Few tattooers have built a name like Shige of Yokohama. With countless magazine articles, a room full of first-place trophies from conventions worldwide, a book, museum appearances, and, most importantly, throngs of ecstatic clients, Shige is definitely a success. His work, a sublime new take on traditional Japanese tattooing, has taken the world by storm. As with all success stories, it did not come easy. Shigenori “Shige” Iwasaki, along with the support of his wife and soul mate, Chisato, has worked night and day perfecting his craft. What follows is a candid conversation we had about tattoos, art, and how Shige sees himself.
Shige: You know, before we get started, I don’t want this to be a normal interview. I have a book out and I’ve done enough interviews—people know my basic history. I don’t want this to be a list of places I’ve worked or artists that influenced me.
INKED: Right. Well then, let’s talk about your opinions. For example, how do you feel about tattooing in this day and age?
Shige: I think this is a very strange time in tattooing. With the explosion in popularity and acceptance, much has changed. Some things have changed for the better—and, of course, some things for the worse. As I see all of this, one thing that bothers me is that I don’t want tattooers to lose pride in their work, especially with traditional Japanese work. I feel that the reason that Japanese tattooing survived and flourished is because there was a measure of pride, even—and maybe especially—because it was forced underground. Japanese tattooing does not need any newcomers who don’t take pride in this. I don’t want to grandstand, nor do I think that I can dictate what tattooing is; I just want people to take pride in what they do.
Can you expand on that?
While I believe that irezumi is art, I’m not out there proclaiming that. [Editor’s note: Irezumi is a Japanese word for tattooing that was originally used to describe markings administered on prisoners by the authorities. The word was shunned by tattoo artists who didn’t want any association with the barbaric practice of forced tattooing. However, in this day and age, irezumi has lost that stigma and is used to describe traditional Japanese tattooing.] I think that pride and craftsmanship are more important. That is much more important than fancy drawings. When I say pride, I don’t mean pride as in fame or anything like that. I just mean that this work affects people and their lives, so it must be taken seriously. There are many professions that require this sort of pride, like a teacher or a doctor—it’s not about money. I would love to see more young tattooers with this attitude. This may sound like I am preaching, and I don’t mean to, but maybe someone needs to say it.We think that there are a lot of people who feel the same way—that tattooers have a responsibility to their clients and to the profession.
I’m not saying everything needs to be epic, large, or planned, or anything like that. I am not trying to say that one type of work is better than another. I believe tattooing can have many forms, like I have commemorative tattoos and fun tattoos. But I don’t like tattoos that cheapen tattooing. It takes all kinds, from the smallest one-point tattoo. If you put your heart into it, it can become a valued and treasured thing to the wearer. You have to take the pride. Tattooing is art but it is not just art. It is more sacred than that.
It’s funny because some artists may not like that. I think there are lots of tattooers who want tattooing to be art. And there are artists who wouldn’t want to think tattooing is more sacred than art.
Well, I don’t want that to be misunderstood. I’m not saying tattooing is better or worse than fine art. I think tattooing and art are different worlds. There is a similarity in that a true artist and a true tattoo artist give of themselves to what they do. I do paint, but I think I will be a tattooer till death. I draw and paint, but it’s for tattooing. It expands my tattoo world. And my clients can understand it very easily. My clients can appreciate my paintings.
That makes sense—not everything should be tattooed.
Yes. And like I said before, about responsibility: If you don’t like your painting, you don’t have to look at it. But with our work, it is on the client. When you pick up that needle, you have to do your best because it’s on someone else. We are not businessmen, and this isn’t about a salary. I don’t think it’s just the tattoo world that has problems like this. Like schoolteachers, in the past, that was a very proud profession. Everything now is like, “Well, it’s okay.” The quality standard has changed. There are a lot of problems with that; teachers are not paid enough, and parents and teachers don’t discipline the children enough. Teaching was a sacred job, now it is like business. And I’m not saying it’s the teacher’s fault—the system has changed. If the teacher strays from the curriculum of the standard government defined protocol, he or she will be fired.
That’s very interesting.
I think it’s a valid comparison since both of our professions ultimately should be about helping and providing for the well-being of others. Life goes in cycles. The last 10 years have seen amazing work, and tattooing has changed immensely. People like Filip Leu, Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth, the Tattoo the Earth generation—they wanted to create amazing, high-quality work. However, in the last 10 years, I feel like business has overcome the tattoo world. It got really big, it expanded, and I feel like maybe we need to go back to the days before business was king. I’m not telling people to do this; I am saying this is what I strive to do. At the end of the day, you can only control what you do yourself. But I think it is important that you care about the larger community around you, and you must know that you are well-known and people will at least hear what you have to say.
Tell us more about your philosophy.
I guess what makes it different for me is that I don’t necessarily think of tattooing as art. As a Japanese [artist], I am doing a different kind of work. With my personal history, a lot of foreign work came into Japan and I was influenced by it. I saw a lot of the world and it made me see Japanese tattooing differently. Looking in from the outside I learned much about Japan and I have changed my focus accordingly. If you study history, things change with cultural influences. This happens everywhere all the time. I learned much from Leu and many others; I’ve had lots of outside influences and this has been positive.
Is that a personal note to Leu?
Well, 90 percent of my body was tattooed by Filip. People with tattoos would understand how I feel. Obviously Filip was a huge influence and I would not be doing what I do without him. However, it’s not just him. He didn’t invent the tattoo machine, for example. Let’s say Sailor Jerry or Ed Hardy—maybe I wouldn’t be here without them and what they gave us all. What if there was no Paul Rogers? There are many people who have come before us that have made tattooing what it is. That is what allows me to do what I do. And of course, I am grateful to traditional Japanese tattoo culture. We need all of it. I feel grateful to be part of such a rich cultural history and maybe that’s part of why I feel it needs to be protected.
Your humbleness aside, many people would consider you to be a very influential tattooer of our generation.
I get asked a lot about how I feel about my influence in the tattooing world, but I don’t know anything about that. I guess it makes me happy since I feel that I get inspiration from others all over the world. Back to the talk about art: I do like that tattoo art can be and is being seen as fine art. But they are not the same, nor do they need to be. With artists, they are the stars. Tattooers should not be stars; they should just be ordinary people. Sure, I want to put food on my table and take care of my family, but my life is about tattooing. I’m just living it out. So I don’t want tattooing to be tarnished.
Funny you say that, you have tons of fans!
Well, of course I appreciate that people like my work, but I am just an ordinary tattooer. I prefer to align myself with teachers and doctors, not artists. I’m speaking about Japanese traditional tattooers, I commend the tattooers moving toward the fine art world—but for me, it is not what I am about. For example, we went to a temple today, and there were many people who went there to sightsee. But I am there because it is part of my life and my spirituality. There is nothing wrong with people appreciating how a statue or temple looks, but for me, being Japanese, this is part of my culture and practice. And it is important to make these things look aesthetically pleasing, to keep the culture and temples going. But the priority for me is the spirituality.
You seem extremely grounded. Is this because of your spirituality?
I think I would be lying if I said I never felt jealous of other tattooers—and now there are many extremely talented individuals. So you should put your energy toward beautifying your work. If you can do that, you appreciate people that are working hard and creating good work. Everyone feels envy to some degree—it’s only natural.
As I said, with the expansion of tattooing there is good and bad, this is true. But I really don’t want to see it go in a bad direction. There is some form of karma—you get what you put in—and I guess one can take satisfaction in that. But our field certainly has a lot of drama and politics. But what I try to always keep in mind is that this is my life and my life is devoted to irezumi. I can think this way but it is difficult.
When I feel spiritually weak, I go in front of Fudo Myoo [one of the Thirteen Buddhas, a grouping of Japanese Buddhist deities]. I humble myself. I am constantly battling with myself. It is not about other people, it is about myself.
Your conviction and respect translate when you tattoo.
There is a saying from the Sengoku era, describing the beauty of flowers. It is a good phrase in Japanese about a hundred flowers: Hyakka Ryo-ran. It means one hundred flowers blooming at the same time, all types growing freely. And if people could appreciate the different flowers all at once—different beauty. You could use the flowers as a metaphor for tattoo styles. I like this saying and I want to enjoy other flowers and talents. This motivates me. Up until now, our world was underground—not any more! There are a hundred flowers in bloom, and in this era, there are very different talents being shown. If you see something beautiful it should inspire you to create something even more beautiful. Talking like this, I’m not really one to say something profound. There are different types of flowers. For example, a peony and a cherry blossom—very different flowers and different kinds of beauty. I want to be able to see these other “flowers” as a positive thing. Different beautiful flowers in the same season. If you use this as a metaphor of life, the flower blooms like a life span. In Buddhism you see gods sitting on lotus leaves. The lotus blooms in still water, muddy water. Humans live in the ukiyo, floating world. We bloom and head toward our death. Irezumi is only in that window. People have different ways of life—whatever you are doing, we are all flowers and all will grow and die. You only can enjoy tattooing while you are alive. Our job is to help. And I think that our job is to add a little color to people’s lives.
The thing with art is that it remains. Things happen after an artist’s life, money exchanges hands. I think tattooing is very pure, existing between the client and the tattoo artist. We are all going to eventually die, and it is to be enjoyed while we are alive. More than leaving a name, I want my clients to love their work. An artist often doesn’t even know the name of the person who buys their paintings. I am very happy to tattoo people who really love and want my work. I’ve done a lot of interviews and some of your views change over time, but I really don’t want to lose my motivation or lower my standards, ever. I hope I can maintain this.