats and shoes, and the foreigners were wearing Western suits with geta [the traditional Japanese shoes]. It wouldn’t be considered strange then. So [it’s] a kind of amalgamation [of] culture. Likewise, Filip’s work is a kind of culture, and it is very admirable.
You have released many books. What is their importance?
The information dissipation for tattoos is a specialized thing, and we don’t have a manual. I am mainly producing design books, and they are kind of like guidebooks. You can use the designs as is or get clues from them. I make books as a kind of payback, as gratitude for the people who have found this world that I have been living and working in fascinating and have let me exist as a result. Basically I make them as a gift of gratitude to the world of Japanese tattooing. I think this kind of work will be around for as long as humans are around. When you think like this, there will be more reference books and more ways of thinking.
What was the first time you met a tattoo artist from overseas?
About 45 years ago there was an Israeli called Sailor Moscow who just suddenly turned up. He wanted a tattoo and I asked if he was living in Israel. But my English is poor so I said, “You leave Israel.” And he left! He gave me all these business cards, including Ed Hardy’s. I ignored them at first, with no interest. But there were no [ink] colors at the time; the green and yellow were murky, and the red pigment would give you a temperature. I knew they had good colors overseas, so I wrote to all the people on the business cards, via a translator. I sent printed photos of my work to all 10 or so people. Ed Hardy was the only one who replied.
Do you recall your first meeting with Hardy?
He came to Japan and I did a bonji tattoo on him for free. When he went home, he called me and goes, “I forgot something important!” and he told me about the Rome convention, saying that I should come. I told him, “You know Azabu’s Horiyoshi? You should invite him. There are many people superior to me. I can’t go out first.” He said, “Azabu’s Horiyoshi refused.” And I said, “There are others.” He said, “No, I don’t want others.” Then he said, “Do you like spaghetti?” So I went.
What did you think of the tattoo work in Italy?
Well, up until then, I only had the image of Mickey Mouse in my head, but when I saw the work, I was astounded. It was the first time I had seen machines at work as well.
When I returned to Japan, I thought I would like to learn to use a machine too, and after two years I came to use machines. I also saw that Japan’s way of doing things was no good, and we had to think more about sterilization. So I made a tebori kit 20 years ago where the needles could be removed and sterilized.
I only thought of Western tattoos as childish scrawling before, but then I saw it was a really artistic world. At the time there were no huge pieces, but piece by piece it was something we couldn’t do in Japan. And I thought it was amazing, and had the perspective to think if we are lax, Japan will be taken over. But now that is really becoming reality!
So when you came back and you started using the machine, how did you find it?
They were not like today’s machines—they were totally crap. I didn’t know how to use one, so I did trial and error on my feet and my wife’s arms.
In Japan there is a problem with tattooed people being discriminated against. We aren’t allowed into hot springs, gyms, or pools. When did these policies become so strict?
Seventeen or 18 years ago, I can’t remember exactly—
Yet tattoos are more popular than ever. Why do you think people get them?
Mainly for improving themselves aesthetically, and the notion of belonging. People also have a tendency to cause pain, and to receive pain; they might not like tattoos, but they have these inner tendencies, which will manifest themselves somewhere. In this world humans always have sadistic or masochistic tendencies, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. If tattoos didn’t hurt no one would do it. Also there is this feeling of bravado, that you want to brag because you endured it. And there’s a self-satisfaction as well.
At the end of the day, what is the best thing about being a horishi?
That what you are doing for work is fun. It is the job I sought out. I think most people, like businessmen, don’t want to work; they work in order to live and to make money. They have no choice. People who make things, such as sculptors and illustrators, they like it, so they can do it. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t do it, even though they wouldn’t be able to eat. To be able to make a living doing what you like is the ultimate joy.