Shige - Yellow Blaze Tattoo

Published: 02 November, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 146, June, 2007

One of the worlds best tattoo artists is Shige from Yokohama, Japan. If you were one of the lucky ones who attended the London Tattoo Conventions in 2005 & 2006, you couldn’t have missed seeing Shige’s amazing work. He was the big award winner, winning with his colourful bodysuits. Even though he was competing with the best tattoo artists in the world, like Filip Leu, Tin Tin and Paul Booth, Shige surpassed them all. Afterwards everybody was talking about Shige, and gathering around his booth taking pictures, as if he was a rock star. At the 2006 London Tattoo Convention, I had the chance to talk to Shige, and ask him about his background and his work.


Shige was born in 1970 in Hiroshima, Japan, and grew up in an artistic environment. He started tattooing in 1995, and has never done an apprenticeship, Shige is simply self-taught. In 2000 Shige and his wife Chisato opened their first studio in Yokahama, Yellow Blaze Tattoo, also called ”Ouen” in Japanese, where Shige still works today.


When did your interest for tattoos begin?

I first got interested in tattoos when I was working as a mechanic, specializing in Harley Davidson motorcycles. Then, in the early 90’s, I had frequent opportunities to see American tattoos. Since I was impressed with colourful designs on human bodies, I started to teach myself how to tattoo while working as a mechanic.


Where did you learn to draw? Have you studied at art school?

I did not go to school to draw. I taught myself everything. I studied all about tattoo by myself and taught myself how to tattoo. I grew up in a family that loves art. Both my mother and grandmother paint pictures and enjoy various artistic creations and activities. When I was a child, my mother provided me with an opportunity to take lessons in water colour painting at the private art classes for a few years, but I never went to any art school to get any art training. However, come to think of my childhood, I think that I lived in an artistic environment. I grew up looking at my mother’s painting and other art works in my house. That definitely influenced what I am now.   

Drawing has always been one of my hobbies. An experience that inspired me and changed me greatly, was participating in the art fusion camp at the Massachusetts Tattoo Festival 2002, hosted by Paul Booth. After that my interest in tattoos got even stronger. In the same year I had a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with the Leu Family for 3 months. This experience changed me completely, and I got more serious about learning about tattoo as art. When I came back to Japan, I participated in every “Art Fusion Camp” and continued drawing as much as I could. While working as a tattoo artist, I also started to design posters. Therefore, I had a chance to design the London convention poster. I will also design the Milan convention poster in 2007.

Have you ever had an apprenticeship?

No. I have never been an apprentice for anyone, any school, or any family. I have never been taught, nor have I had an apprenticeship with anyone. I learned to tattoo all by myself. When I started to tattoo in 1995, we didn’t have tattoo magazines that we have now in Japan. We didn’t even have the Internet. The tattoo shops on the streets were very rare. So, we didn’t have that much information about tattoo. I learned how to tattoo by tattooing on my own body. That was the only way and the best way to learn. However, in 2000 I met Filip Leu for the first time, he was the guest artist in the Tokyo convention and I got tattooed by him. I had never been tattooed by any professional tattoo artist until then. Getting tattooed by Filip Leu was my turning point. I learned a lot from observing how Filip Leu tattooed on my own body. I think that was my first learning experience and I believe that is the best way to learn. Apart from this, all the artists I have met at international conventions have inspired me in many different ways.

You’re not doing traditional Japanese style, so how will you describe your style?

My style is indeed different from traditional Japanese tattoo styles. Right now, you can call my style ”Shige style”. Let me tell you this first of all: I want to be an “artisan”, or “craftsman” before just being an “artist.” For me, having an artisan spirit is more important than producing artistic designs. Since I didn’t and don’t belong to any school, I don’t stick to Japanese traditional tattoo styles. I DO, however, study very hard the history and meanings of traditional materials that the Japanese culture has created. What I do is to have the tradition as the foundation and then to build it to create my original style. I have not completed establishing my own style yet, though. I am still working on that. So, I don’t tattoo the same design that I have done before. That’s my policy and I will continue doing so, so that I can continue to develop my work and myself.

What can you tell me about the Tattoo Scene today in Japan?

In current Japan, many tattoo magazines are published and we have a lot of information about tattoos. I feel that the level of the tattoo artists’ skill is improving. I am sure the skills will get better and better. Due to the wide publicity through various media such as magazines, the number of tattooists or tattoo artists has been growing drastically in a few years. That’s because more people want to get tattooed now. On the other hand, we have some problems. For example, the law does not protect us appropriately. I hope that the government will re-consider the law in order to develop the tattoo business in Japan.

Does Horioshi III influence you?

I feel that I am too young and greenhorn to talk about Horioshi III, but I sincerely believe that Horioshi III is the greatest tattoo artist not only in Japan but also in the world. I feel very fortunate that we have him, and that I have met him in person. I have met him only twice and talked to him only once in my life, though. I believe that his art works influenced on my work since they – his art works themselves – teach us and show us a lot of things about his beliefs and world views. I think the work tells everything about its artist. I own all of his books. So, though I have never seen Horioshi III tattooing, I have learned greatly from his work.

In 2001, you went to Lausanne, and worked with Filip Leu, in what way has that inspired you?

I spent 3 months in Lausanne with the Leu Family. That was really a learning experience for me, I learned a lot from their strong family ties. Actually, while I was there with my wife Chisato, she got pregnant. And now we have our lovely daughter. The primary aim to visit Lausanne was to complete the tattoo work on my body. Filip and I planned and designed together for 2 months and he finished his work in 1 month. I was truly inspired by his respect and understanding of the Japanese tradition and his creative and flexible imagination. Since I spent time with him planning, designing, and tattooing while I was there, that was my best learning experience in my life. I think getting tattooed is the best way to learn.

What other styles than Japanese have you worked in?

When I started tattooing, most of my work was small designs. Like a butterfly or a snake. That’s what the costumers wanted from me at the time. I designed all kinds of genres such as American traditional style, portrait, tribal, new school, and so forth. I guess this experience made my foundation. However, these days, people usually ask me to design whatever I want, rather than requesting me to design what they want. I incorporate the standard Japanese style into other styles, and by doing so, I have been trying to create a new style. I don’t hesitate to utilize any styles and techniques to create something original and beautiful. That’s the way I work, and the way I have learned – trials and errors. By the way, I have all kinds of styles and genres on my body, EXCEPT Japanese traditional tattoos.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue developing my own Japanese style based on the history and traditional culture of Japan.


Interview: Zsa Zsa Photography: Shige


Skin Deep 146 1 June 2007 146