Part of what makes the cave art at Altamira in Spain so stunning is the way the lines both follow and sculpt the craggy rock face to create three-dimensional, dynamic images. You can still feel the heft and vitality of the wild beasts depicted some 35,000 years later. That simple hands bearing simple tools could effect such drama makes the work all the more astounding. While the link between primitive cave paintings and modern tattooing may be tenuous, the comparison provides good context for considering the art of Gakkin (Kenji Nishigaki), one of Japan’s most internationally recognized tattoo artists.
Gakkin, a native of Wakayama and now a resident of Amsterdam, draws freehand, forgoing modern stencil machines to work directly on the body, conforming to and molding its curves and lines. Whether tribal blackwork, an ero-guro (erotic/grotesque) dream or a nature scene rooted in long-established irezumi (Japanese traditional tattoo) motifs, the finished piece feels extra-dimensional, simultaneously visionary and traditional, unbound by time. By nature, all tattoos live, breathe and move — they become the body; Gakkin’s carp swim, his spider creeps, the coils whorl and the blood flows.
Which makes it more surprising that Gakkin wasn’t raised in a particularly artistic family and didn’t even start drawing until his late teens.
“My family was very normal when I was a kid. We never even talked about art. I wasn’t a boy who loved to draw or create things,” he says with a laugh and characteristic humility. “I’m sorry, but this is true. If I felt like a representative of Japan” — as was suggested — “I would make up a nice childhood story to tell you!”
Rather, he says, the road to here — that is, to life in Amsterdam, where he operates his own studio and shares a home with his wife and daughter close to a canal in a very nice, “very green, not-too-busy” neighborhood — was serendipitous, a twisted fate.
“Honestly, when I was 15 to 18 years old I didn’t have a dream,” he explains. “I was just a bad boy who liked drinking, smoking, motorcycles, skateboarding.”
When he finished secondary school, he enrolled at a reputable fashion institute for lack of a better plan. “I just didn’t want to be that Japanese office worker who does nothing but works hard,” he says.
Then, at age 19, he got his first tattoo: a tribal design on his left arm (which he’s since covered over in black). This was the late 1990s, when tattooing was still very underground in Japan and deeply associated with the criminal underworld — “even more than now,” he says. “It was only for gangsters or people who were considered ‘bad.'”
Gakkin was immediately hooked. “I started to draw after I got tattooed,” he says. “I just bought pencils, color pencils, erasers … I started to copy old ukiyo-e. Of course, I didn’t know how to draw, how to use color. I just had this dream of becoming a tattoo artist — a big challenge, right?”
Soon after, the young man set on avoiding the grueling life of the salaryman quit school and began an apprenticeship at an Osaka tattoo shop, working 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and drawing for up to six hours at a stretch.
“It was crazy, but now I feel the time I spent doing that was very important for my development,” Gakkin says. “I believed hard work was the only shortcut to becoming a good artist.”
After many years in Osaka, learning various styles and building up to full body tattoos, Gakkin moved to Kyoto, where a mentor had established a new shop, Harizanmai. There, he continued to grow a global reputation for his idiosyncratic take on traditional Japanese ink styles. And given widespread interest in his work — today he has nearly a quarter million followers on Instagram — it was only natural that he began touring with it.
From 2006, while still at Harizanmai, Gakkin would escape Japan for stretches, leaving his imprint on clients everywhere from Chicago to Brighton, England.
“Traveling changed my life,” he says.
After 3/11, Gakkin began to consider leaving Japan altogether. He chose the Netherlands because it was relatively easy to open his own studio. The change was immediately welcome. “Before I moved here, I was thinking how hard it would be to continually create something new when in the same place, seeing the same thing, doing the same thing every day,” he says. “I wanted to escape that routine.”
And whereas in Japan he worked morning to midnight, in Amsterdam he opens his studio at 10 a.m. and closes shop at 5 p.m., taking just one booking a day, four or five days a week.
“So there’s still enough time to spend with my family. This is a big change for me,” he says. “Now I feel very comfortable here, more easy and relaxed, flexible, more open. That allows me to do nicer work.”
People in Japan and the Netherlands have different common sense, he says. “But from my experience living here, I learned that it’s important to accept cultural differences. People are open-minded — it’s a melting pot of many races!”
And his body suit of ink has never been an issue there. “People don’t judge me about my tattoos,” he says. “When I was in Japan, I had to hide my tattoos sometimes — Japanese people really don’t like tattoos.”
This, of course, is an understatement. In recent months, an Osaka district court ruled that a tattoo artist was operating outside the law by working with needles without a medical license.
“That’s so stupid,” says Gakkin. “The news was a big surprise. In other countries, tattooers have worked with local governments and doctors to establish guidelines and regulations. Of course, I got a license to tattoo in the Netherlands. But if I worked in Japan, I would be a criminal because I don’t have a doctor’s license. Who’s gonna become a tattoo artist after graduating medical school?!”
The issue goes deeper than the personal for Gakkin. If unable to practice their art, Japanese tattoo artists would become a thing of the past. “I don’t understand why Japanese would kill our own tattoo culture,” he says. “I don’t mind that Japanese people don’t like tattoos, that’s their choice. But at least they should accept that there are people in Japan who love tattoos.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of highly skilled foreign tattoo artists are learning and innovating in traditional Japanese styles, just as more foreign artists are committing to large-scale irezumi work.
“Now my clients are from all over the world: the U.S., South America, Europe, Asia. They typically stay in Amsterdam a few weeks for a large-scale tattoo. They respect my work, and I respect all those who sit for me. I have a client from LA right now. He’s here for about two weeks — for 10 sessions, seven hours per day. Can you imagine? Not everyone can do that.”
Life as an immigrant in an adopted land has given Gakkin new perspective, not just on Japan but on the importance of balance. “Everyone knows Japan is a superconvenient country. Everything is on time, people keep their promises, many stores are open 24 hours, even on Sundays. But sometimes that’s too much,” he says; it can be too rigid. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, “I called an electrician four times to fix the light at the entrance of my house about three months ago, but he still hasn’t come … That’s also a problem.”
Overall, the transition to life abroad has been remarkably smooth, and even his daughter is adapting quickly.
“My wife and I thought it was better for her to be immersed in a different culture,” he says and, after starting at a local school last year, she now speaks Dutch.
“Kids are amazing! I think she’ll speak three languages: Japanese, Dutch and English. (And) she’s starting to pick up Western culture. She never complains about our moving here. Sometimes she says, ‘Japan is a cramped society.’ Can you imagine why an 8-year-old kid would say this?”
Name: Gakkin (Kenji Nishigaki)
Profession: Tattoo artist
Hometown: Kainan, Wakayama
Key moments in career:
- 1998 — Starts work as a tattoo artist
- 2006 — Goes on a round-the-world trip
- 2015 — Features in a BBC show
- 2016 — Moves to Amsterdam. Wins a contest at the London Tattoo Convention
Things I miss about Japan: Hot springs
● ガッキン (西垣健司）
2015年 BBC で特集取材を組まれる
2016年 アムステルダムに移住。London Tattoo Convention のコンテストで全身刺青作品が優勝 アムステルダムを拠点に活躍する日本人タトゥーアーティスト「ガッキン」こと西垣健司氏は、19歳の時に左腕にタトゥーを入れ、そのアートに魅了された。絵が得意なわけでも芸術一家に生まれたわけでもなかったが、彫り師になるという夢を抱き、ひたすら絵を練習した。大阪と京都のタトゥーショップで修行して腕を磨き、やがて独自のスタイルが国内外で話題に。2006年に世界を旅し、各地で作品を彫って回った経験もある。東日本大震災を機に本格的に日本を離れることを考え始め、2016年にアムステルダムにスタジオ開業した。働きっぱなしだった日本での生活と違い、現在は1日に一件しか予約を入れず、家族との時間を大事にしている。リラックスした暮らしがより良い作品につながるという。医師免許なしでタトゥーを彫ることは医師法違反とする判決が大阪地裁で出された件については、バカバカしいといい、タトゥーを嫌がる人がいてもいいが、好きな人がいてもいいはずだと話す。今や顧客は米国、南米、欧州、アジアと世界中からやってくる。