M. Asaka - The Wood Cutter

Published: 15 October, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 217, October, 2012

Some things are simply meant to be. In this exclusive feature, we hook up with M.Asaka, who, upon meeting with Horiyoshi III, decided he wanted to make these unbelievably stunning wood-cuts that echoed the beauty of the tattoos that came before…

When you talk about traditional Japanese tattooing, it’s difficult not to mention the connection it has with ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) and some famous artists. Utagawa Kuniyoshi was the first of them, a Japanese artist who brought the tattoo craze to old Tokyo during the 19th century by illustrating some of the characters taken from the Chinese novel The Water Margin, with huge tattoos depicting dragon designs, cherry-blossoms and waves… already set with backgrounds and chest-divided styles.

M.Asaka on the other hand, didn’t have any connection with tattoo before being introduced to Horiyoshi III. But having worked with some of the greatest ukiyo-e artists around – Utamaro, Hokusai, Sharaku, Hiroshige – isn’t it an interesting twist in history for him to print the work of an horishi that brought the craft to the art…

Whereabouts in Japan are we here?

"We are in Shinjuku, in the western part of Tokyo, and this is my workshop. I live in Kanagawa, but Shinjuku is like the centre of Tokyo, so it’s easy for my students to come here. Actually, I have so much work on that I only go back home once a week and I sleep here the rest of the time. I really want to concentrate on Horiyoshi III’s design, so I prefer to stay here."

Can you tell us about your background?

"I have been a wood-carver for 45 years. I’m 61 years old and started wood-carving when I was 16. I left school before going to Kyoto in 1969. At that time, there was a very popular carving master whose name was Kikuta Kôjiro. His master, who was even more respected, was skilled enough to carve metal plates for printing money. I had the opportunity to learn with him and started to study.

"As with a lot of things, trends come and go and have their highs and lows. When I started, the demand for ukiyo-e was down, but then it got better. For seven years I couldn’t work or make money because I was training, cleaning the workshop, and was sent on errands for him. There were originally a lot of students, but actually only three remain, including me. I’m the only one that moved to Tokyo."

You’re not only a wood-carver, you’re also a teacher…

"Yes, I started to teach 30 years ago, but I really started concentrating on it three years ago. A lot of people come to the school. At the moment, 23 people come here three times a week in separate groups. My work makes a lot of noise when I use these tools; it’s good that the owner of this house lets us do our work – it really helps. Most of the students enjoy it as a hobby; I only teach two of them to professional standards.

"Nowadays, only 15 artists working at the same level as me are still working on a daily basis, between Tokyo and Kyoto. There are less and less jobs for the occupation and only three wood-carvers remain being able to master the hair-carving. You have to learn how to carve the hair from a master. If you haven’t learnt it, you will never do it. My master taught me."

How can you tell how good a wood-carver is?

"The most difficult thing for a carver is to carve the hair and pubic hair. Because of the closeness of the hair and of their length, it is very difficult to carve. For example, a print from Utamaro’s ‘Beauties’ will have between 170-200 hair lines – I did 147 for Horiyoshi’s print – and you can’t make even one mistake. It needs a lot of concentration; most of the wood-carvers don’t attempt it. Shunga – erotic prints – are the most difficult ukiyo-e. To become a skilful wood-carver able to master the hair technique, you have to have been working for at least 15 years."

How did you meet Horiyoshi III?

"I wanted to make new types of ukiyo-e, different from Hokusai (whose work includes The Great Wave Off Kanagawa – Ed.) or Kuniyoshi – who I never worked with, but he was a genius and had originality. I wanted to create a new wave that would change the course of ukiyo-e in Japan. Horiyoshi III was at that time looking for companies to print some of his work, but they didn’t want to print tattoo-related material. One of my apprentices, Sato-san, was working in one of these companies and when he left, he told me about the tattoo culture and showed me Horiyoshi III’s work. I was very surprised and shocked – in a good way. I wrote a letter to Horiyoshi telling him that I wanted to print it. It was one of his dreams and he allowed us to visit him in his studio. I think it’s good because tattoo and ukiyo-e have a long connection because of Kuniyoshi."

Can you tell us about this project?

"It took one month to carve all of the woodblocks. For a normal print, like a beauty by Utamaro, an actor by Sharaku, or a landscape from Hokusai or Hiroshige, I would use four to five woodblocks carved on both sides and use 15 to 20 colours for gradation. For Horiyoshi’s work, I used eight woodblocks carved on both sides and 35 colours. The design Horiyoshi III chose is ‘Tenma Hajun’ (from the 100 Demons series – Ed.). This character is the worst demon of all – he chose it because it’s the most famous character. This will be a limited edition of 380 copies. It is our first collaboration, but if it works we will go on. Horiyoshi III is already thinking about a second design."

You were not familiar with horimono – what was your opinion of it?

"At the beginning I had a picture of horimono as being related to the yakuza. When I saw Horiyoshi’s work, I found it very beautiful and I totally changed my mind. I was a bit worried before meeting Horiyoshi; I thought he would be intimidating and scary, but I actually found him very nice and calm."

Are you expecting to travel with this project?

"I’m thinking about taking the traditional Japanese woodblock print to the world by going to tattoo conventions. Horiyoshi III was very enthusiastic about it, as were some people in Europe. It pushed me onto the road. I will be in Helsinki from October 10-21 for ukiyo-e demonstrations, and then I’ll have a workshop in a gallery and art school next year at the tattoo convention in Milan."

Will you carry on in the future?

"I supported all the costs for that project, so if it works, I will continue. My dream is to make Ed Hardy tattoo flash, Filip Leu’s designs, many of Horiyoshi’s of course, and many other tattoo artists as well. The idea of the project is to show that tattoo is beautiful and associated with art, not with something bad. I think that maybe it will change people’s minds to hear it from someone that was not connected with tattoo. People can expect that kind of message from a tattoo artist like Horiyoshi III, but it might affect people differently to hear it from someone like me, who doesn’t have tattoos."


What’s it all about?

Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre, and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan. Usually the word ‘ukiyo’ is literally translated as ‘floating world’ in English, referring to a conception of an evanescent world, impermanent, fleeting beauty, and a realm of entertainments (kabuki, courtesans, geisha) divorced from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world; ‘pictures of the floating world’, i.e. ukiyo-e are considered a genre unto themselves.

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were mainly meant for townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular, activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on, landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints.


Text & Photography: Pascal Bagot