Published: 29 January, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 137, September, 2006

Traditional Tebori Artist

On top of a tatami straw lain room lies a Japanese man of robust build, sweating a little, but lying perfectly still, while another man, slightly smaller and slightly younger, lightly taps into his skin with a bamboo rod, continuing the deft light to dark gradations that cover his skin, forming the swirling figure of a glorious dragon that covers nearly his entire body, the depth and detail of which can be described as stunning.


We are witnessing the art of Japanese tattooing that is tebori, in the studio of artist Horimyo - a space set up in a set of innocuous apartment blocks in the middle of Saitama city, on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo. While the space seems regular enough, it is evident that we are witnessing an esoteric and historical ritual whereby the process is of as much importance as the product.

While the manual insertions of irezumi has been around in Japan for over 2000 years, surprisingly, Horimyo is one of a very small handful of all tebori artists today, as the industry is predominantly been overtaken with machine artists in Japan, where increasingly tattoos are seen as a fashion statement. To artists like Horimyo however, tattooing is more than a fad; he is the artisan of a cultural process that is inclusive of his lifestyle, ethics and spirituality.

Catching an interview with the media shy Horimyo, it is evident that for him it’s tebori or nothing; and his work system follows an age old traditional ethic, which is why he refuses media coverage and advertising in Japan, as he wants to avoid the ideology that you can simply buy yourself in.While the more easily accessible tattoo machine method is easier for business, for artists like himself this is a labor of love, and the people who come to him seek him out as an artist of tradition with a passion for his work, as well as his superior technical skill.

“I only work via an introduction, it’s an old Japanese system whereby you don’t take just any client, and you don’t advertise. This is a great, old Japanese style in order to make your work more valuable. And as tebori is an old traditional culture, I use this system. It’s not commercial - I am an artisan, if you advertise, your craft becomes cheap.”

For Horimyo, its not that he feels tebori is better than machine tattoos, he feels a sense of responsibility to continue an important Japanese tradition that is in danger of dying out. “There are so few tebori artists, if I had to put a ratio to it, it’s a hard question. Nine and a half out of ten artists use the machine I guess? it’s hard to say exactly. All tebori people, as in people that use no machines what so ever, even for the outline, there couldn’t be 10 % maybe, to be extreme, maybe 0.1%, there really are very few. Everyone uses machines, or are machine outlined and teboru filled, and people who are all tebori really don’t advertise in magazines, so its more a case of no one knows. “

Horimyo explains that is not just about making your work exclusive, its about intimacy, and if a friend introduces a friend, there is already a relationship of trust, about making it more of a craft than a business. For the same reason, he refuses to do two pieces the same, and makes a new illustration for every client. If the client has no idea about the design he or she would like, Horimyo discusses what might be suitable for their personality, or conversely he ascertains the meaning of the tattoo for the client: Why do they want this tattoo? What in their life do they want to place importance on? How do they want to change their life by getting tattooed? While the design and aesthetics is also of paramount importance, semiotics and semantics are also of significance. 

So what are some of the reasons people want to get tattooed? “The main one is someone has had a kid, and they want to get their kids name tattooed. For example to make it a pattern, put it in a flower, put it in the sphere that a dragon carries in its claw, that’s a really common request. Or they want to mature, become stronger.“

Accordingly, he occasionally refuses clients because they don’t seem to have solid motivations for getting tattooed- they are simply taking the piss. And for some of his subjects, the process may take up to 5 years, so he does think hard about who he inks, and seemingly his favorite subjects up until now have been those that give him a lot of trust as well.

“One client let me do whatever on his entire body. He said I could do anything. That was fantastic. The old tattooing style was like this, the tattooist used to be the one to decide, but it has gradually changed. So I like it when someone gives me full artistic control. “

It is no surprise that tebori artists have to have training under an artist for several years before an artist can take clients. For Horimyo it took about 4 years to go from wanting to be a tattoo artist to actually doing it.

“I really wanted to do it. Now there is a lot of information, the Internet and magazines, but at the time there was really only one magazine, and the tattoos were yakuza style. At the time, to become a horishi equaled becoming yakuza. So I really did think a lot about whether I should get into this.”

While Horimyo maintains that none of his clients to date have been yakuza, it is this undeniable relationship between yakuza’s and irezumi that often makes it very difficult for artists like Horimyo to simply enjoy life as an artist. Instantaneously Japanese style tattoos are equated to yakuza, and while the media has increasingly featured pop singers, actors and actresses and models that have tattoos, there is still a pervasive mantra in people heads that tattooing equals gangster or something dangerous.

“Overseas tattooing is respected, but in Japan it isn’t at all because Japan still has the idea that Japanese tattooing equals yakuza. Despite the trend that tattoos are becoming fashionable, you can’t go to gyms, golf courses and saunas. When I went to America, I was told that that is discrimination, I really hadn’t thought of it like that before then at all. “

“It’s really stifling being a tattoo artist in Japan, overseas if you say you are a tattoo artist it’s great, but in Japan, you are in the shadows.”And apparently this means that not only are people with tattoos refused entry into gyms, saunas, and even golf courses; it can have other unpleasant repercussions too. “A girl I was dating 3 years ago, when her parents found out she was dating a tattoo artist, it became a huge problem! They were in uproar “Argh! Our daughter is dating a yakuza member!”Tattoo artists and people with tattoos in Japan are seen as a minority group that are strongly discriminated against and listening to Horimyo’s stories, it sounds reminiscent of the draconian times of apartheid. But 
Japan being a passive society, where people rarely litigate and social change is a complicated process due to the nature of the bureaucratic system, it’s unlikely things will change in a hurry.

“When I was overseas I got told that I should sue, but Japan isn’t a litigating society, and the idea of suing isn’t really prominent in Japan, and moreover I really doubt that we would win. But it was then I realized that the situation in Japan is a bit strange. That we really were getting discriminated against, but historically it’s been like that for so long and no one really speaks out so people take it for granted.”

Accordingly Horimyo thinks the only way to change the way for people to change the social climate is to make people see that tattooing equals art, so he is working on an art project called Thirteen Project (www.13project.com), whereby artists of other genres collaborate with tattooists, so that tattooing is given more respect. To do this successfully, he suggests that maybe its necessary to take Japanese tattoo art overseas.

Another large problem Japan faces is the aging population, which essentially means that any industry pertaining to youth culture will dwindle significantly. And while people of all ages get tattooed, the dramatic lack of young people in the future means that this has serious repercussions for tattoo artists, as many of their clients would be young.

Despite these problems, for Horimyo, he says Japan is still the best place for tebori artists, and amongst other things, his life outlook and sensibilities are essentially very Eastern. His spiritual sensibilities, and his Buddhism reflects upon how he works and lives and is of the highest importance when tattooing.

“Buddhism is related to everything. When you hear what top people in any field, not necessarily pertaining to religion say, what they say in regards to success is the same as Buddhism. So Buddhism to me is central to me more than religion it’s a way of living, success and philosophy. Buddhism (the Hokekyo sect) is about being grateful.”

“It’s the ideology of believing in yourself. In the end everyone parts, whether its family, lovers, relatives, friends. There is nothing that stays with you 24/7, only tattoos. You can only rely on yourself; at the end it’s only you. They say Buddhism is a fight to win or lose against yourself. To build one’s mind, body and soul, that is the way to get happy. I’m not really saying anything difficult, its just common sense really. But having said that, it’s easier said than done.”

So ultimately, for Horimyo tattoos and their faithfulness make them the ultimate soul mate. More than a job, it’s a lifestyle that incorporates his life philosophy and he says wistfully as a parting comment “The only thing stays with you till the end are tattoos, that’s why they are the best.”


Text: Maki Photography: Will Robb


Skin Deep 137 1 September 2006 137