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