Manami "Maki" Okazaki (writer),
Geoff Johnson (photographer)
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.