“It seems like every two or three days we are doing a koi (carp) half-sleeve or a dragon tattoo. People in the States are going nuts for Japanese. It’s really blown up over the last two years,” says American tattoo artist Lewis Hess of Atlas Tattoo in Portland, Oregon.

A regular visitor to Japan, Hess is riding a wave of foreign interest that will wash hundreds of overseas tattoo artists and aficionados into Japan next week for Tattoo Summit — Japan’s biggest such convention. Held in the city of Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, Tattoo Summit is a rare opportunity to observe both modern and traditional Japanese-style works side by side.

Working solely through word of mouth — with neither advertisements nor phone listings — traditional Japanese tattoo artists can be incredibly difficult to find. A perfect example is Horitoku, a master (horishi) who is considered one of the top artists in Japan and is spoken about with hushed reverence among other tattooists.

After going through a book publisher to make telephone contact with the impeccably polite Horitoku, the next step is to find his studio — a small, innocuous apartment above a take-away lunchbox joint in central Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Inside, a man in his early 30s lies on the tatami floor while Horitoku, wearing a hanten (workman’s coat), pushes a rod with needles attached into the man’s flesh. Repeating the motion in rapid succession, he adds gradations to waves drawn around quixotic white dragons swirling over the man’s rib cage.

“I like dragons,” Horitoku says as he works away on his client. “It’s an imagined thing, so you can constantly develop it, and there is no end. It’s great. But the thing of paramount importance with Japanese tattoos is the background, rather than the subject. The background is often a point of significance.”

The craft that Horitoku practices traces its roots all the way back to Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, but it was taken up by the mainstream populace during the Edo Period (1603-1867) — particularly among courtesans, laborers such as firemen, carpenters and gamblers. From the middle of the Edo Period, criminals were also marked by the authorities with bands of ink, and they would have these obscured with patterns that came to be known as irezumi (inserting ink). When ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Kuniyoshi popularized the Chinese epic “Suikoden” with illustrations of Robin Hood-esque bandits covered in tattoos, full-body irezumi became somewhat of a downtown rage.

To examine a full Japanese “body suit” up close in the flesh is breathtaking. The sheer size of the motifs, the immaculate detail, the way the overall tattoo blends perfectly with the lines of the body is simply majestic. Horitoku still creates tattoos by hand (tebori), as he has since he started 35 years ago, although he occasionally does outlines with a machine, saying it’s much faster.

Entirely self-taught, he first began by “playing around” in junior high school, experimenting with tools as simple as needles attached to chopsticks. He now makes handles from teak and ivory, and he uses Super Glue to attach needles that are custom-made with a specific sharpness and strength.

“There are certain colors, like this kind of vibrant white, that you cannot get with a machine. With tebori, the color holds well — the black looks bluish. It’s a certain hue of color that you can’t get with a machine; you have to insert it quite deep to get that blue-black,” Horitoku says.

Meeting with Horitoku again later, he turns up to a cafe in a kimono, replete with a fan and perfectly coiffured hair. Looking like a Showa Era (1926-1989) throwback, the glimpses of adorned skin that peek out from under his sleeves emit darker undertones, subtly suggesting his underground profession.

“From what I know, there are only about three artists in Tokyo that specialize in tebori,” he says, stirring the straw in his ice coffee. “To study tebori is to protect Japan’s culture and tradition, all the way back to the Edo Period.”

Horitoku is a purist — one with the task of preserving an important cultural institution. While most young practitioners, who opt for the easier-to-learn and less-laborious machine method, call themselves “artists,” Horitoku sees himself as an artisan.

“Japanese tattoos are more the work of a craftsman than an artist. If you have your own style of painting, it’s hard to escape it. You need to study Edo Period illustrations otherwise it won’t be traditional Japanese,” he points out. “Say you study illustrations that have a sense of perspective, the impact of the tattoo is lessened.

“It is incredibly difficult to convert someone like Hokusai’s ukiyo-e illustrations into horimono (literally carving or engraving) though, because you really need to be able to deconstruct it. But his technique was such that other artists at the time could not duplicate it. You need to have a very sophisticated understanding of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy to make it look anything like the original.”

On top of that, Horitoku also thinks it is important to go see kabuki and sumo, and to gain other cultural knowledge, in order for someone to replicate the art authentically. Horitoku has passed his knowledge on to 10 students who make up his “family” and are considered among the top tattoo artists in Japan.

Associated with the underworld and markings of the yakuza gangsters, tattooing has enjoyed an abysmal reputation in Japan. No matter if it’s a character from “Suikoden” or a technicolor anime figure, an underlying discrimination against people with tattoos persists — they are commonly refused entry to golf courses, swimming pools and hot springs.

This attitude clearly does not reflect the reality of the tattoo industry today, which caters to a bevy of image-conscious clientele who fawn over American styles and get tattoos to imitate favorite celebrities like singer Amuro Namie. It’s rumored that yakuza syndicates even discourage conspicuous irezumi tattoos so that their members can better assimilate into normal society. Conversely, many modern tattoo shops refuse gangsters entry.

“Ever since the tattoo boom, there have been fewer and fewer yakuza clients, and it’s going in a more mainstream direction,” says Horitoku. “Regular people are wanting tattoos and walking around with them showing, because it looks cool. So for the yakuza, it eradicates the meaning, because they do it to scare people.

“Say when they go to jail, or a public bath — for them it’s the ultimate label. If they are tattooed at a lowly place, they get laughed at; if they go to an established artist, they get looked after by someone with status even if they are young. There were ways they could benefit from having good irezumi.”

Likewise, some kids soak up ever more accessible information about tattooing and select their tattooist as if they were brand labels. Artists like ex-band musician Horisho (Japanese tattoists take on names beginning with the honorific hori after completing their apprenticeship), who does modern tattoo work and is co-organizer of the Tattoo Summit, is deft at all popular styles — from Japanese to tribal to biomechanical. Operating out of a studio in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, he sees both the merits of the traditional, having practiced tebori himself, and the contemporary styles he pursues now.

“The beauty of the Japanese tattoo scene is that people are really working hard,” Horisho says. “They observe, consume, then make it something Japanese, not purely American or European.”

Increased media attention on tattooing and the new acceptability of the art has triggered an explosion of American-style street shops (in contrast to the unadvertised apartments). It started with the popular Three Tides Tattoo in Osaka, the first modern street shop to specialize in custom tattooing, and there are now 500-plus establishments across Japan — many of which welcome “walk-in” clientele. Such shops range in level from excellent to atrocious. With four major tattoo magazines catering to enthusiasts, the industry is now at its most popular. Horisho doesn’t necessarily consider this a good thing.

“The information is overflowing, so anyone can get the tools. It’s not bad to be self-taught, but there are loads of artists who aren’t taking it seriously as well,” he says. “It’s too fashionable, so its value has gone down. Customers go to whoever is the cheapest.”

There are records of tattoo aficionados holding meetings in Japan circa 1830, but the contemporary tattoo convention — as conceived by the godfather of American tattooing, Sailor Jerry in Oahu, Hawaii — has a much shorter history here, starting with the first Tattoo Summit in Toyohashi eight years ago.

Toyohashi is the first large-scale event for enthusiasts and both local Japanese and overseas tattooists. Ostensibly more serious than other tattoo events that feature bands and dancing in clubs all over the country, the summit’s focus is on tattoo artists’ work.

“We want to make it a simple event, where you can hear the buzz of the machines, and the sound of the tebori artists at work,” says another of the event’s organizers, Horikoi, one of the top traditional artists in Japan. “The customer can come and get work done, like overseas, (so it’s) not just looking and partying. The drawcard is Gifu’s Horihide, a 72-year-old horishi.”

Alongside 50-plus top-level Japanese ink slingers doing live demonstrations, are also overseas artists, such as South Korea’s Yushi and Americans Chris Trevino, Adrian Lee and Matt Shamah.

Shamah, a San Jose-based artist renowned for his American traditional work, has made the trip to Toyohashi for four consecutive years.

“I think normally when you get that many great tattoo artists in one room, it can be kind of intimidating, but here is such a relaxed feeling, everyone is so friendly, and there are really some great tattoos to see — stuff you don’t see in magazines, stuff you can’t see on the Internet, stuff you can only catch if you’re there to see it first hand,” Shamah says. “Horikoi and Horiyoshi III are perfect examples. You can’t get tattoos like that in the States. Each of their styles has yet to be duplicated with perfection. It’s rare to see that kind of purity in tattoos anymore — especially in the States — Japanese tattooers tend to have a more pure style that is less watered down by outside influences.”

Horitoku, who doesn’t attend conventions, is stoic about the attention.

“I never thought it would become this popular, but it’s OK, though,” he says. “Fashion is fashion, but this is fashion that doesn’t go away.”

Tattoo Summit will take place Sept. 15 (3 p.m.-10 p.m.) and Sept. 16 (11 a.m.-6 p.m.) at Club Parada, 14-1 Asa Runowari, Shinden-cho, Jino, Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. Tickets: ¥4,000. For more information, call the organizers on (0532) 34-1121, or visit the Web site www.tattoosummit.com

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