Every Day is a Winding Road - Takami

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

Arriving to meet Takami at Mick Tomo’s Ruby Arts studio in York, where he’s working in a guest spot, everything is as you’d expect it to be: a busy day in Mick’s well-appointed shop, young guy getting his first tattoo necking Coke like it’s a potion of invulnerability (his sweat suggests he needs to up the dosage), needles abuzz…

What you wouldn’t expect is that the unassuming chap at the back, inking some Gothic script onto a client’s arm, is Takami. He doesn’t chat, doesn’t look up, just focuses on the job in hand. But given the art he can create, you’d think he’d be cloaked and have sparks crackling from his fingernails.

Instead, he’s friendly and thoughtful. When he takes a break and we sit down to talk it’s with an interpreter, but even through the language barrier it’s clear that I’m talking to quite the tattoo philosopher. So how’s he finding his stint in the ancient capital of England?

“It’s very relaxed to work here, it’s very quiet and peaceful. I spent 12 years working in Japan, but I wondered whether I was happy or not, always being in the same place, so I started travelling. It’s an adventure for me.”

He’s been on the road now for the past few years, with occasional stints at his home studio in Yonago, between Osaka and Hiroshima on Japan’s Western coast. With the initial wanderlust sated he could have stayed there – he’s always fully booked and doesn’t need to travel – but his wanderings revealed a deeper desire to improve himself. “I want to become a good artist, and to do that I need to meet many other great artists, and see their work.”

Travelling, he says, “helps me discover how good I can be. I can see so many other artists and measure myself against them to see how good I am and decide where I want to go next. Each country is different, the way people’s imaginations work is different; and the kindness of the people I meet – not just in the tattoo world – inspires my imagination in turn.”

Isn’t that quite a draining experience, on the soul and more importantly the wallet? The road doesn’t come cheap, after all. He’s upbeat. “Every experience and country is like a new world for me,” he says, “I’m not going just to earn money and I’m not afraid that travelling is expensive – I want the chance to meet people and see how they live, what their world is like. I want to hear their thoughts on everything! It’s very fulfilling.”

If this sounds like chocolate box philosophy, don’t be fooled. It’s enthusiasm born of a long, difficult process of self-teaching that brought him to his current ludicrous level of ability. “In Japan tattooing was much stricter than it is in Europe now,” he explains, arguing that young artists here neither know how to make their own needles, nor draw to any great standard. “When I started I didn’t have any needles, I had to learn to make them myself, I taught myself how to use an autoclave.” Back then, he says, it was even hard to get hold of tattoo magazines.

That was then. Now, he says, young artists around the world have tattoo magazines everywhere and easy access to equipment, ordering tattoo machines with just a few mouse clicks. In terms of making working life easier this might not be a bad thing, but the drawback, he believes, is that this convenience comes at a cost. “Young artists don’t have the same passion for tattooing any more, they use computers and don’t practice their drawing; the more traditional artists still keep that passion, they keep trying to improve their skills. The younger guys don’t do that.”

He returns to the theme of drawing a lot, I notice. Is it that important? “Before I started tattooing I tried for years, I practised my drawing all the time and people would say to me ‘you know, Takami, you’re not actually a tattoo artist’, but I knew in my heart I was a tattoo artist, and I was going to work to deserve the name of an artist.”

There was one slight problem with this. Even as he polished his draughtsmanship (there are some examples around the studio, and yup, they’re pretty good), his head had two conflicting desires: to be an artist, while loathing the tattooing style he saw around him. In Takami’s youth, irezumi – traditional tattoos hand poked in the old fashioned way – were inextricably linked in his mind to the yakuza – the Japanese mafia.

It’s an association that used to keep Westerners with tattoos out of public bath houses, such was the stigma attached to prominent inkwork – not so much of a problem now, but even my own modest tattoos still drew curious glances when I visited the country a few years ago. Back then, it was a sticking point for Takami: “I hated it, I hated the yakuza, but that was all the tattooing I knew.”

He cleared the obstacle by radically changing direction after a friend – also an experienced artist – came back from the US with a traditional Old School tattoo. “When I saw it, I said ‘what’s this?!’” Takami exclaims. It was the first non-traditional Japanese ink he’d encountered. “I was surprised. But not long after I saw a tattoo magazine for the first time and was exposed to the different styles, not just traditional Japanese, which is when I decided to learn more about tattooing.”

After that, it was Americana all the way – to the degree that Takami would refuse to work in the traditional Japanese style because of its yakuza links. “I didn’t want people to confuse my art with theirs,” he says, simply.

Whatever style he eventually chose to work in, his education began on his own skin, sitting in the chairs of local studios for hours getting piece after piece inked onto him. It shows: there’s so little bare skin left that the designs have licked up his throat and across his face. He’s having to get some of the old work lasered off now to make room for more art. “I taught myself everything,” he says of his ‘apprenticeship’. “I would keep getting tattoos to see how the artists worked, just to gradually understand a little bit more about the process. Little by little people started to know my
name and would invite me to watch and learn.”

When it was his turn to pick up the needle he turned to the American style, with the aid of some Old School flash that arrived via mail order after a long wait. “When it came, I was so happy I thought my head would explode! Every day I was drawing, to practice,” he grins.

By now you’ll probably have noticed that the artwork gracing these pages is a lot of things, but one thing it definitely isn’t, is Americana. So what happened? “I don’t do traditional American style tattoos any more,” he says. “When I used to do that style, artists who worked in it would come up to me and say ‘why are you doing that style? You’re Japanese, why aren’t you doing traditional Japanese style?’”

It was a turning point. “I started to think about what they said, and as I started to learn more about Japanese tattoos I realised it was all about respect. Americans are probably the best at tattooing in the Old School style. It’s the same as tribal; I won’t do tribal tattoos because the individual symbols have very specific meanings, and the traditional tribal tattoo artists – in Samoa, for example – are the best at understanding them and doing that kind of work.”

Like all things to do with tattooing, Takami takes this belief seriously. “If people come to me at conventions and ask me for tribal work, I’ll send them to any traditional tribal artists working there. Tradition is very important to me. Every tattoo symbol might have hundreds of years of history behind it, and you don’t want someone tattooing those symbols who doesn’t understand what they mean, what their heritage is.”

So having started with an aversion to traditional Japanese tattoos, he’s come full circle and now devotes his time to knowing and understanding the different layers of meaning they can contain. “The symbolism of traditional Japanese tattooing is very important, and I have to know it before I can create a tattoo,” he explains. “If someone wants a dragon tattoo, I know what the dragon means and what it signifies. Or if customers want a red or a blue background, I’ll know that’s impossible because in Japanese tattooing the stories always take place at night, so the background should always be black.” He claims he won’t do a tattoo if the customer won’t accommodate a black background, and looking through his portfolio, it’s hard to find an exception to the rule – if you look closely enough, that black is indeed always lurking behind everything.

Rather than simply being intransigent, this is all about giving his work meaning. “Different backgrounds and positions change the meaning of a tattoo, so it’s good to take advice,” he says. “Then the customer can be aware of what their tattoos mean, rather than it just being about fashion.”

Reflecting on this for a moment, he softens his stance a little. “Each person has their own personality. They can get a tattoo because it looks cool, or because it has a personal meaning to them – I can buy a book because I like the cover, or because I’m interested in what it says, and it’s the same for tattoos.” And if he’s strict with his clients, he’s certainly more flexible about his own ink, which is mainly created by artist friends around the world: “I just give them a body part and let them do what they want!”

If you go to see Takami for a tattoo, that’s what he’d like from you as well, please. “I like it if someone comes to me with an idea and trusts me to create something for them. If they say they want a dragon, I’ll draw one that fits within the lines of their body. They give me the general idea, then I’ll build the design and incorporate backgrounds, and other motifs; I like to have a bit of freedom.”
Just like he enjoys the freedom of being a wandering artist, perhaps. It’s certainly kept his passion for his work alive: “I love tattooing because I meet a lot of people, and because all of my days are dedicated to art. Even when I get home at night, I’m still drawing and creating tattoos. It’s easy to stress and waste your time fretting over small things, but when I’m tattooing I can be focused. For me, tattooing is art, they’re one and the same. And I don’t let anything get in the way of that, I don’t let anything spoil my focus when I work.”

Well, that explains the concentration when I arrived. So what’s next for this driven, thoughtful, surprising artist? Geographically, it’s India. And professionally? “I want to take my art as far as I can. I’ll never stop, I want to improve forever; maybe in the last few minutes of my life I’ll find the answers to my questions about tattooing and art.” A pause. “Maybe I’ll learn just that little bit more.”

The First Tattoo

Takami’s first attempt at tattooing was a far cry from the wonders he creates now. “I used to play in a hardcore band, and all the guys wanted to get tattoos so my first one was on them – a skull at the top of the leg. I put the stencil on, then tried to copy what I’d seen other artists do. I started tattooing, but then I wiped the tattoo with soap and the entire stencil came off. I thought, what can I do now? So I did it directly, drawing straight onto the skin, and it was so bad...” Here, Takami himself repeats the words of his translator, with a rueful smile. “So bad!” Still, at least they
 got better...

Gangster Chic

Tattooing and criminality have a complex history in Japan: in the eighth century BCE tattooing was a punishment, used to shame lawbreakers. Later it became the calling card of yakuza gangsters, whose elaborate bodysuits showed their devotion to the cause, and also their fortitude. The link between tattooing and mafia activities drove the authorities to make it illegal, but a happy loophole made it fine for Japanese artists to tattoo foreigners (including, apparently, the Duke of York – later King George V), which helped spread Japanese traditional inkwork around the world. Nonetheless, those sneaky gangsters would still indulge in clandestine inking sessions, hence the strong cultural association between crime and tattooing in Japan; luckily, like all bad ink, it’s now fading away.


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Takami


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