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Wabori: Traditional Japanese Tattoo

A new book on Japanese tattoos gets deep under the skin of the art's greatest masters

by Jonathan Day

Special To The Japan Times

It may not have been their sole purposes for visiting Japan during their respective reigns, but Queen Victoria’s grandson George V and the last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, both received tattoos on visits to Japan, despite the government’s ban on a craft reserved primarily for the branding of criminals. It may be fair then, to assume that even in those days it was impossible to keep the techniques of Japanese tattoo masters secret or confined to old Tokyo’s sketchier parts of town, where Yoshiwara’s courtesans and street ruffians became the first irezumi (tattoo) aficionados at the turn of the century.

Wabori: Traditional Japanese Tattoo, Manami Okazaki, KINGYO

For some, “Wabori: Traditional Japanese Tattoo” may be the perfect coffee-table book to kill time with at a cafe, and that would be fine. The more than 250 glossy pages in this book contain enough iconic images from the past five decades of traditional Japanese tattoos — covering both those that wear them and the artists who applied them — to keep one happily thumbing through pages while sipping a latte.

However, when the penny drops that this book, despite its deceptively prosaic title, is in fact a no-holds-barred excursion through the minds, experiences and philosophies of Japanese tattoo artists who will, perhaps, one day be revered in the same vein as Velazquez, Rubens or even Caravaggio, then one may be tempted put down that coffee and pay closer attention to the unvarnished narrative of the art’s luminaries.

Regardless of whether you know what yobori or horimono are (the former available at ink hovels in sleazy districts worldwide, the latter involving months under the hands of a horishi [master] and his needle-tipped bamboo stick), “Wabori” author Manami Okazaki vividly illustrates the deep-rooted history of Japan’s tattoo aesthetic, its evolution from wood block printing, to social-strata signifier, through to its modern proliferation and undeniable yet overly-amplified connection to a murky underworld.

The subject matter here is nothing new — Okazaki herself has even done an earlier book on Japanese tattoos — but the approach she has taken with “Wabori” is different. Over several years Okazaki sought out Japan’s greatest horishi to interview — which was no easy task. The result is deeply candid and very, very real. It’s what these artists revealed during their chats with the author that makes the book special: The almost whimsical manner in which Japan’s most cherished horishi muse on how they ended up as virtuosos, both revered and reviled by society; their experiences — some fortuitous, some harrowing — as studio-scrubbing, tool-sharpening apprentices; their dealings with the mob and the changing face of tattoo culture as machines replace bamboo and modern ink replaces traditional sumi (Chinese ink).

In one interview, Horiyoshi III talks about the difficulties he had finding a sensei (teacher) once he had decided to move from being a client to a tattoo apprentice and how timing is everything. One of the world’s most important artists, often referred to as a “living legend,” he admits quite frankly that 90 percent of life is timing and luck, and people with bad timing and bad luck are “basically f-cked.” It’s this level of real talk in Okazaki’s interviews that, in this case, transports us back to the ’70s, to a dingy downtown apartment where life seemed simpler, where there was nothing mild or light about cigarettes and coffee was as black as soot and where, it just so happens, Horiyoshi III is tattooing Horiyoshi II’s head.

In the shifting, capricious world of modern tattoo culture, which is seeing fashion and exhibitionism overtake the inherent beauty found in true wabori, horishi such as Horihide, Horitoku and former samurai-sword smith Horiyasu, have been elevated to reluctant celebrity status and this reluctance comes through when they speak.

Okazaki says that many of the horishi she interviewed for her book didn’t care about being famous and, as they are a rather unique group of artisans, weren’t always particularly “chatty,” as she puts it.

In many regards Okazaki found herself as an apprentice of sorts as she listened, learned and collated information over a six-year span. Her interviews with Horitoku, in particular, followed the master-apprentice model Okazaki says, with this horishi only divulging small amounts of personal information with each conversation. At times Horitoku didn’t feel like talking and would leave Okazaki sitting in a deathly-quiet studio for hours watching him work, after which she would, as she puts it, “kind of excuse myself and say, ‘Okay, I am going home now.’ ”

But over time and as trust grew Horitoku and others opened up and gave more of themselves to their newest apprentice — talking frankly about being thunderstruck by seeing full bodysuits of black, gray and brilliant vermillion in bathhouses and how those childhood moments shaped these artists’ lives forever.

The venerated Horiyasu was interviewed more than seven times and as the book perfectly illustrates, these guys — whose craft first may have appeared in Japan as early as 10,000 BC and evolved from a deeply traditional, yet subterranean cult craft to global fashion boom — are in no hurry to impart the experiences and knowledge that set them apart both in Japan and on the global stage.

But as their guards dropped and Okazaki persevered she found these preeminent yet highly reclusive horishi to be noble: true artisans with tales to tell, wisdom to impart, individual quirks and a beautiful commonality between them when it comes to their sedulous dedication to this time-honored and often misunderstood tradition.