”WA O MOTTE TOTTO SHI” comes with a smile on Horisho’s face when I ask for a word to the British readers. Lets come back to this later, what it means and what he means about this proverb. But I came to realize that this phrase would say it all, no need for any further explanations when we talk about Horisho from Okazaki. This is Horisho’s stomping ground and is located in the prefecture of Aichi in the middle of the main Island of Honshu south of Tokyo, on the Pacific coast side of Japan. Or shall we say not that far from Toyota (Japan’s Detroit) and Nagoya, who last year held the World Expo. A great lift for the whole prefecture and a face lift for the city itself for sure.
Life in Okazaki is as in any other small city neighbouring a bigger one, not that exiting on the surface but has lots of interesting stuff hidden if you just look what’s beneath the surface. Mindscape Tattoo is one of these things that make life in Okazaki a bit more interesting. Hidden away purposely on the second floor in an apartment building facing away from the main road is where some of the best tattoo art is being produced in this part of Japan. With his apprentice turned staff Ogi across the hallway from Horisho, this is a pretty good set up and makes you feel like you’re welcomed home to some old friend without the fuss of having to put on a face of coolness we may encounter in a ‘street shop’ or ‘drop in studio’. Totally private and no other people hanging around while the work is being done (except when a curious photographer asks question after question in far from perfect Japanese!). The studio of Mindscape Tattoo is something that Horisho has put a lot of effort in to create a peaceful tranquil environment with soft-lighted paper screens and wood. The small veranda is decorated as a Japanese garden with stone gravel and a bonsai tree, all very calming and peaceful.
I have had the pleasure to meet this soft spoken man a couple of times before during tattoo events around Japan and the language, cultural barrier you often encounter here as a foreigner was nothing you would mention when talking to him. I noticed this with just a few other people here, with people who have travelled out side the motherland and experienced that we all are pretty much the same and a foreigner is no more a foreigner than your own neighbour many times. Makes it so much easier to sit down and share experiences and thoughts with someone that doesn’t really care from where you are as long as you at least try to have some self-respect and show some basic manners.
Horisho told me “My first contact ever with tattoos that had any effect on me was when I was 14 or 15 years old and I saw this 7” cover photo with the STRAYCATS, you know, the rockabilly band. This had a huge impact on my view of tattoos”. He ads” Then when I was around 20 I started to tattoo myself by hand poking in me at that time, cool looking designs like skulls and bats with a home made device made of needles wrapped on a pair of chopsticks!” “Since I always liked the Californian music scene and as a hobby musician wanted to be a professional musician at first in those days, I got over there and had the chance to get my old stuff covered up by Greg James at Sunset Strip Tattoo studio in L.A”.
He continues “ I got my first piece done here in Japan by Horikuni at IREZUMI DOJYO in nearby Nagoya. This was before all the fuss of cross contamination and hygiene and the place might not have been up to today’s standard, but that was the way of that time and I guess people didn’t know better then!”
He then told me that he played in a band and moved up to Tokyo, the capital for various reasons, one of them to pursue a career as a professional musician. Still always on the lookout for tattoo studios and tattooists to get more ink done, he met the apprentice (Horitoku llll) of a local tattooist named Horitoku in Shinjuku. After being a client of another local Tokyo tattoo artist named Horiwaka of the old downtown of Asakusa, he started his apprenticeship with him when he was around 25 years old.
Horisho says, “ All we trained with was machines, no hand poking or tebori. And I also studied the designs of my master Horiwaka, both from books and from his personal sketches and drawings”, he ads “I used to practice on myself, my own legs and one day he (my master) told me that if I tattoo all of my own legs first then he would give me another guinea pig to continue on. This was the old school way to do it and still today you can see this everywhere”.
I asked Horisho why we see so much biomechanical designs among some of his best work and in his portfolios. “Well, I always loved mechanics and I went to engineering high school as a kid. I always read robomanga like GUNDAM and so on, loved that stuff”. “This style of biomechanical tattooing was completely unknown when I started tattooing and it was hard to get information and inspiration from anywhere. Now we have the web to get all this stuff from but back then you didn’t. Whenever I had the chance I would read tattoo magazines and names like Eddy Deutsche from San Francisco and Guy Aitchison from Chicago would catch my attention. I then tried to mix this with what I learned as an apprentice at Horiwakas”.
Traditional Japanese with Biomechanical manga style is something we see when we study Horisho’s work and to see this in Japan is pretty unique. He told me that he didn’t like the Japanese traditional style at first because for him it represented the underworld and the Yakuza, which he hates. To copy someone else’s work didn’t feel right either so to find his own style become a hard task for some time. He was making his own designs for some time but that extra touch of personality just wasn’t there. This is something I have heard so many times from people I have interviewed, not only tattoo artists but also musicians, photographers and so on. To find that route to your own personal style can be a hard thing to do, it’s easy to give up and just go the same way as everybody else and copy what you and all the other suckers find interesting. But isn’t it that what makes someone stand out in a crowd, that extra thing we all are searching for? Looks easy but it’s nothing that comes cheap.
“ I met Bill Salmon in the States at a time of my life when I was looking for another, alternative culture than the traditional Japanese. I was not interested at all in where I came from and Bill asked me one day: “How come you don’t know your own roots?” and I realized that he was right! I didn’t know much and it made me think “This guy knows more than me about me and where I’m coming from!” He continues, “ So I started to study myself and got into the real symbolism of everything you will see in Japanese traditional tattooing, wherever you look in Japan, you will see design and symbols!” He adds “I studied Buddhism and went to India to find the roots of all this that you see in Japanese temples and shrines (Japanese main religion is Shintoism, originated from Buddhism from at first Kina and before that India) and then obviously in tattoo flashes and finished tattoos or irezumi. It became fun again to do this traditional stuff, I understood more and it gave the whole thing meaning. Something that was lacking before!”
He told me he was still having problems with the traditional Japanese way of master and apprentice system, where the apprentice takes a role of slave more than a student and will never know what will wait for him in the future, if he fails to meet his masters demands or if he will someday have the free hands to pursue his dreams. For a person who has never been outside his own community it might come easy to accept a master and servant situation, this is classic stuff here in Japan, you see it everywhere. In offices, in companies, among friends and in the underworld. But for a person like in this case Horisho, who has travelled and seen that there is an alternative way of teaching and learning it must have been hard to take all that when back home again. Maybe Bill Salmon plays a bigger part in Horisho’s success than any of them actually may be aware of?
This was the time when he decided to move down to Okazaki, the more quiet part of the country from hectic Tokyo. He took some time off from tattooing to learn more about all this for him new culture that he learned in India and so on. He told me that he was always reflecting on that Eastern and Western culture is the same, comes from the same source. That everything is a man made design and that it really doesn’t matter who is doing what, a design is a design…”kankenai” (doesn’t matter). Studying Buddhism and spirituality started to get a bigger part of his lifestyle and this is something that he is putting heavy weight on as a person and tattooist.
“To have that ‘personality’ is more important than anything if you want to reach that goal you are looking for” he tells me when we sit down in his studio and he starts to grind sumi, ink by hand for his next clients shoulder piece.
“The clients are pretty much the same here on the countryside as in Tokyo. They are well informed but think that a tattoo artist can do anything that is dished out to them. I have clients coming over with stuff they been taking from the Internet and magazines and then ask me if I can do just the same design on them”. “I try to educate my clients that I can not do anything as well as some other artists, that I have my own style and that it will not look the same as the flash from the magazines they brought. Most tattooists on the country side will do anything the client ask them to do because they are afraid they might loose that money. But to show the clients new ideas and possibilities is something that should be done and will pay off in the long run!” People here still have that old idea of Biomechanical designs though, that one with ripped skin mixed with metal parts. It’s more to it than that now, and my stuff isn’t like that even if it’s still under the same category”.
Horisho shows me some paintings he’s been working on and the mix between Japanese traditional and mechanical is clearly visible, the ‘bio’ part of biomechanical is not there but more, in his words “mecha-mechanical” touch. It’s very visually strong and is shouting ‘personality’ and new thinker.
“I have lately been studying more and more from images and designs archaeologists in China have found in excavated caves over there. This is something we here in Japan can relate to and it’s in our history as well,” he says.
I asked him if there are any tattooist or other person in the culture of this trade he steadily have contact with, in or outside of Japan. “Not really, but Horikoi in Toyohashi (organizer of Tattoo summit, Japans biggest tattoo event), Carlos from Tattoo Church in Tokyo and Horitomo in Yokohama (apprentice of Horiyoshi III) are some people here in Japan I have some contact with.Chris Trevino at Perfection Tattoo in San Jose, U.S.A and from Europe I know Claus Fuhrman in Austria. Fuhrman tattooed me in 94, but that’s was the last time I actually saw him” he continues “I would say that I have different relationship with different tattooists. Some strictly for business, some for friendship, try to keep the two apart!”
He says “I have heard of Lal Hardy in the U.K but it’s hard to get information from the British Islands over here in Japan and I guess they won’t hear about us either over there!”
Two Island nations far apart but might share the same stories and personalities for sure. Horisho told me that in the future if he gets more free time over from tattooing he would like to get his hands on machine building as well. And that ‘Mecka’ (mechanical) will play a big part of his style even in the future.
“You have to have fun doing this, be happy with your own personality and don’t get stuck in a pocket life where you are just a ‘tattooist’, or just a ‘biker’ or a ‘surfer’, these are all just names we can call ourselves. Work on your own style and create your unique personality and you can pursue the rest with ease later on”… WA O MOTTE TOTTO SHI or what we would say in plain English, ‘FLOW WITH HARMONY