Chopstick Tattoo

Published: 01 January, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 156, February, 2008

Chopstick Tattoo are one of the most famous and established shops in Japan- known for both their quality, and originality, their artists (Ton, Kozuru, Nattsu, Nissaco, Magoshi, Wataru and Benny) are considered to be some of the top tattooists in Japan. They are probably snatching the large majority of the visiting Western customers too with their standout designs. Artists and customers alike consider them as one of the top shops at the centre of the Osaka scene.

The area near Shinsaibashi subway station called ‘Amerika-mura’ is considered the hub of Osaka’s youth culture. A plethora of subculture, clothing and record shops are clustered there, and if you like Japanese street fashion this is where it is represented the strongest. The weekends see up to 200,000 kids out at one of the 3000 shops that are crammed into this labyrinth of streets selling everything from 2nd hand Levis at extortionate prices to gothic Lolita wear, and hip hop records to rockabilly garb.

Amerika-mura kids are hardly shy - they are looking to get something to express their individuality. Looking through the Chopstick portfolios, they are packed with some of the strongest and most original work of any shop in Japan. Says Kozuru, an artist of 15 years experience, “There are many young artists coming out, so it’s really interesting; it’s great, lots of interesting people, Osaka is getting hot.” Nissaco adds, “I don’t know the difference between Osaka and other places but Amerika-mura is totally fantastic for tattooing.”

If you have a tattoo shop in this vicinity, you have to have somewhat ‘made it’, as it is considered a hub for top modern street tattoo shops. Chopstick were the first shop in this area, starting with one and then expanding to two shops - both almost in the centre of the action, and a third shop in another boutique district nearby. Even for the regular person who knows nothing about tattoos, they would have probably heard of the name ‘Chopstick Tattoo’ before.

Whilst they all have all-rounder capabilities, they do still have quite characteristic tendencies. Although Ton tells us that he has had to do an absurd amount of butterflies on girls, his portfolio is filled with oriental motifs such as Buddhist and Hindu gods, goddesses and effigies, as well as outstanding work with wildlife, animals and flowers. Kozuru is renowned for his original Japanimation tattoos, especially of girls, Nissaco for his Tribal (and is considered one of Japan’s best for this ever-popular style). Nattsu is known for her cute feminine designs, tattooing a plethora of adorable girls, or metro sexual boys; “I like animals, such as frogs that are drawn like cubes.”

The Chopstick artists are some of the coolest and easy to hang out with guys in the tattoo scene, their sense of humor and their friendliness makes spending any amount of time with these guys guaranteed to be fun. Ton is lauded as one of Japan’s best. If you talk to other tattoo artists, they will often say his work is outstanding, an inspiration, and many tattoo artists collect his work. His understanding of form, colour and balance is exquisite. Realistic and immaculately detailed, his pieces display his innate sense of creativity; his work is powerful yet sophisticated.

If you are going to Japan and want some interesting tattoo work in an entirely accessible environment, Chopstick is a great place to check out and many of their clients are not local, but come in from all over Japan and overseas; every time we have dropped by, there is always someone on holiday being worked on by Ton or Kozuru.

Says Ton, a good tattoo is one that “makes the client happy and exceeds the clients expectations… It’s really the most memorable when a client tells me that it’s a lot better than they expected, and were happy that they let me do it.” This is the work ethic that the Chopstick artists go by, that makes going to them a pleasurable experience. Drop by one of their 3 shops on your next visit to the tattooing hub that is Osaka and discover why they are one of Japan’s most popular shops.


How did you first get into this industry?
In the beginning, I saw the tattoos on American bands, and I thought it was cool, basically, when I was 16. My friend introduced me to someone that does tattoos. At the time, it wasn’t in fashion like it is now, at all, so I went to a wabori sensei’s house. Tattoos didn’t even really exist so much, so people who had them usually got them from America when they were over there, small pieces usually.
So at the time for me to put a tattoo in, was a really big deal. Asides from me, the clientele were mostly Yakuza. I got a tattoo, and then suddenly they just kept increasing, then, as I was getting them put in, the process began to look interesting…Like doing like this, why does colour go into the skin? I gradually wanted to do it myself…so then I learnt myself. That sensei gave me a rotary machine and I practiced on my leg, 11 years ago. So that was the start, not via illustrations…

At the time, what was it about tattoos that you found fascinating?
Gees! It’s not fashion…it’s a strange fascination, really.

Do you still feel the same way?
No, it’s totally different now. The reason I want tattoos is because I like the work of a particular artist, like a collector. As someone who tattoos, I like the actual act of tattooing.

When did the three Chopstick shops open?
The first one is in its tenth year, the 2nd was six years ago, and the Horie shop was two years ago.

How is the tattoo scene different to now and then?
Well, there are way more artists now and in the beginning there was a lot of importation; American traditional and new school, but gradually, Asian styles and Japanese are getting more popular with the regular customer.
And in my case, the people that want big pieces, they are increasing a lot, or they start with middle size tattoos and then gradually join the pieces together. The tribal and American traditional that were really popular before are, at this shop in particular, dwindling.
As tattoo artists go more towards the source, to Japanese, oriental tattoos will only increase more. I’ll probably keep going in this direction too, oriental style with Japanese sensibilities.

How long did it take to develop your own style?
Well, it’s not like I’m so developed now! I got into Oriental about seven years ago, doing lots of gods, goddesses, Hindu, or Buddhist motifs, etc. as well as flowers, butterflies, birds and things like this. As for colors, I’ll do really vibrant tattoos and also demure ones in the Japanese style, mostly freehand…But I mean, I’ll insert anything I’m interested- in even biomechanical- everything BUT American traditional. I figured it just doesn’t look the same when a Japanese person does it…just trying to copy, and not really getting it right.

Say you get a client who says, “Do anything you want on me”, what would you insert?
I don’t know! ‘Cos my feelings change so much depending on the day….

How about if it were tomorrow?
(Laughs) Well, say I’m watching Spiderman now, thinking, that’s so cool, I might put in a spider tomorrow.

What is the basis of the oriental tattoos you are renowned for?
Basically it’s Shinto and Buddhist- I’m not too sure of the appeal for me personally, but there is definitely a fascination. I guess it’s a curiosity or a thirst for knowledge about Japan’s Buddhist roots, looking at places like temples… I can really feel it…
I got into the illustrations and things like decorations; my house has loads of these things, like Buddhist effigies. I seem to like these religious motifs. Lots of people see my work on the net, then come and ask me what the meaning of certain god is.
So, basically they are into the visual appeal first, and then ask about the semantics. Or they might approach me saying, ‘I want to put something Japanese into my back, things like the god that represents my birth year.’ I get requests like this a lot.

So lots of your clients come prescribing meaning to their tattoos?
Yeah, I think it’s good for your tattoos to have meaning. Also it’s fun for me as an artist to insert tattoos with meaning. I also get people wanting to get stronger, to transform…for empowerment.

You have a collection of reference books that would make a public library jealous… How do you gain more knowledge to improve your tattooing?
Loads of places- photos, nature - mostly nature.

What in nature do you look to?
(Laughs…points to aquarium) Here.

Is this nature??
Fish, and goldfish - I look at them lots… points to Axolotl… “I tattooed him the other day. Also seeing things like the cherry blossoms. Then, movies- I heard the visuals of ‘Sakuran’ was really beautiful, and so I went and observed the use of colour.
Theatre, things like kabuki. When I first started, I used tattoo magazines loads for reference, but now I don’t use them anymore. I like to get inspirations from things asides from the tattoo world.

What advice would you give to foreigners wanting to get into Japanese tattooing? I mean EVERYONE would know this, but I would have to say, study Kuniyoshi. You know, also Japanese ikebana (the art of flower arranging) is also great for learning. It’s really deep; the basis of Japanese art is all there like in the West the ideology is to ‘add’, with Japanese it’s all about subtraction - what you can express using the minimum, the base.

What do you do for machines?
I get custom made machines- some foreign, and some from Japan. I never use a machine as it is. It’s probably similar to the rotary machine that my first sensei used. The shader has high torque, really slow but strong.

Seeing you are in a hotbed of talent in Osaka, with countless numbers of shops in a very small radius practically stacked on top of each other, what makes you stand out?
(The) ability to insert a tattoo of any genre. We can cater to collectors, and the regular clientele equally - we have artists of all styles, (from) tribal to full body suits. Like when I open up a tattoo magazine, I can see other artists and it’s obvious what overseas artists are influenced by, or even trying to copy…we don’t have so much of that here.

You seem to be one of the 2 places that people end up guesting at on their sojourns to Osaka, who have you had here?
Mike Ledger, John Clue, Cory Kruger, Doug Hardy, Seth Ciferri; oh god, there are so many…but John and Corey come over every year, so I get to see them a lot, 2/3 weeks at a time.
The first guest I ever had was Bernie (Luther). I met him at him at the Frankfurt convention, through Boris who I met the first time he came to Osaka. From there, I went to the Berlin convention with friends and met Bernie. During the 2000 Tokyo convention, he came to Tokyo and came here. Anyways, then their friends want to come, and so on.

What band people have come here?
Oh god… Look at the door! (Literally a ton of signatures on the door, ranging from Norah Jones to The Damned)

What’s the best thing about being a tattoo artist?
That I can get totally immersed in it. The worst thing is that I don’t get enough sleep! There is discrimination and so on, but I mean, we get tattoos knowing this, so it’s no big deal. I think rather than tattoos getting overly mainstream, it’s ok if it’s still a little bit underground; maybe it’s more fun.


Text: Maki Photography: John Harte, Barni and Maki


Skin Deep 156 1 February 2008 156