Catclaw Tattoo - Japan

Published: 30 September, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 148, July, 2007

Kyoto is the old imperial capital of Japan, and is a “must see” place for any visitor to Japan. It is a sensuous city that retains many elements of traditional culture and is laden with temples, castles and shrines, as well as being the hub of many traditional arts.


Within the maze of old style narrow roads that house traditional inns, restaurants and shops is the Catclaw tattoo studio. Impeccably clean and welcoming, decorated with their striking illustrations, Catclaw is a strong name in the modern tattooing scene in Japan and is certainly the place to go to when you are in Kyoto.   

Kyoto is one of the more conservative cities in Japan, traditions are maintained here and the people are putatively the most orthodox in Japan, so in comparison to other neighboring areas, such as Osaka, where the people are renowned for being overtly boisterous, perhaps the tattooing scene is more “hidden” than in other cities.   

One of the CC artists, Ai, suggests that “I’m not too sure how many people are inked here, because it would be a real Kyoto thing to hide their tattoos!”

Having said that, Catclaw are constantly busy, are name dropped at conventions and have clients all over Japan coming to get work on by them. Open up any tattoo magazine in Japan, and a slew of Catclaw pieces dominate the pages.    

They are incredibly easy people to hang out with, and seemingly want to avoid the tattooing as a trend ideology that is spreading across Japan as it becomes a money making scheme, as opposed to doing it for the love of it and for good times.   

The thing about Catclaw tattoos is that they are easy to identify. Strong, and simple, and even though a large chunk of their work is American traditional, it is executed with Japanese artistic sensibilities, or conversely, they fuse Western elements such as dense line usage, and solid colours to create a somewhat powerful modern rendition of the classic Japanese tattoo.   

Being more than simple images, usually the tattoos are conceptual, combining ideas, and appealing imagery, and are purveyors of some of the most original designs available in the Japanese tattoo world- what you are guaranteed when going there is a truly unique piece of art.    

Catclaw is primarily made up of 4 artists, HoriNao, Hiro, Ai and Ritsu, operating over 2 shops. Each artist, whilst differing stylistically, is constantly dishing out punchy designs that are recognizable, even from a distance, and are often the most stand out pieces at conventions.    

Madoka, who is an ex-artist at Catclaw, although still has her hands in management and works at Shop #1. While she is on a break from doing tattoos herself, she is a columnist/illustrator for Japan’s top tattoo magazine “BURST”, writing a regular piece called “Aminism”, that doesn’t talk specifically about tattooing, but about things and concepts that surround the culture that are imperative to tattoo enthusiasts.    

At the heart of her columns, and the Catclaw ethic is the notion of “renewal”. While they are keen to maintain traditions, their idea is to make it applicable and accessible to contemporary audiences. In this way Catclaw and some of the surrounding shops in Nagoya and Osaka get a fairly learned audience, who have gone beyond the notion that “Japanese” or “Western” has to be of a specific format.   

Having influences from various historical eras of Japan, the tattoos have a characteristic design and color usage, which is somewhat like poster art in its clarity. And despite the trend towards super fine line detailing, their motto seems to be “keep it simple”.   

This is perhaps most evident in the works of HoriNao, Catclaw’s boss, who has been in the industry for 15 years, and is extremely skilled at all styles of work, with austere yet striking motifs, and subdued, dark colour usage. His work is exemplary of the influences from the Showa era, Meiji and Taisho era, a kind of art nouveau period with fantastic advertising art.   

He is all around skilled and capable of many types of stylistic works, although they always have that inexplicable Catclaw touch. The best thing for him about being a tattoo artist? “ I can live off doing what I love”   

Hiro has strong compositions, with bold, balanced works, executed with extremely acute design sensibilities. His larger works follow the lines of his subject’s body beautifully, and is highly regarded for his line work. Says Madoka, “Hiro is considered to be one of the top artists in Japan for circular designs”. Originally an airbrush and graffiti artist, he has been a professional tattooist for 6 years after practicing on his friends.    

He says of his designs “Its kind of 50/50, I take orders from clients so half is the client’s desires and half is my input. I make a story and accumulate a design with it, based on the person’s hobbies, interests and so on.”   

Ai is a lot of fun. Starting 5 years ago, Ai is Catclaw born ‘n bred and excels at anime influenced Japanese designs, with good use of softer colours that are particularly appealing to women. He usually fuses ideas and concepts to make truly unique, original characters and is popular for his ability to “read” his clients to fit something that fits their personality.   

He says “I kind of get people wanting either really grotesque things, or really cute/ pop things, nothing in between ….I use the most delicious part as a point, not as the main”   

Ritsu is all around skilled at everything, and says “more than having my own style, I can do anything”. Starting off in Florence in Italy, he then moved back to Kyoto and started at Catlclaw 3 years ago and has been there ever since. Ristu also excels at beautiful larger pieces.   

He says “the basis of a good tattoo is to make the client happy”. Maybe this philosophy is somewhat Kyoto-esque and makes this shop accessible, and downright appealing.   

Rather than being vehemently Japanese or Western, maybe the future of Japanese tattooing is creating a tattooing aesthetic that celebrates the best of both worlds. Visit the Catclaw studio on your sojourn to Japan’s most beautiful city and see this Kyoto shops’ rendition of contemporary tattoo art that doesn’t forget its cultural roots..


Text: Maki Photography: Tommy Oshima, John Harte


Skin Deep 148 15 July 2007 148