Tattoo as art on human canvases

Horiyoshi III's 40-year career spanned swing in social attitudes from taboo to hip and trendy


The human body becomes a canvas in the hands of tattoo artist Horiyoshi III. Each dot, each line is carefully engraved, until gradually it becomes a colorful masterpiece.

Horiyoshi fills the arms, legs, backs and fronts, bringing to life the dragons, tigers, flowers and characters from ancient Japanese and Chinese tales with his touch.

“There are many aspects to tattoos — they represent strength, art, tradition and have a sense of the outlawed,” Horiyoshi said. “There is magic power that enchants people to get tattoos, despite the social consequences.”

Tattoos have long been relegated to the shadows of society. People often connect them to the yakuza and there is an automatic fear against people sporting body art.

Public places, including pools, spas and bathhouses, bar tattooed customers.

But Horiyoshi, who himself has a full-body tattoo, stressed that people with tattoos should not automatically be regarded as criminals.

“Tattoos are a sign of power, and power equals violence — that is the (theme) depicted in the movies and by the media,” Horiyoshi said. “These fearful images are planted in our heads in our daily lives or on TV or at the pool or hot springs.”

Tattoos have a long history in Japan, believed to date back to the Jomon Period (10,000 to around 300 B.C.).

They became widely popular in the Edo Period (1603-1867), particularly among firefighters and builders.

Tattoos were also a part of the culture of the ethnic Ainu and Okinawan women, who had them on their faces or hands as a sign of adulthood.

And at the same time, tattoos were part of punishment. Criminals’ arms and foreheads were marked.

The Meiji government banned tattoos, denouncing them as barbarous and unsuitable for the “civilization and enlightenment” movement.

Even though the ban was lifted in 1948 under the Allied Occupation, tattoos to this day still have negative connotations.

“People with tattoos are not (necessarily) criminals . . . (nor are all) yakuza,” Horiyoshi, 64, said. “There are some yakuza or people with tattoos who do bad things, just as there are people without tattoos who commit crimes.”

Horiyoshi began his career almost 40 years ago. But his creations didn’t stop at the human body. Throughout his career, Horiyoshi has become not only an established tattoo artist but has also created delicate and very real sketches of various mythical and human creatures, and even started up his own clothing line — Horiyoshi the Third.

“These pictures are the only thing to prove that I existed in this world” of tattoos, Horiyoshi said, pointing out that tattoos, along with the human body, are not immortal. “I want to leave whatever I can create with my knowledge for the future generations with the intention that they would not copy but find ideas through my work.”

During the past decades, Horiyoshi noticed a great change in his customers, who used to be mainly occupation-based like yakuza, craftsmen and women in the nightclub industry.

But now, many “normal” people come in, including young women, he said.

This change resulted from a cultural shift from the old tradition of keeping tattoos hidden under clothing to the Western style of showing off the body art.

“The Japanese culture is made up of 80 percent tolerance, and in the world of tattoos, you not only need to tolerate the pain of getting a tattoo but you also need to endure the urge to show off your tattoo,” Horiyoshi said. “But now, it is the exact opposite — people get a tattoo and they show it off. There is a huge cultural gap.”

Horiyoshi expressed concern that many young people were getting tattooed on a whim, only to later regret it and in some cases have the designs burned off.

“You cannot erase a tattoo,” Horiyoshi said. “Tattoos are not temporary . . . but young people nowadays prioritize fashion, getting tattoos everywhere and showing them off, only to regret it later.”

Horiyoshi has opened a tattoo museum in Yokohama, displaying his collectibles, pictures and books related to the art in a bid to better inform people contemplating getting body art.

One eye-catching item was a lifelike drawing of a severed head with dark brown stains around the neck. To make it authentic, Horiyoshi used his own blood.

“I wanted to bring the picture to life,” he said. “You can’t beat real blood. I thought it would be interesting to see the color of the blood change gradually, rather than use paint that would remain red forever.”

Horiyoshi, who was born in Shizuoka as Yoshihito Nakano, was the son of a geta craftsman. None of his immediate family had tattoos, but Horiyoshi had been fascinated by them from a young age after encountering a man at a public bathhouse who had a full-body tattoo.

When at age 21 he saw the movie “Baku-uchi Ippikiryu” about a tattoo artist and the yakuza world, he became mesmerized with the beauty of the patterns and the die was cast: He had found his future calling.

“It was then and there that I realized becoming a tattoo artist was it, it was my path,” Horiyoshi said.

He read whatever he could find on tattoos and began trying them on himself, starting with his legs. Horiyoshi began attracting customers but realized there was a limit to his technique and he needed to study under a master.

Knowing his parents would not approve, he ran away and became an apprentice of Horiyoshi I in 1971. For two years he stayed away from his parents, until one day he came home to find his father waiting outside his door. But his father did not scold him.

“My father just said, ‘If you are going to become a tattoo artist, you’d better give your heart and soul to it,’ ” Horiyoshi recalled.

And so he did, and was given the title Horiyoshi III by his master in 1979.

Looking back on that day, he said he was filled with the weight of responsibility of inheriting his master’s name. Horiyoshi has one son, who is now his sole apprentice. Many other trainees have come and gone, but no one left armed with the skills of a true artist, he said.

Horiyoshi hasn’t handed down his name to anyone, and is unsure if he will bestow the honor on his son.

“Names have heavy responsibility and are not to be treated lightly,” Horiyoshi said. “It is better not to leave a name if that person were to fail and dishonor it. Sometimes I worry about the consequences so much that I think it may be better to end the name with me.”