Takahiro "Horitaka" Kitamura (writer),
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.