Toyohashi Tattoo Summit is a widely anticipated event, and considered by tattoo enthusiasts in Japan as the pinnacle of what Japan has to offer in terms of high-level tattoo artists displaying their work. This year, saw its 8th instalment in two venues, featuring 50 plus tattoo artists, with a focus on local talent of the traditional vein, with last year’s draw being Horihide, a seventy two year-old tattooing legend who brought swathes of his clients, adorning his magnificent works.
Toyohashi is a city two and a half hours from Tokyo by Bullet Train, en route to Nagoya, and Kyoto, and can be best described as being in ‘the middle of nowhere’, at best. However, every year in mid-September (in the midst of the brutal Japanese summer), is the most lauded tattoo event that Japan has to offer, making this industrial city an important landmark on the tattoo map.
We talked to the laidback and super-cool organizer Horisho (of Mindscape Tattoo in Okazaki) before the event, who tells us, “Artists say that Toyohashi is a convention where they go to tattoo. Other events are more festival-like, with bands and so on, but Tattoo Summit is the place to go and seriously work. As a tattoo artist it’s great in that they can make a lot of connections with a lot of information exchanges, and whilst there are artists that don’t get along, there are some that make friends there.”
Accordingly, there was a stellar mix of talent from Tokyo/Kanto, Gunma, Shizuoka, Aichi, Korea, and the US, with many top tebori artists alongside top-tier street shops such as Three Tides, Catclaw, Hocus Pocus, Mindscape, Tattoo Church and 8 Ball showing their talent side by side.
Says Horisho, “There are kids that are going around the world, world class artists, and then there are the younger guys that are trying hard too. With overseas conventions they invite famous artists and if they turn up, they turn up. With Summit, however, there is a sense of cooperation; they don’t just rock up, tattoo and go home, they bring clients with nearly completed pieces and so on.”
“We are getting elements of overseas conventions like Art Fusion and testing it here to see how the audience reacts. We want to create an event that tattoo artists and the audience can both enjoy. For tattoo enthusiasts who found tebori quite scary, they can see it for the first time. It is an opportunity to see these things, from the up-and-comers (such as Radmake’s Yuta and Blackdice’s Horitada) to the old timers…for me, the climax of the event will be the Art Fusion between Horikoi and Horihide.”
No doubt many people were there to see legendary artist Gifu Horihide. With over fifty years experience, he is one of the last living legends of Japanese tattooing, and he gave a talk. As the first tattoo artist to go to the US post-WW2, he met and introduced tebori to Sailor Jerry in Hawaii circa 1970, and influenced Jerry’s tattoo style. In 1973, he was hosting and cross-pollinating ideas with Ed Hardy in his studio - his influence on tattooing in general is phenomenal. Even just to see his classic pieces in the flesh was worth the trip down to Toyohashi in itself.
Co-organizer and top traditional artist Horikoi was wanting to make Toyohashi more serious this time around to differentiate Tattoo Summit from other Japanese tattoo events. Most tattoo gigs in Japan involve bands, drinking, skate ramps…a casual home party vibe, with the occasional stripper and piercing show, leaving the tattooing almost as an after thought. As Horikoi says, “We sought to make it at a level that you can hear the buzz of the machines, and the sound of the tebori artists at work. Gradually conventions have become events just in order to make some money, so it’s not good.”
“Tattoo conventions are essentially meant to be places where you can get a tattoo by an artist on the day, but as in Japan that way of thinking isn’t so developed; it is more of a show whereby tattoo artists bring models to work on. But we are trying to make a convention where the customer can come and get work done, like overseas.”
Toyohashi is probably the best place to see a great abundance of Japanese work, as Japanese tattoo conventions are notorious for their lack of Irezumi artists. A large percentage of shows don’t even have any tebori artists, and if they do, it’s like a token or a novelty, and the kids that go are seemingly more proud of American culture rather than their own. There have even been shows without Japanese artists!
Toyohashi is almost a relief in a way, in that there are events that have a conscious focus on traditional art, and to see so many top horishis is something of a rarity. As they usually operate out of apartments all over Japan, finding them in the first place is often a first-degree obstacle course - it is still an underground world.
Despite this, Horikoi says, “At first we wanted to make the concept of the show to eradicate prejudices (against tattooed people in Japan). But then we decided that it’s okay to have these kinds of prejudices, in the capacity of traditional Japanese Irezumi. I mean, from the beginning it’s not meant to be shown; you don’t walk around with Irezumi showing like fashionable (Western) tattoos. Traditional tattoos have a hidden beauty where it can be noticed only discreetly.”
Talking to self taught Irezumi artist Shodai Horimasa (Gunma) about his craft: “I find tebori interesting; I like the designs, and the intrinsic meanings behind them. With tebori, there is the actual feeling of inserting a tattoo, even more so than a machine. I am influenced by (Ukiyo-e illustrators) Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, and Hokusai, as well as Horiyoshi and Horikoi. I like Horiyoshi, in that he constantly progresses, same with Horikoi. I am also influenced by their way of living.”
“This is the third time I’ve done Toyohashi. It’s interesting, the level is so high. I can persevere in order to appear at this event. The tattoo scene has changed over the years in that it’s not just for rebels; regular people are getting large-scale pieces. I’d say it’s because the level of professionalism is higher, not only that, the clientele are also more sophisticated in their knowledge of tattooing.”
“Also, compared to before, there are more people interested in wabori, and this will probably increase. People see a lot of things and gradually realize the fantastic elements of Japanese culture, sensibilities and Irezumi. I’m happy for this, rather than just spreading tattoos, that there is widening interest in Irezumi .”
Alongside Japanese tattoo artists was South Korea’s Yushi, who has visited Japan ten times and loves Neo-Japanese, saying, “ I like the mix between tattoos and Irezumi.” South Korea has an incredibly difficult tattoo environment (it’s basically illegal), so he operates out of a building basement. “It’s like regular shop, but I can’t put a sign outside! If it ever became okay, and I could have an open street shop, even that would make me happy.”
Matt Shamah from San Jose’s Analog was there for his 4th consecutive year. He’s a popular artist with the locals here to the degree that he was almost a home artist at the top Osaka street shop Three Tides. Of Toyohashi, he says, “I like the vibe; it’s really relaxed. I think normally when you get that many great tattooers in one room, it can be kinda intimidating, but here is such a relaxed feeling, every one was so friendly, and there were really some great tattoos to see.”
“Stuff you don’t see in magazines, stuff you can’t see on the internet, stuff you can only catch if you’re there to see it first hand…Horikoi and Horiyoshi III are perfect examples; you can’t get tattoos like that in the States. Each of their styles has yet to be duplicated with perfection, yet in the States, it’s rare to see that kind of purity in tattoos anymore… Japanese tattooers tend to have a more pure style that is less watered down by outside influences.”
“American customers are picky and bargain shop, Japanese customers tend to search out better tattoos in regards to convention tattooing, with more value placed on the actual art. This makes tattooing at conventions in Japan more desirable for me as I’m dealing with customers whom I tend to see a little more eye-to-eye with. Japan’s tattoo industry is more closed off, whereas in the US, it’s a lot more open. Japan is a lot more cliquey, so getting that many good tattooers in one place is even rarer.”
Many artists said of this event that it was more “chilled out” than other years, but most agreed that Tattoo Summit is renowned for the high standards of tattooers, providing inspiration and education for the artists as well as the clients. In true Japanese form, 2007’s Tattoo Summit was 48 hours of back piece after back piece, and gorgeous full body suits. So, having enjoyed a weekend of stellar work, we wait for Japan’s best traditional tattoo show this coming summer.