Irezumi - Horiyoshi III

Published: 23 September, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 151, October, 2007

Horiyoshi III is a living legend.

For over 40 years now he has been working for bringing irezumi out from the underworld. In the 80’s, he was one of its modernizers. By introducing the machine in the hand-made tradition he revolutionized the world of tattooing. At 60 years old, in his studio located in Yokohama, he’s still one the of the finest needle artists in Japan.


What was your first contact with tattoo ?

When I was 11 years old, I saw my first full-body tattooed, from the neck to the feet, in a public bath, a Sento. It was a cultural shock, I was so impressed. It was like having some kind of Godzilla in front of me. Nevertheless, I thought it was really beautiful and I started thinking about it. 10 years later, I was starting tattooing unprofessionally.

At that time, was it difficult to become a tattoo artist?

That’s not an easy way, that’s for sure. But I must say, and this is true for everything, that the most difficult thing to do is something you don’t like. Even for the customer. Tattooing is painful, expensive and takes a long time. But the love that everybody brings harmonizes the whole stuff.


You have studied under the authority of Shodai Horiyoshi, how did you get in contact with him?

At 21 years old, I sent letters to tattoo artists that I had selected, asking to be their disciple. I never got any answers. Neither from Horiyoshi and Horiyoshi II, his son. Later on, still without any news from them, I decided to knock straight on Horiyoshi II’s studio door. I explained to him my motivations and he finally agreed. At that time, Horiyoshi II was getting tattooed, and I took part in it. Then, he worked on mine too, as did Horiyoshi and other disciples.

You have been one of the first to use both tebori and machine, why?

I discovered the machine in 1985, and I instantly figured out its efficiency in certain aspects. It was impossible to give up the tebori technique because this technique was at the beginning of my career, this is where irezumi comes from. I think it’s important to keep your mind on the idea that every job was at first done by hand.

Do you consider yourself as an artist or a craftsman?

I don’t like tattooists that consider themselves as tattoo artists. I’m a craftsman. If some people consider it as art, why not. Art can be everywhere and in everything, it’s just a matter of point of view. But to me, it’s not. A tattoo is not a bad thing in itself, but it’s not a good thing also.

Every family works with its own interpretation, what is yours?

Where does tradition start, where does it end? I think it’s something that never stops and ends. It’s something that passes time with old roots but also changes under the influence of modern things. Modern Japanese tattooing took shape under the Meiji era, itself a step further from the Edo era, which also goes back to the past. There’s no idea of tradition as something ‘old’, with the obligation to work in a certain way, with the same tools… If I would make a comparison, I would say it’s like a snake that changes its own skin from time to time. We could say that my tattoos are from the Shôwa era (it started in 1926, when Hiro-Hito became the new Emperor, and ends at his death in 1989.)

So, what does the Heisei (since 1989) era’s Irezumi look like?

It’s a mix between European and American tattoo. He’s in a great development. Tradition is for me something that sticks to old times. Tattoo doesn’t go the same way. As for Kabuki Theatre or Nô, they are from Japanese culture, but sometimes they meet foreign elements that create a new culture even if it’s not strictly a new Japanese culture.

Did the boom in tattooing changed your customer’s profile?

Very few young people come to my studio because they don’t know about traditional culture. Anyway, they are interested in tattoos. But most of them are influenced by sports stars, music icons… it’s a really different world from the one I’m living in, automatically affiliated to yakuzas. Of course, some of them will have the will to become outlaws. Tattoo is still very and deeply stigmatised in Japanese society, forbidden in public baths, onsens, even sometimes, restaurants.

What are the motivations of your customers?

Some of them choose the tattoo because they are aware of the story behind it. Most of them choose it for the design. For the tattooist, it’s his responsibility to know the story of the design. For example, the flowers symbolises are related to the seasons. If you miss the staging the tattoo doesn’t mean anything. It’s very important to keep in mind that things must stand in order. The tattooist must know the body of his customer and find a balance. The neck is the sky, the back is the earth, and the feet are the water. Then the body, aware of these areas must tell you something.

What is the essence of the Japanese tattoo?

The most important thing to remember is yakusoku, the promise. The respect of this commitment must bring tattooist and customer together until the end of it.

Your son, 22 years old, is supposed to follow you, how do you prepare him?

The best would be that he carries on with what I did. But he will himself decide the best way for him. Of course, I try to guide him, but I’ll let him free to make his own choices. Anyway, the father has the responsibility to educate his children and my duty is to teach him tattooing.

You are now 60 years old, do you think about retiring?

No. First of all because I have so many customers around the world that I can’t stop like that. Then, it’s not economically possible, I need to work. Of course it’s a really tricky question, but I would say that like in any kind of profession, it’s difficult to stop completely. That’s life.



Photography & Text: Pascal Bagot