Nagoya: Introduction

Published: 01 May, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 160, May, 2008

Chubu is the area between Tokyo and Kyoto, the centre of Japan with massive landscape variations, ranging from the beaches to the Japan Alps. It’s an area that boasts some of the top tattoo artists in Japan, with a plethora of both traditional tebori artists and modern street shops, as well as housing Japan’s longest running tattoo convention, the Toyohashi Tattoo Summit in September - this area is not one to be missed by lovers of high quality, original tattoos. Having checked out Osaka and Kyoto, Skin Deep took a trip from Nagoya (an area dense with top-level tattoo artists) and travelled along the Tokai train line to the beach area of the Izu Peninsula.

Nagoya is Japan’s fourth largest city and is remarkably famous for very little, in terms of tourist attractions. Being a stop-off on the bullet train line, most visitors that do come here are usually camping out to visit the fabulous Ise Shrine in the nearby town of Ise. Close by is the Nagoya castle, and with it the city’s apparent claim to fame – its most ubiquitous inventions that are the pachinko pinball parlours. Needless to say, the city itself is remarkably non-descript. What Nagoya does have that makes it unique, are the super laid back locals, and a huge car culture (including Kustom Kulture) owing to the success of the Toyota factories nearby, so the love of cars is somewhat ingrained in the local’s psyche.

There are many Brazilians there as a result, being heavily employed by car companies, and hence the atmosphere is noticeably more multicultural than many cities of Japan. Given the notion that it’s acceptable just to go a tattoo shop because it’s close to you is slowly (or hopefully) dissipating, many people in Tokyo, artists and consumers alike, go to Nagoya to get tattoos from an area that is hot for talent.

Nagoya is home to big names such as Sabado and Genko of Eccentric (featured in Issue 140 December ’06 of Skin Deep), now in their own independent studios in an area called Osu. Ever-popular for their amazingly bold, vibrant works, their solid line usage is incredibly powerful and executed with such technical prowess that it makes them a huge favourite with local and overseas collectors.

If you haven’t already done so, check out their websites, and prepare to get your eyes knocked out. Both artists explore the possibilities of tattoo art, taking it in directions that are considered groundbreaking in Japan - their foundations are solid but their imagination is limitless - backed with skill that makes them highly respected by all tattoo artists.

Many artists get massive Japanese New Skool pieces by them and are filled with anecdotes of their marathon 14-hour drilling sessions. On numerous occasions I have heard artists saying that Sabado is simply Japan’s best modern tattoo artist - his technique and vision are unparalleled.

8 Ball is the other top tier street shop in Nagoya that has an incredibly difficult location to find, ensuring that their clientele are really going to them for a specific reason and not just walking by. Clean, friendly and can place a great tattoo, the 3 artists, Horitake, Horigyn and Yashin all have much experience and talent.

Jackpot Studio ( is another shop in front of the station that does cater to the walk-in crowd. Sister shop of 8 Ball (, they are up-and-coming, steadily building up their repertoire.

Get on the Bullet Train for ten minutes and you are Sinvi World, home of Maika. Maika is a female Japanese traditional artist whom is always a massive draw card at conventions, with her prolifically sized yet delicate Japanese tattoos.

She is one of the most highly lauded female artists, being a student of Horikoi, and is one of the few that does traditional Japanese very well. She tells us, “The beauty of Japanese Irezumi is that even if you take a single black, you will never get the same colour. Instead of putting lots of small complicated things in a limited space, I think there is a basic expressive size, no matter if it’s a koi, dragon, or a human character, and instead of ignoring this standard, it’s better to put in something clear.”

“Its not like I don’t want to see new things, like, I want to check out magazines, but inevitably, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t mind going back and doing things that aren’t done anymore. Take things to the start and do two colour tattoos and treasure the clients that are after this kind of work.”

Tattoo Tribe’s Naoki is a tattooist in a clean studio 15 mins from Nagoya station. He speaks English, and let’s just say that he is into some abstract philosophies, creating some great neo-Japanese pieces with good colour usage that will no doubt age well.

Going East, the next stop is Okazaki city. This is home to Mindscape’s Horisho who is a fantastic artist, does great tattoos and was profiled in Skin Deep, is a very easy to approach cool guy with a great attitude, and is also the co-organizer of the Toyohashi convention.

When we ask him what the difference between Nagoya and elsewhere is, he says: “This is just my opinion, but it’s the same as East and West coast differences. Like Tokyo there are lots of Black and Grey shops. And the style is more realistic. Kansai is really loud, even if you look at the clothing, a bit like the West coast. Nagoya is the middle so it’s the medium, a mix.”

“The clientele are changing; I get more girls. I used to get a lot of blue-collar workers, carpenters and factory workers, but now I’m getting people like hairdressers and fashion people. Okazaki is close to Toyota so there is a car culture.”

He is a competent all-rounder, doing everything from Japanese tribal to biomechanical and says, “With tribal, tattoo artists often don’t like it, saying it's for beginners, but say, Japanese traditional tattoos have been around since Edo, tribal has been around since the Jomon era. I do Japanese-ish tribal where everything is different, but I do it so it’s a ‘Horisho’ piece.

Next stop is Toyohashi. This industrial city is a landmark on the tattoo map because of the highly lauded Tattoo Summit in mid-September that sees the best of Japanese and overseas talent come over for 3 days accompanied by tattoo enthusiasts from all over Japan in a balls-out display of skill. Toyohashi is more “serious” than the other events, in that the focus is on tattooing rather than drinking and bands.

Toyohashi organizer Horikoi has a studio here in a rather non-descript set of apartments 15 minutes away from the station. A master of tebori, Horikoi is no doubt one of the top traditional artists in Japan and is a highly respected figure in the Japanese scene.

Traditional tebori “horimono” are the pinnacle of what Japan has to offer in terms of exquisite tattooing. However, the system is very much unlike a walk-in shop, and a booking is made way in advance. Usually whilst you suggest what kind of motifs you want and the basic placement and size, this isn’t the kind of environment where you take in something you have drawn and make an order; you go with full understanding and trust of your Horishi, who will place a timeless work of art that will fit with your body and flow with it perfectly.

Horikoi is no different - his works are magnificent and supremely detailed. Like all good tebori, from a distance it is easy to understand and powerful, but under closer scrutiny, there is incredibly sophisticated detailing. The colours are rich, the shading is exquisite, and the black takes on a gorgeous hue. If you are lucky enough to get worked on by Horikoi, you will wear a piece of art from one of the top, as well as a truly memorable experience.

Bullet Train it again onto Shizuoka. Now you are in the next prefecture over - Shizuoka is approximately Japan’s geographical centre. Its people are super chilled, and it’s probably most famous for being home to Mount Fuji.

Here you will find the tattoo shop Hocus Pocus. Of all the shops I have visited in Japan, this studio is one of the most immaculate and is really a great workspace, with its high ceilings and clean, funky styling. For many Japanese clients who are worried about the underground image of tattoos this is particularly important, as they are often scared off by the underground image of tattoos that are done in people’s apartments.

Makoto, an artist there, is a super friendly guy and another all-rounder and places a great tattoo, especially larger pieces of the Oriental/Japanese persuasion. Tattooing since ‘94, he travelled around Japan and settled back at Shizuoka several years ago, saying, “I could do the illustrations I liked, and the clientele were good - Shizuoka is probably the most average place in Japan. If a company puts out a new product, they test it on Shizuoka people! The winter climate is mild, the summer is mild, and the people are easy going.”

Makoto goes by the ideology that he should be able to insert anything rather than stick to one style, and says of what is going on this year, “Same as music probably; it goes in cycles. Just before it was Japanese illustrations, now it’s Tibetan - with my clients, at least. In Japan there are lots of people wanting lettering this year…such as Kanji, and English, for some reason.

“The clientele usually come in groups - this happens a lot in areas out of the big cities. Like say one kid wants a dragon, the next will want a carp. But still it will be in the Japanese genre. “

He is a familiar name with tattoo aficionados in Canada too, going over there often to guest with TCB Tattoo in Toronto.

Last stop is Izu. This is a famous resort town and is a great weekend getaway, being quite close to Tokyo (only 100 kilometres away) and yet it has stellar crystal blue beaches, good waves and cliff-side hot springs. Historically there is much Yakuza influence; gambling and geisha activities operate in this area. In the sleepy town of Numazu, we find Horihiro, a hotrod collector and a tattoo artist with solid pieces, and a book that consists mainly of body suits with dense colour usage.

Horihiro has a decidedly underground clientele from all four major Japanese syndicates. The day we visit him, he is placing a tattoo on an incredibly high-spirited boss (who makes an impressive appearance in a black-tinted blingmobile) who has nearly completed his full body suit. Horihiro starting his career as a tattoo artist building his first machine out of transistor radio parts and tattooing his friends at age thirteen.

For him, this career was a somewhat natural process as his mother was a geisha, and hence he saw many men with full body suits come into the house as a child. As 80% of his clients are Yaks, most of his pieces are full body suits in various stages of completion, and he tells us, “If I make a mistake, because of the nature of my clients, it's a huge problem- I can’t afford to make any errors!”

For Horihiro, the Yakuza are a part of the business (take note, many street shops have a no Yakuza policy, and this isn’t the norm) and he says “They turn up on time, they pay on time, they are good clients, but I have many clients who are a week off completion of their suit and then they will get caught and have to go to jail for six or seven years…that sucks, really.”

Horihiro also has a plethora of foreign clients due to his shop’s proximity to a military base, and is capable of doing other styles of work. He’s an incredibly approachable, very friendly guy with a big personality familiar to anyone in the hotrod scene, and checking out his homepage, you can see his formidable collection.

Drop by his shop, even for a cultural experience, and a friendly chat, meeting Horihiro, a true underground tattooer that refuses Japanese tattoo media coverage, was a real pleasure.

This is only a slice of what goes on central Japan- come over here, pick up a copy of Tattoo BURST magazine and make sure you aren’t missing any tattoo shows whilst you're on your travels! With all the talent up the coast, don’t go straight from Kyoto to Tokyo or vice versa, check out Nagoya and the surrounding areas and see some of the best tattoo artists that Japan houses.


Photos: Geoff Johnson, Tommy Oshima, Martin Hladik Words: Maki


Skin Deep 160 1 May 2008 160