A State of Grace - Horitaka

Published: 03 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 220, January, 2013

The Japanese/ American tattoo artist, Horitaka, celebrated the tenth anniversary of the opening of his studio, State of Grace in San José, in September this year. We caught up with the former apprentice of Horiyoshi III during the Amsterdam convention…

He was recently in Amsterdam, invited by Bacardi to tattoo the dragon berry logo of the famous rum brand. They asked him to make a new design of the Japanese dragon. Japan and the Netherlands have always had a special relationship. And with the Dutch being among the first westerners to appreciate Japan in the 17th century during a period when the country was closed off from the world, it’s no big surprise. “The best Japanese art books – like those about the famous woodblock prints were made in the Netherlands,” Horitaka says. “As a child, I came here with my father who travelled to Holland as a consultant. So it sits very well for me to tattoo Japanese designs here in Amsterdam.”

Horitaka was born in Japan but grew up in California. “My mother is from Tokyo, my father from Osaka. I was five years old when we moved to the States, first to Michigan, then to California. I was in the punk scene when I was at high school and got my first tattoo in 1991. My first tattoos are all punk inspired. I played drums in a band in California, listened to the Sex Pistols, the Subhumans… and I started tattooing much later in 1998 in San José. I was an apprentice of Adrian Lee, well-known for his books called Bloodwork Bodies.”

During the same year, Horitaka flew to Japan to visit Horiyoshi III: “He tattooed a backpiece and asked me to become his apprentice. For ten years I was his apprentice – until 2008. It was a great time for me. I lived in California as a ‘satellite-apprentice’. Artists like Horitomo worked nearby him, but I flew from the States to Japan, stayed for two weeks and flew back; I did that for years. We kept in touch by telephone, by fax. I was responsible for various publications and books about him and I translated a lot for him.”

Horitaka opened State of Grace on September 1, 2002, and considers his style of tattooing to be traditional Japanese. “In my studio are two working Japanese artists, Horitomo and Yokohama Horiken. I love making tattoos that are traditional Japanese, but everything we do is flavoured by our own experience. I grew up in the USA and speak Japanese, so I have a different perspective on things than artists who grew up in Japan. Every artist puts something of himself into his work. It’s good that Horitomo and Horiken are with me. The most important thing in Japanese tattooing is knowledge about the culture.

“When I was an apprentice of Horiyoshi III, I had a master who could tell me from the Japanese perspective how I had to tattoo, who could tell me the background of a story. It was important to be able to check with somebody who was older and wiser than me. I learned a lot from him, and now also from Horitomo and Horiken. So when I make a Japanese tattoo, I am positive that it is a tattoo that is traditional to Japanese eyes.

“I’m very proud of State of Grace. We just celebrated our ten-year anniversary, but we are not only tattooing Japanese and I don’t tattoo with traditional tools like Horitomo and Horiken do.

Horitaka tattoos bodysuits and sleeves with images from the Suikoden. “Images from the Suikoden are very popular. The most common things we tattoo are dragons and koi. You have to take care that the seasons are well done, that everything fits, that the tattoo makes sense. Mostly, I draw directly onto the skin, then you have a good look at the tattoo. It’s important that a tattoo stays good for years. I draw a lot too – that’s important for every artist. All tattooists have to draw, study and practice. I want to stress one thing: the images are not the only important aspect with Japanese tattooing – it’s also important to create a cohesive background. A background which makes sense!

“In the USA and Europe people like to collect; you have one sleeve from one artist, the second from another. It’s a mix and that is fun. My body is like that, it’s good to express your experiences of life in them. But for me it has a certain beauty when you see someone with a whole bodysuit made by one artist, a bodysuit with a story.”

California is a big melting pot of cultures, races and ethnicities and offers many possibilities for the mixing of different tattoo styles, of Chicano with Japanese, Japanese with Polynesian and so on.” I don’t think there is a racial distinction when it comes to Japanese tattoos – in every ethnic group, people love it,” Horitaka says. “At the moment, there is an interesting fusion of styles going on in California. One of my friends, Chris Brand, tattooed imagery from before the Suikoden and recently he made a tattoo with Suikoden warriors. But as he is in south east L.A., instead of axes the warriors hold shotguns; the framework is different, but the tradition stays, just in a new style.

“In California there are so many races, ethnicities and cultures. As a result you get a fusion that is really cool. Some artists tattoo Chicano with a Japanese background and customers are asking for this kind of fusion. Recently one of my customers wanted a Japanese/ Polynesian tattoo. For this I worked together with Steve Loony, an artist from Samoa – we worked on a warrior from the Suikoden; he kills a crocodile shark with a spear. We gave the warrior a pe’a from Samoa. Steve can do that perfectly and the spear has Polynesian patterns. We used the framework of a Japanese tattoo, but added a lot of Polynesian ornaments and got great result! I think these things will happen more often in the future.”

Horitaka often likes to refer to the ideas of Adrian Lee. “He tells in his books that the format of a Japanese backpiece fits very well with different styles.

Artists like Adrian Lee, Chris Brand and Steve Looney are pioneers in a new fusion of styles. I love tattooing in the Japanese style, I love the way it shows our country and culture, but I don’t think it’s the only thing. I appreciate many styles. I think it’s great when people take a mix of styles. As long as it happens in a respectful way and it means growth for everyone. I live in the USA and see all those styles – in Japan you see artists now who tattoo in the western style. It’s fine that we live in a world where people appreciate many styles.

“I am proud of the bodysuits I make. It’s an accomplishment on behalf of both the customer and the artist,” Horitaka says. “It takes years before the bodysuit is finished. You learn to know people well during the process of tattooing, but it’s strange that when the tattoo is finished, you have to say goodbye. Then again, it’s also good that the bodysuit is finished! Many people never finish it.

“In the beginning of my career I was told: never get attached to your customers because people get sick, die, go to prison, run out of money… there are so many factors. That’s part of being an artist. You are not the owner of the tattoo, you only make them.”

State of Grace

221 Jackson Street
San José
CA 95112
+01 (408) 441-7770


Text: Rik Van Boeckel; Photography: PR/Joa Agcaoili