Rock of Ages

Published: 15 November, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 154, December, 2007

There is a place in Tokyo by the name Koenji, a pretty ordinary train station area. Koenji is one of those stations in Tokyo that has stopped in time. People still buy their groceries from the local grocery store, not in supermarkets.


In Koenji you will see lots of elderly people minding their own business in a stoic manner mixed with young outgoing people obviously caring about the neighborhood. Koenji has turned into an almost hip area with all the old restaurants, coffee shops and live music venues. If you want to see what Tokyo used to be like a long time ago this is the place to visit. There are two established tattoo shops here as well, one of them is the well-known shop run by Rei and Hata, Ink Rat Tattoo, the home of American traditional old school tattooing.

Rock Of Ages has been one of the top events here in Tokyo since 2005 and before that, when it all started in Orange County, California. Whilst it’s not the biggest tattoo related event in any way, it’s one of the more relaxed and easygoing and at the same time strong American traditional custom orientated. The location is in a large café near the mother-shop of Ink Rat Tattoo, a 5-minute walk from the busy Koenji station.    

Tattooing, pinstriping, hotrods and an art show all share the agenda of the one-day event and as a change from so many other tattoo related shows here in Japan; where pole dancing and kickboxing sets the standard, the Rock Of Ages goes well with a cup of coffee together with your partner or family.

Originally from Osaka, Rei had after many years tattooing here in Japan made himself a name in the American traditional style (called ‘tora-do’ in Japan) in Tokyo and was participating at the Philadelphia tattoo convention when he met a man by the name Sid Stankovits. Sid is the owner of Sid’s Tattoo Parlor in Orange County, California and he and Rei found that they shared many things in the style they both were doing. A month after Rei returned back to Tokyo, Sid with family came to visit and stayed for three weeks with Rei in his house.   

Rei says “Sid is a Christian and he taught me so much about the symbolism and meaning of the designs we all do in this style of tattooing, things I didn’t know when I went to the States for the first time. American traditional and Japanese traditional both have a deep background, I then realised. I went over to the States to visit Sid later on and he took me to meet the real old timers and to many places to learn about the true meaning of certain designs and symbols.”   

I asked Sid about what Rock of Ages means for him, being the founder of the event back in the States, how it came to ending up in Japan and how it has been taking off since.   

“I started tattooing about 16 years ago,” says Sid. “I opened my own shop about ten years ago. My mom is an artist and I’ve always done painting and sculpting with her. So I’ve always had an interest in art and drawing. I’m 36, so when I was 12 my older brother got me into rockabilly and psychobilly music and I have followed that scene since. Needless to say, tattooing and hotrods were a part of this lifestyle and all of the bands and older rockabilly guys had tattoos. So I loved that style from the very beginning. They all had pinups, panthers, daggers, roses…and pretty much any design that the old sailors would be getting. So I really fell in love with this style of tattooing and it will always be a passion of mine, as is rockabilly music. The funny thing is, back then the only guys driving old cars or getting traditional tattoos were the rockabilly guys, unless you were into ZZ Top! I remember an older tattoo artist named Dave Gibson who did a lot of the rockabilly guys back then and said that he would have had to close his doors if he didn’t do tribal designs in the 80’s. When I first started tattooing I tried so hard to convince people to get traditional designs. I remember when someone wanted to get a pinup or panther; it was like Christmas time for me, I was like a kid in a candy store! Just freaking out and couldn’t wait to do it. Now, thank God, it has been a revival in the industry and I don’t think it’s going to fade anytime soon. Traditional tattoos are classic looking and they stand up to the test of time.”

Sid continues, “ I started the Rock of Ages show 5 years ago, trying to mix the custom culture scene with the tattoo scene; in actuality they were already mixed. I tried to focus the show on hotrods, tattoos, pinstriping and rockabilly music and I pretty much tried to keep the show focused on the older scene as much as possible, keeping it true to form. At that time I had to get partners to help me out so that changed my initial plan, but the show still held to its true form. Rock of Ages is actually a biblical name for Jesus Christ, he being the stronghold in times of trouble. The name reflected something timeless and anchored, something that wouldn’t change but hold true to its course, and basically keeping things faithful to the whole scene.   

One of my ideas was to do the show in Japan with Rei. So we looked into it but with all the international permits and translations it would have been hard to make it happen. So Rei asked if he could do the show in Japan and still use the name. Needless to say I was honored. Rei and Nash have both kept the show true to its original form and in my opinion have done it better than I ever did. Matter of fact, if I ever do the show out here again I will steal some of their ideas!   

Let’s see... I met Rei about 7 years ago at Philadelphia Eddie’s show. At the time he was looking into American traditional tattooing and I guess he felt mine was the oldest looking, and worst! Anyways he had just opened his shop and invited me to come out. So a month later my wife, kid and I went to Japan to see him. It was crazy! I remember getting off the plane and my wife asking if I even remembered what Rei looked like or even if I knew were he lived; I just said ‘No’. I figured if he wasn’t there at the airport we would just wander around Japan for three weeks! But he was there and we became great friends. The Japanese tattoo scene is set up different to any other country; it has what you could call families, or ties. So when I came to Ink Rat, Rei explained this about the Japanese culture. He also expressed how he loves how America does not have this and the tattoo scene is friendly to every artist.  If you see a shop in the US you can walk in and say hi to the other artists. But on the other hand in Japan they wont walk into another shop. Rei hated this about the industry. Anyways, I think that part of the purpose of the show was to bring artists together and open that door. Production companies have ruined the whole vibe now in doing a lot of the tattoo conventions; they have made them like swap meetings where you can get tattooed, have some beef jerky and get your nails done at the same show. So I’m just waiting for a good day and also a good way to do the show again in southern California, as of now it’s on the back burner!”   

So what of Rei and his plans for the future of the Rock Of Ages show in Japan? “Well, I want it to be bigger actually. But in Japan the hotels and big halls will not host a tattoo event due to the so-called ‘bad image’. He adds, “I can host a show here in Koenji since this is my territory, but Koenji is pretty limited. I also want to see some new faces if I can make a bigger event. At the moment I accept only people close to me, people I trust. We all do American traditional style but with a rather different angle, this is something I like a lot!”   

So as it looks now, we will continue to see this small but deep core of traditional artists setting the standard, all gathered under the same roof here in Koenji, an old and traditional part of a city that has one foot already in the next day.

Line Building Koenji #201,4-27-7 Koenji minami, Suginami-ku
Tokyo 166-0003, Japan

13912 Ponderosa Unit C, Santa Ana, CA 92705, USA


Text and Photography: Mattias Westfalk


Skin Deep 154 15 December 2007 154