Published: 08 June, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 184, April, 2010

Horiren is one of the top horishi in Japan, and certainly one of the few females in this industry. Her work is simply incredible to see in the flesh. Perfectly balanced and consistent, with gorgeous use of colours, and an eye for composition.

Horiren is also one of the most flamboyant, and personable people in the Japanese tattoo industry today, with a humble demeanour, and a drive to take her art form to the full potential as her career progresses.
What are the similarities between traditional tattoos and other traditional crafts?
If you don’t constantly work, you lose your flow, so you can’t take really long breaks if you are a craftsman. And, I think it’s becoming less frequent, but if it is the world of Japanese tattoos, I think it’s the same as someone like a carpenter in terms of doing an apprenticeship, and that hierarchical system.
Who are your regular clients?
Definitely blue collar workers - like fire fighters, carpenters, and also the most common are the people that work at traditional Japanese festivals with mikoshi (portable shrines). They are a type of craftsman too.
What do they want tattooed?
Dragons and carp are really common, but if you are talking about human characters, then Buddhist deities, and the protagonists of suikoden are the most popular.
When people come to you, do they have an idea of what they want?    
I don’t advertise, or list my studio anywhere, so it is really word of mouth. So my customer will tell the next person that I am good at a particular thing. So we start with a meeting, and I get them to look at all my books. Some people look at my references all day, literally, and I don’t encourage them decide straight away. I get them to think and go home and think about the design some more. So they usually think of the motif they want right here, they usually are quite conscious of the meanings though.
Why do people get tattooed?
The most common reason is to do motifs to do with their birth year, for example, if they are born in the year of the monkey, they will put in Dainichi Nyorai. Or their child’s birth year, or the meanings of the animals themselves. For example, for protection, or personal progression. Or to become stronger, they will insert a god that represents strength too.
Why do you think people get tattooed?
I think it’s a kind of psychological weapon, or a shield.
When did you first get into the tattoo world?
When I was in Australia travelling on my own, I was walking along and found a tattoo shop, and went straight in! It was in Sydney, when I was walking around the Kings Cross area.

What did you get tattooed?
Agh! I don’t want to say! A really small dragon…
What, why did you go to Australia for that?
Yes, I know…ha, ha, I still have it…
Then what happened after that?
I got tattooed there, and went travelling around Australia on my own. I was in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Darwin. If I saw a tattoo shop, I would just go in and get a tattoo. Because it was tattoo flash work with a price on it, that’s what I thought tattoos were about. But because I was an illustrator at the time, when I was on the plane home, I realized, why didn’t I didn’t get an original tattoo? It was a real regret! Around that time, I thought about becoming a horishi, but because I was a material artist, I held off trying for another six years. My mother was sick, so I needed to support her financially. After she became better, I basically quit, and I went straight into tattooing. At the time I was only doing one point tattoos (small tattoos), for about 8 years. Then 5 years ago, I changed direction.

Did you ever have a teacher?
No, never. At the time there was no Internet, so I really was just looking at magazines like Tattoo Burst, and Jitsuwa document (the yakuza journal), ha ha!
I was looking at the works of Horiyoshi III, and Horiwaka and the works inside Jitsuwa document for inspiration.

Occasionally there are some astonishingly crap pieces in there!
Yes, really, but you can actually learn from that, in both a negative and positive way!
At what point did you feel comfortable calling yourself a tattoo artist?
Oh, at the point that I took on a name, the name “Horiren”, because up until then I
didn’t have a name. I got asked by a client
to put my name in the piece, and I hadn’t
thought of it, and he was the first client
who paid me properly.
    Up until then it was people who had just paid me 2000 yen per hour, to cover the cost of the needles. He paid me the amount a regular horishi earns, and told me, ‘You can earn a living as a horishi now, so please put your name in the piece’. At this point I was given the confidence to work as a horishi.
So you were doing it on your own the whole time, did you ever think to enter a shop?
No, I mean, I didn’t even know how to work at a shop, or approach one either.
Why did you want to learn tebori?
I guess because I’m Japanese, and when you see it in videos and books, you really want to try it.
What is the most advantageous a
spectof tebori?
A type of nostalgia? A type of fine art? Where you are inserting one needle at a time I guess. When it’s a machine, it seems like the machine is moving on its own, with tebori there is a certain beauty in the fact that you need to insert it manually, or the colours won’t go in the skin. It’s a really meticulous job.
Like, for example if you are making a sweater, you can knit it by hand, or just use a machine - and the feeling and heart in it is really different. Like a craft.
How long does it take for you to do it to a professional level?
Not before two years. Because of the speed.
And sumi gradations are really difficult. It’s really hard to do gradations over a large area. If you change your feelings, it’ll become thicker, so it’s really hard to do.
How long did it take with a machine?
To be honest, I was tattooing myself for three hours, and then I took a client…
I use machines now if they are in a huge hurry, or my clients that I started with a machine, I’ll continue using one, because if you add tebori, the look changes.
Do the colours hold well with tebori?
It’s hard to say, it is said that that is the case, but I actually think it’s the sumi ink that is holding up well. But in terms of colours, it’s a lot to do with the maker of the colour, and the person’s skin. But I think it is harder to degrade.
Do you make everything yourself?
Yes, everything but the bamboo, I buy myself, from Saitama. It is light and has elasticity, and is somewhat nicer to the skin. I used to use a metal tool before.
How does Japanese society see tattoos?
Oh there is still a lot of discrimination. Once I got kicked out of my house for being a horishi. When I was in Hasuda, I was an artist, and the landlord leased the place to me, but when I was tattooing, it became known when I was in a magazine. Not long after, the police and the landlord came over, and told me to leave.
I really love houses, and I would go to a real estate agent to get a house, and no one would lease one to me. So I just bought this place. They won’t give me life insurance either.
The way tattoos are seen has changed
slightly though, by the general public. Ten years ago, if you had a small tattoo on your arm, even though they will stare at it now, before people would quite obviously avoid you. Now they might look at you, but they aren’t that scared.
Who do you respect?
Horiyoshi III, because of his psychology and philosophy towards tattooing. What he feels it is to be a horishi. His motivation supersedes other horishi and he studies so much, and thinks about tattooing 24/7. I really think he is most well read tattooist. And Horiyasu for his technique. It’s unbelievable.
How does a person learning Japanese improve if they are not in Japan?
I would just suggest just living here for a bit, so they can experience the nuances with the seasons. We are a nation of season lovers; it would be great for people to know about the beauty of the seasons, and then Japanese paintings (nihonga).
So, don’t look at other tattoos, look at painters, you will improve tenfold.
What ukiyo-e artists do you study?
Kyosai, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi, and Kuniyoshi, but Kyosai is number one. The shear number of his works and his energy is phenomenally different. I think it’s amazing that he drew a Buddhist deity a day. Not only is he good at what he does, he is tough, and work very hard at his art.
Do you think tebori is a disappearing art?
No, I think it will become more popular. The world’s tattoo scene is really focusing on tebori, so maybe it will be the non-Japanese that will take up tebori, like Chinese, Koreans or Taiwanese, etc. and occasionally there are westerners as well. If people focus on this, I think the number of people that do it will increase, which is great.
What foreign masters of Japanese do
you like?
There are many, but Jack Mosher is one of my favourites. He seems to understand Japanese art brush technique really well. And he seems to have a huge amount of work! For Japanese artists, it’s really important to draw exponential amounts of work, and when you think like this, Mosher has a lot.
What direction do you think the Japanese scene will go in, in the future?
It’s a really difficult question. Like at the moment its quite chaotic with people saying they do Japanese, or Western, and eventually I think people will just get their own characteristics. Even the way I do tattoos is traditional Japanese, but I’ll also do one point work, so the client’s orders will become more significant.
Do you ever intend to have apprentices?
Yes, as I progress and can do outlines like Horimyo with all tebori, I would like to pass on my style to someone eventually.
What goes into a Japanese apprenticeship?
I learnt on my own, but there are two systems, live-in’s and those that just turn up for the day. The live-ins’ really do all the cleaning and other chores, or conversely there are some places that only teach tattooing. Some places are really lengthy, and others let you go after a year.
Is it difficult to work as a female horishi?
I’m not really conscious of it. I usually hide the fact that I’m a female horishi, and my clients will come in, and be surprised. If it’s in English, there might be a he or a she, but in the Japanese magazines, I don’t really make a point of including it.
So you haven’t really been discriminated against because you are a female?
No…I haven’t had that at all!

How about socially?
I’m really not conscious of it, like I was originally an artist and doing it on my own.
But, for instance, say you are buying a house, and you need a loan, if you are a female or male, the amount is completely different, like about 20,000,000 yen difference. You can really call this discrimination, and for things like tax issues, if you are a male, they will ask to see a year’s worth of activity, and with me, it was 7 years. If you do work like this, and you are a female, there are repercussions for females doing a job like this. It’s strange as the work is the same.
Is there anywhere you wish to go in
the future?
I got asked by the folks at Monkey Tattoo to come to the Borneo convention. I’m interested in that, and I’d like to visit Thailand…
I really wish there would be a great convention in Japan. I went to Amsterdam and London. In Amsterdam I took prizes two years in a row, and 3rd in London.  Then of course, Doncaster for Tattoo Jam.

What is the most interesting thing about the western tattoo scene?
They really talk quite candidly about their techniques and inks, which is really amazing.
In Japanese its not really colourful, the amount of colours they use are limited. In the West they look like they are having fun with colours and it’s beautiful.

Are you a traditionalist?
No, I’m more progressive… like for example I see the works of Kyosai and there is English in the text, or Fudo Myoo eating meat, he will openly display contemporary life in his illustrations, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to put in the stimulation of what’s going on now. Maybe that is the basis of progression.
What’s the best thing about being a horishi?
That there is a human connection, I feel responsibility, and so I really look after people. The connection between people is really purely a tattoo thing, especially if someone comes for one, two three years. They feel pain, we drink together, and we will go eat together, so sometimes I feel they are closer than my family, my friends and my partner. And it’s forever… that you are part of someone’s “forever”
It’s a real relationship of trust.


Text: Maki Photography: Maki, Hiro & Horiren