Do you know much about the traditions of Japanese tattooing? Did you know that all of the tattoos on this page were created using an ancient method that utilises hand-made tools rather than tattoo machines?
This informative blog is a must-read for any tattoo lover wanting to explore more of Japanese tattooing and its roots. Inkluded’s guest blogger Rob tells all.
Aside from being the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, Japan is also the spiritual home of modern tattooing, being the first nation to take the practice and turn it into the art-form we recognise today – or at least an early incarnation.
Whether for spiritual or aesthetic reasons tattoos found a place in Japanese culture where they have remained throughout the following centuries – even when driven underground and to the edges of society.
Commonly referred to as Irezumi (‘to insert ink’) Japanese tattoos have taken many forms. The striking style we know today developed over the Edo Period (1600-1868 AD).
The rise of woodblock prints and the publication of Suikoden (a classic tale where the heroes decorated their bodies with dragons, tigers and flowers) are considered the two pivotal influences on the growth of the art-form and fuelling its change into a more elaborate style.
Such was the popularity of the Suikoden print that many woodblock artists turned their talents to skin. Instead of chiselling into wood they did it to people’s backs and arms. I can only imagine it’s as painful as it sounds. In the process, however, Tebori was born, the traditional method of tattooing by hand. The word literally means ‘to carve by hand’. They couldn’t have made it sound more brutal if they tried!
With the rise of machine-tattooing, however, the number of traditional Tebori artists has dropped dramatically with very few working outside of Japan. Granted, machine tattooing is quicker, and according to some, less painful, but keeping tattoo traditions like Tebori alive is important for some in the homeland.
Of course if you know anything about the tattoo scene in Japan you know it’s an uncertain one. The country is as famous for developing the art-form as it is for shunning it. Businesses, bath houses and even entire towns have restrictions on tattooing. Even in the last century some areas of Japan have attempted to ban the art-form.
This is largely due to the popularity of body art amongst organised crime figures and the Yakuza (aka the Japanese mafia). Thankfully the 21st century has seen a more relaxed perception of tattooing emerge and with it has come the resurgence of traditional practices like Tebori.
A number of incredible Japanese artists are laying down the electric machines and hand-making their own needles and tattoos, truly taking tattooing back to its roots. Here’s a look at a few of these incredible artists.
Yoshihito Nakano is quite possibly the best Japanese tattooer on the planet and his life in tattooing is as traditional as it gets. Nakano was fist exposed to tattooing after seeing a Yakuza member at a local bath house as a child. He later sought out the legendary Horiyoshi I (Yoshitsugu Muramatsu) and at the age of 25, Nakano began his apprenticeship.
In 1971 Horiyoshi I gave Nakano the title of Horiyoshi III – in traditional Japanese tattooing an apprentice trains under a master who then passes on his title of ‘Hori’ (‘to carve’). Such tattooing families in Japan go back generations and Horiyoshi III carries on the legacy to this day still tattooing at the age of 70.
What’s more impressive is that Horiyoshi has spent the majority of his career tattooing by hand, keeping the Tebori traditions alive and bringing them into a new era. Since the late 1990s he’s outlined with machines but his world famous shading is still done by hand alone.
Perhaps the most in demand Japanese artist in the world Horiyoshi can still be found tattooing in his studio in Yokohama, Japan.
Based in the world renowned Three Tides Tattoo artist Horihiro Mitomo is every bit the classic Japanese tattoo artist. Freehanding all designs and tattooing them by hand Mitomo is a phenomenal talent and an incredible painter. Living and breathing Tebori, Mitomo is someone any tattoo enthusiast should follow if classic Japanese is your thing.
A member of the Horitoshi family, Horimasa Tosui currently tattoos from Black Ink Power, Amsterdam. Whilst he may not be Japan-based, his work is truly authentic Japanese, although there is one difference… he only does black and grey.
Not only does Tosui tattoo by hand but he captures that classic bold Japanese look without using colour, and that’s no easy feat. He’s also arguably the biggest black and grey Tebori artist in the world so you know he’s got talent.
Much like Horiyoshi III, tattoo artist Horimatsu Bunshin does all his shading via Tebori, and when you see the bold colours and shades he creates you’ll see he has talent for days.
Currently on the road, Bunshin is famed for his simple but striking Japanese designs, using classic imagery with subtle detail. He basically lets his insane shading talents do the talking, which when you’re as good as him is fair enough.
Each of the above artists keeps the traditional way of tattooing alive and gives it new life. Of course these are only a few of the artists bringing Tebori back to the forefront of tattooing and this list could have been much longer!
Taking Japanese tattooing back to its roots, the modern Tebori artist sits at an elite level. If you think tattooing by machine is hard, Tebori is something else.
Be sure to keep your eye out for any Tebori artists and if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity make sure you grab yourself your very own Tebori tattoo!
Words: Robert Davies
Photos: Tattoo artists’ Instagram accounts