Published: 01 November, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 153, December, 2007

Horiyasu is undoubtedly one of Japan’s top tattoo artists. A purveyor of magnificently vibrant wabori work, his sojourns overseas this year saw him take home prizes both at the New York convention for best overall tattooed person and best chest or back tattoo, and in Milan for best colour and best black & white, as well as 2nd best back piece.


Tucked away in an apartment in the Asakusa area is one of the leading tattoo artists in Japan, Horiyasu, a craftsman of highly regarded skill that specializes in wabori only; large-scale, striking pieces that are executed with a modern touch and have both local and international appeal.    

Asakusa is the region of West Tokyo known for its downtown culture that is home to the ultimate in traditional festivals, the Sanja festival in March that sees the heavily tattooed locals bare all for 3 days of bedlam. The region also houses an inordinate amount of top-tier traditional tattoo artists, working their underground operations out of apartments all over the district.   

Horiyasu is a master of the Japanese art, yet whilst he observes the old style work systems and ethics, he isn’t afraid to employ modern tattooing techniques; most tebori artists refuse to look at the work of others through a fear of contamination via proxy.   

He uses a tattoo machine and is not so obsessed with the past that he refuses to see the future, unlike many masters of Japanese whose mindset is excessively conservative. Horiyasu is quite open to new ideas and techniques, and whilst his sensibilities are traditional, they are executed with a contemporary twist and a decidedly modern aesthetic.   

Horiyasu has one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any artist in the Japanese tattoo scene. Starting as a sword smith working the blades for 16 years, he changed his career at the age of 36 and basically rose to the top whilst winning the respect of both the old school tebori artists as well as the modern street shop artists along the way.   

He says, “I was a sword smith for 16/17 years, starting when I was 22 years old, a year after I started getting tattooed. I was in Moriake at the time. My friend asked me to help him; he was a friend of the sword smith. At the time I liked swords too, I collected them.”   

But in this day and age Japan is probably better known for its new gadgetry, robotics, cars and cosplayers than its samurais, which makes one wonder if this is indeed another one of Japan’s dying traditions, lost in a sea of rush hour commuters, and techno-fetishism.   

Says Horiyasu, “There is Japan’s real tradition, but there is the reality of economics. Say the climate is good, people can buy a blade for three thousand easily, but if not, it’s not feasible. In terms of traditional arts though, swords are really high level. But if there is no work, you can’t do it for a hobby, so the all the traditions of Japan, not only swords, lanterns, tattoos, all these fantastic things of Japan, they disappear.”   

Whilst Horiyasu always had an interest in tattoos and wanted to be a horishi, he didn’t want to give up his current profession prematurely, and continued his work sharpening and perfecting blades for 16 odd years.   

He says the jump from sword smith to crafting tattoos wasn’t a huge problem for him though, “I saw some progression in my swords, and then I reached 36, which could be considered a landmark age. I thought hard about whether I wanted to do it, and sure I may have had some hesitations, but I’d been wanting to do it for such a long time, that I had a kind of confidence that I could do it.”   

“I had a love of tattoos for a long time, ever since I started getting them at age 21. I liked illustrations from a while back. I saw tattoos from when I was young, and I got a more cumulative interest in tattooing after I started getting (them) myself… My back, the outline and illustration I got done by Yokohama’s Horiyoshi II. The gradations were by Horiyoshi III. I saw Horiyoshi’s works when I was in Kofu. It had a lot of emotional impact.”

Despite his ambition, like any beginner artist, he faced the initial ordeals of not being able to insert anything, and says he worked for free for the first year, which was probably a humbling experience for someone of his age.    

Then came the laborious studying of illustrators like Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi and Hokusai, although for Horiyasu that was also a source of joy too. “When I see ukiyo-e, and then to do it on skin, to do it as you imagined, and to enjoy the client’s reaction too as you go along, that is very fascinating to me.”

However, one of the biggest points of interest is Horiyasu’s technique, switching from the tebori (which is de rigueur for traditional Japanese tattooing) to the machine work for which he is now famed.    

“At first I was doing it by hand actually, well the outline with machine and the shading with tebori, but if I thought about speed and so on, and of course as I was a beginner at the time, I was concerned about it. I thought I could do the shading with machine too….”   

“I’m friends with a guy who’s friends with Gifu’s Horihiro, and I went to Gifu, he can do both hand and machine, and does fabulous work with custom machines. It probably took him about 5/6 years to perfect his machines.”

Through his exploration of machine work, Horiyasu was able to finally insert brilliant and rich wabori pieces that had even the old-time tebori artists wonder how he manages to do such work with a machine.    

Watching Horiyasu work is intriguing in itself. First meeting him at a local Asakusa pub with his clients to have drinks and some local delicacies, he seems incredibly laid back, great sense of humor, and basically seems like a top bloke to have a good laugh and a beer with. However when he works, his demeanor and aura change to that of his sword smith days, scrutinizing his work with an intensity of gaze that is slightly unsettling.   

For Horiyasu, he feels a huge sense of achievement after each piece, and many of his clients come to him, not only for stellar work, but to improve their souls.   

“I was touched by some people, someone who lost their kid to a car crash, or fatally sick, they put their after-death name, then an imago of Kannon. They can change their lives like this. Tattoos can be somewhat lighthearted, you can get them as souvenirs, but many Japanese put them in often at
a turning point, like if they lose a kid, and can’t move on, when things are tough, during these times, they often insert things to make them strong.”   

“I feel a lot of responsibility as a result. But because I feel responsibility I make sure each line is given my fullest attention. When I am tattooing I can forget everything and go into it. I can feel fulfillment, and the client’s joy.”   

To see Horiyasu’s work in the flesh is to really feel the full impact of large Japanese pieces. Instantly recognizable, even from a distance, the work is powerful yet there is also a simple and sophisticated use of subtlety at play; it’s not so in-your-face as to be gaudy.   

He says, “Wabori is something traditional, so there are lots of meanings that go with it. As the body is a whole canvas, it’s a tale and ukiyo-e is the basis; the background is important. The clouds, the waves, it’s not just the illustration, it’s the back.”   

However unlike many Japanese traditional artists, Horiyasu says he also benefits from gaining outside influence, not just protecting traditions, and says his trips overseas are valuable education.   

“When I saw (Western) tattoos everything was basically different to Japanese; the way the tattoos were inserted, the shading, the use of color, the use detail, the designs, that was interesting. I really felt I saw something that didn’t exist in Japan, and it was quite influential. If there was something good, I liked it.”

On top of seeing other artist’s work at the convention he has attended, he has been taking home accolades, which fills Horiyasu with happiness to know that there are people interested in wabori.   

Aside from constantly producing immaculate pieces, interviewing Horiyasu is testimony to the fact that people who are successful are usually humble and let their work speak for themselves. Outside of the studio he likes a good drink, is incredibly hospitable and his clients wax lyrical about his purity of character.    

So what does the future hold for Horiyasu? “I guess I’ll get old and die… I mean, just keep going as it is,” he says laughing.    

If you have the time to spend in Japan, and want to get a larger scale piece, getting worked on by him in the area of Tokyo known for its artisan culture is surely a good way to spend your days in Japan. If you can’t make the trip out to Japan, catch him on one of his overseas trips, and marvel at his extraordinary pieces.    

Vanguard artists such as Horiyasu, with their cultural sensibilities yet modern outlook, is surely the way the Japanese tattoo scene will evolve. Whilst the importance of the masters who protect tradition can’t be stated enough, to witness Horiyasu’s work is to appreciate the future and potential of contemporary Japanese tattooing, set within the cultural parameters of a system that is centuries old.


Text: Maki Photos: Martin Hladik


Skin Deep 153 1 December 2007 153