Master of Light - Shodai Hokuo

Published: 17 September, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 216, September, 2012

Shodai Hokuo is one of the top artists of Japanese style work. Based in Kobe, his work is incredibly meticulous and realistic – the detail in his work creates an almost photographic quality and shows his absolute mastery at tebori-style tattooing.

Perfectly balanced with delicate muted color usage, he is one of Japan’s top irezumi artists, with technical skill that is nothing short of breathtaking. We go to Kobe city to meet with Hokuo – he has a vivacious energy and downtown friendliness that is true to the traditional tattooing spirit:

How did you start?

"My uncle was a horishi (Japanese tattoo artist) and actually, my mother had two brothers who were both horishi too. So after I graduated junior high school, I went in that direction; at 15 I was studying tattooing, and at age 20 I started professionally. My teacher was actually my uncle, the younger brother of my mother."

When was the first time you saw a tattoo?

"When I was a child, I saw them at the public bath. It just seemed really bizarre, at the time I didn’t really think it was cool or anything like that. As I grew older, I could see that dragons were cool, and some work is magnificent, but at the time I was just simply curious. Then gradually I came to know that my uncle was doing it as a job."

Who were your uncle’s clients at the time?

"It was a long time ago, so it was predominantly Japanese mafia. In Japan they called the tattoos ‘gaman’, which means endurance. If you had a Japanese tattoo you were a man, it was a test of endurance. If you were a coward you would just have a small piece; if you were brave you would get a large piece."

Do the yakuza get the tattoo as an initiation rite, or after they have been in the syndicate for a while?

"After a while, the boss will tell them what motif they are to get, and usually it is similar to what the boss has; but back then the boss actually pays for the tattoo!"

But seeing as tattoos are so fashionable now, are the yakuza still getting irezumi?

"Yes, it still continues. They won’t get (Western) tattoos, but it depends on how rich the family is. If they are rich, the boss will pay; if they are not, they have to pay for it themselves, so they can’t get prolific work straight away."

How about downtown craftsmen, do you have many clients that are artisans?

"Yes, carpenters and also firemen get them, that is part of the tradition. They get Japanese-style tattoos, especially a lot of human characters. My clients usually study the meanings first and then come in, rather than getting a piece because it looks cool. With young people there is no one getting tribal anymore."

When you were a student, what did that entail?

"I was living in the teacher’s house and making all the meals – it was like I was his wife. For five years I would learn there, the first year I would learn how to grind the sumi – nowadays there is a machine that does it for you though. Then I would learn how to draw, and after three years I would practice on my own body. I was also doing things like making the needles. Then I would practice on my best friend, so it really takes five years to be professional.

"My teacher told me when it was time for me to debut and to become independent, so I have been working for 25 years. For the first ten years I had no idea what I was doing, it takes that long."

At the time, were you operating out of an apartment like most traditional tattoo masters, or was it out of a street-style shop?

"Nowadays, if you become professional, you work out of your teacher’s shop and pay them back like that. But in my case there is a blood connection, so I would pay my teacher back in other ways, not necessarily monetary. So when I teach it is the same – I don’t take money, but I am really strict. I’m probably really hated with the young artists, but I don’t think what I’m saying is wrong! I just think they need to study and not make mistakes."

How do you feel when you meet tattoo artists that have become professional after a year?

"I think it is ludicrous! People that have been doing it for 25 years, when you talk to them, they know about the human anatomy, but people that haven’t studied really don’t know these things, and they are already taking money for their work. In the modern tattooing scene there are people like this, but I think they will always mess up somewhere, and rather than to make a mistake on a client, it’s better to learn first. I think it is really important to know a lot about the human anatomy first."

When did you go from the apartment to the shop?

"Two years ago. At the time, all horishi were in apartments, but over the last ten years there have been a proliferation of shops, as a business strategy. They call in other artists and get the money. But, conversely, by having a shop overseas clients can come – if it’s a room in an apartment, they will be too scared to enter!"

When you get your own apprentices, where do they come from?

"They just knock on the door and ask. I teach them properly starting from the correct etiquette. If they seem OK I will take them, but basically I knock them back if they think they can become a horishi straight away. I’ll take people that seem to have perseverance, it’s all about the psychological aspects."

Where do you get your clients?

"Mostly word of mouth, but through magazines and the internet as well."

Were you always doing Japanese traditional?

"Yes, I saw American tattoos in the magazines and I found it really sensational, you can tattoo anything, and it’s a tattoo. As a style, it’s completely different. With Japanese tattoos, each one has a story and meaning. You can’t just tattoo anything – if you don’t tattoo things with meanings, it’s a bit of a lie and I don’t approve of it.

"When I was a student I really had to study the meanings behind the tattoos by reading books and asking my teacher, and you would have to tattoo according to the history."

With your clients, do they come in wanting large scale pieces in the beginning?

"Yes, from the start. It’s rare that they want ‘one points’ (small pieces), although I have few clients like this; if I get a one point client, it’s usually a half sleeve."

Were you always doing tebori?

"Yes, in the beginning I was doing the outlines with tebori as well. Then at 27 I started using a machine line as it’s really fast and the outlines are beautiful. I imported a machine from America and when I got it, it was so easy to use. But for the gradations, tebori is superior. Tebori is really difficult, but the results are outstanding and doesn’t fade like the machine does. I am also conscious of continuing the traditions of Japan as well. It is still really difficult and I won’t stop studying until I finish, so I’m continuously a student."

Who are you influenced by?
Kuniyoshi for his suikoden, Hokusai for his overall balance in his works. I also like Kyosai, he is like Kuniyoshi, but a bit bizarre. In terms of tattoo artists, I am influenced by Horiyoshi III, everyone copies his books. It’s really not good to do this though because it becomes removed from the originals. In terms of foreigners, I don’t know the names of anyone, but I’m really interested in people that can do excellent portraits.

When did you first go overseas?

"I went to Florida, I was really nervous, but I won a first prize. It’s really different, they borrowed the first floor of a hotel, everyone turned up on customized Harley-Davidsons. A funeral car was customized into a tattoo shop, the police turned up on Harleys and were covered in one points – the whole thing was unbelievable. There is no way you can do something like this in Japan. It’s really free and all kinds of things are respected. I would love to live there, learn some English."

Is it difficult being a tattoo artist in Japan?

"Basically everyone in Kobe thinks you are Yakuza because the Yamaguchi syndicate office is here. I want people to change this perception. It’s changing a lot though because of tattoos – grandads and grandmas see Western tattoos and think it’s cute. If you have irezumi, they are totally scared. If that judgment disappears it would be easier to work. It also depends a lot on the fashion, if they are dressed like you, it’s totally fine, but if you look a bit difficult and you are an old man, you can have the tiniest bit of irezumi and everyone will be really scared."

What kind of motifs do you like?

"Human characters and animals like tigers and snakes… things that actually exist."

How has the industry changed over the 25 years you have been working?

"I’ve made a lot of relationships with other horishi. Before it was really hidden and it was a closed world. We can have dinner with other horishi and share aspects of our work. Having said that, the real tattoo artists that have been around for a long time that do it for money, the businessmen, they make up about 80 percent. There are many old school artists that have been around for a long time, but they aren’t into talking so much, so they don’t do press and not many people know them."

Who have been some memorable clients?

"With Japanese style work, they come for years, so we really build up a friendship. Even after we finish the work, for example, if a magazine comes, I call them and they come straight away. That kind of friendship really lasts."

How about with the illustrations, how often do you draw?

"After I finish the tattooing for the day, I draw for four hours and then go home."

At the end of the day what is the best thing about being a tattoo artist?

"That you can do a new thing every time. I’m always learning, so what I’m doing this year and the way I am thinking next year is totally different."

What are your future goals?

"I want more overseas people to know about Japanese tattooing. And I would really like to live overseas too.

"I want to publish a 108 Suikoden book – Horiyoshi III did the first, and no other Japanese artist has done it and I want to try doing it in a completely different way. Suikoden is a fascinating Chinese historical story where 108 characters emerge. They are all different and unique, they are really interesting. I usually tattoo famous characters such as Kumon Ryu, but there are other characters that aren’t as well know that I want to tattoo as well."


Text & Photography: Maki