Asakusa is a downtown area in Tokyo that houses the city’s oldest temple and is home to many traditional artisans, teashops and small eateries. If you can ignore the hoards of tourists that somewhat kill its pseudo Japanesey vibe that its so famous for, you can see small craft shops, that sell their creations from knowledge handed down over generations, like paper, woven basket and kimono material as well as the cute old ladies that serve you sweets as you look through their wares.
With its historical context, it seems somewhat befitting that you can still find some of Japan’s top traditional tattoo artists here, although not being one to advertise, and finding clients by word of mouth, the photographer (Martin) met Horikazuwaka through a lucky introduction at a traditional Asakusa festival called Sanja, that features the parading of more than a hundred Mikoshi (portable shrines) by residents and festival enthusiasts in a show of provincial pride.
The festival also is very much populated by people such as yakuza, firemen, carpenters, or other people traditionally associated with getting Irezumi, who are historically concentrated in downtown areas, showing off their full body suits. Awed by the impact, and strength of a particular artist’s work, as well as the fine detailing, Martin got introduced to Horikazuwaka, received the tattooist’s business card, and our visits to his studio and friendship began there.
Like his famous father, (Horikazu, easily one of Japan’s top Horishis) the 32 year-old Horikazuwaka’s works are magnificent. Most of his works are full body suits, and despite their prolific size, they are balanced, intricate, and executed with immaculate precision. The bold, striking motifs are complimented with deft gradations.
The detail and density is incredible, each minute pattern in the goddess’s kimonos, the shading in each of the dragons scales, the gradations in the petals of the flowers, the hairs of the dogs, the jewelry of the goddesses is given minute attention. And the unified result is breathtaking.
Like many Horishi, the trade is passed down through a father-son relationship. In the case of Horikazuwaka, he was in the studio doing odd tasks and was able to see the process, and learn via osmosis. He says “No one taught me, so I had to teach myself, from 3rd grade, I had the Tebori tools. But I started taking money from tattooing at 13, having my own shop at night time.”
He insists that he still has a long way to go, in terms of technique, and as his father didn’t teach him things such as mixing of colors or so on, rather only providing the environment for which he can learn, he was left to create his own destiny, fuelled by his ambitions.
He lays out some of the illustrations he did as a junior high school student, and they are magnificent, it’s hardly believable that a child did them, and apparently when he graduated from primary school, the kids wrote down their future dreams, he bluntly put “I want to be a traditional Japanese tattoo artist.”
It seems that his dream has come true, and every time we visit him, we are crammed in between an absolutely hectic schedule.
Horikazuwaka is the epitome of an Asakusa local, he walks around most of the time on ‘geta’ - wooden sandals, in a traditional Japanese outfit and seemingly barely leaves the vicinity except when he goes on marathon work sessions to other prefectures. He has a very unassuming air and is incredibly likeable for his complete lack of pretense, although he speaks very little, and so is not the easiest person to interview.
Visiting his studio, despite his success, it’s hardly palatial- a modest set up in the bottom floor of a set of apartments, underneath his father’s studio, with a Tatami platform where his subjects lie down. He works on them in a grueling day in, day out schedule that he maintains for most of the year; “I take clients from noon, for about 12 hours, about 5 people, when I’m really busy I start at 8 and go ‘til 11, each person for about 2 hours.”
His style is quintessentially old school Japanese. He tells us “the most common motifs are Dragons, I don’t know why? I just love dragons”, I was always doing bad things so mythical gods and goddesses as well” he jokes. Flipping through his photos, there are also a menagerie of tigers, carp, Chinese lions, chrysanthemums, and figures such as those taken from the Chinese epic Suikoden, and Kintaro, a mythical boy with powers, which can be considered typical in the lexicon of Japanese tattooing imagery.
One of the major aspects of importance in Japanese art, and most certainly tattooing, is the use of balance. When a client leaves the design up to Horikazuwaka, he says it’s made to fit the client’s personality, or even balance the person out; “I will decide the motif according to the clients personality, if the guy is excessively hard, or nasty looking, I will insert a soft design, if the client doesn’t look all that convincing, a more aggressive, or strong design will be used.”
Also within the designs, a motif will be balanced out with the background, with cherry blossoms, waves and other fillers softening images such as tigers and dragons, and so Horikazuwaka is an admirer of his father’s work for his exceptional talent at this.
The basic system really hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries, his studio is like a time warped bubble, in complete contrast to the studios set up with modern artists and their tattoo machines and their bleached psycho-quiffs. However, Horikazuwaka says there is a shift in client’s requests, he spreads out a giant illustration of a Japanese goddess with a medusa head- “One of my clients requested this!” he says baffled, “the times are changing!“ and he adds, he has clients who just want “one point” tattoos – like butterflies for women.
Compared to machine tattoos which can be executed rather quickly, Tebori, although less painful, is a very long, laborious process, and can be tiresome for the subject to lie there for a long time, not to mention rather expensive when you add up the hours (full body tattoos from top Tebori artists can go for the price of 2 Porsche Boxsters.) Horikazuwaka recalls a client he had who came in, every single day for an entire year, doing one or two hours work per session until his body suit was completed.
Then there is the making of the tools, which he does himself - a wooden rod, with needles attached with silk thread in bundles. He gets the needles intended for other uses and sharpens them to a rounded or pointed point according to the client’s skin and the color used. The ink, as well, he makes himself, and says he lets it harden for a while (3 years) to get his preferred texture.
Despite the amount of time it takes, and the laborious learning curve, Horikazuwaka says the effort is worth it, “the beauty of Japanese tattooing is that the colours and vibrancy improves as time goes on, it doesn’t degrade, rather getting more beautiful”.
It’s said that with Tebori, when the ink goes into the skin, the tattoo isn’t complete, as you can still see the needle pricks. Slowly, this dissipates and the colours take on a certain characteristic hue that gets better as the months go by, as if the tattoo is alive and metamorphosising.
However, like many Tebori artists, Horikazuwaka does the outline with a machine, saying its better than Tebori, as its difficult to do fine outlines with manually, and the lines remain sharp with the machine method - there is none of the aforementioned hazing.
A very unusual trait of these Horishi is that the clients can, and will, relay Horishis, and just go to whoever is reputable, and in their vicinity. So, if a client comes from another prefecture, they will go to one Tebori artist, and then go back to their own. Its strange, but a few of the times we were there, we saw Horikazuwaka working on someone else’s designs, and even complete it, so the end result will have someone else’s signature on it (usually on the top left shoulder, in a box).
He says nonchalantly, “What can you do? There aren’t so many of us that know how to do this, and some of these guys have to travel around a lot, so they go to who they can”.
When we ask who his clients are, he is rather vague. Of course many people come because they like the designs and its fashionable, although it’s undeniable that at least some of his clients are ‘underworld figures’, and going to his studio, we are to meet some interesting characters at the top of the syndicate hierarchy. It can be easily said that the clients of his father, Horikazu, are the rich, the powerful and the underground elite, and he says half jokingly, “If you want to see my best work, go make a Jail visit.”
Yakuza traditionally get Irezumi as an initiation rite and to prove their bond to the group. Some of the yakuza may get certain motifs to say that they belong to a particular affiliation, like a small innocuous manga character within the massive design, which apparently helps to identify dead bodies as well. Horikazuwaka recalls “I have some clients, they are not wanting to get a tattoo at all, that doesn’t feel so great, they are being basically ordered to get one by their superior”.
Having said that, we met a lot of his clients, and also the clients of his father, and they were incredible people, a lot of fun and top-notch drinkers. On one occasion we were taken to a festival in Saitama, with a group of Horikazu’s clients, who showed us unbelievable amounts of hospitality, showing us their magnificent works.
Despite the article being finished, our encounters probably will not. This young virtuoso will no doubt become part of Japanese tattooing history as his career progresses, not only keeping the tradition alive, but already displaying a mastery that is light years beyond his age.