Owen Williams: Crystal Morey Interview

By Owen Williams
Anyone who has been to a tattoo convention of late, from Milan to Sydney may not have actually seen, but definitely would have heard the whirlwind that is Crystal Morey. Usually holding court at the Gomineko Books stall (an invaluable source of Japanese tattoo culture reference and hard-to-find, out-of-print rarities) while simultaneously translating and taking bookings for her Japanese tattoo cohorts. Aside from kicking butt, taking names and rolling dice at convention time, what is it that goes on in the life of the pint-sized Texas Tornado and number one Tiger Mama

Owen Williams: Firstly, who and what are The Tigers?

Crystal Morey: Aha-ha! You are starting this off with The Tigers!? Boom! The Tigers are a group of amazing, talented individuals with a penchant for high-stakes dice games and drunken hijinks. I think we are all similarly marked with a scorching case of wanderlust and make a point to meet up as often as we can in different countries to drink beer, throw dice and be rad.

OW: Which is where we first crossed paths, as it happens… It was pretty much an instant friendship as we realized we’re probably the only people who can talk over the top of each other! Ha! It’s quite incredible having a close-knit circle of friends spread across many continents, catching up at conventions in various cities the world over. Gomineko Books takes you to many conventions throughout the year all across the globe. What lies at the heart of Gomineko and how did it begin?

CM: You make is sound like we have verbal throw-downs every time we open our mouths! I think it is more that while some people toss ideas around, we throw thought balls at each other. We truly are quite obnoxious. It’s a wonder other people hang out with us… you are so loud!

Gomineko; in a nutshell my company outsources Japanese art and design books predominately for tattooers. I am based out of Tokyo, Japan and have my own small publishing house as well that specializes in tattoo art and Japanese reference books. I also organize tours of Japan for tattoo enthusiasts and of course help organize epic underground dice games here in your homeland.

OW: Bah ha ha! Yeah it makes me wonder sometimes too… We must have some redeeming features I guess. I’ll get to the tours in a bit but I have to mention first that you have quite a lot of respect among tattooists, especially the ones who take it seriously through your vast knowledge and understanding of Japanese culture, not to mention being able to speak it fluently. Where did this interest begin and what came first, tattoos or Japanese culture?

CM: I was definitely drawn to tattoos first, I got my first one when I was 13 in an airstream in a small town in Texas by a guy with hair down to his ass who shook worse than Michael J Fox. Classy I know! Ha-ha. I made the move here initially for my daughter. I moved here 15 years ago when she was an infant because I wanted her to be bilingual and to master a language that would be an asset to her.

My appreciation for the Japanese culture came later when I realized I was living in a city that was never boring. I have a hard time sitting still and am constantly moving, well you know, so when it dawned on me that I was living in a city that mirrored my personality I decided I needed to set down roots and see where it took me. The books started as a side project. I have a huge collection of art books, and figured when I found something here I liked, other people probably would too.

I started selling on eBay, art and tattoo books, and then guys like Luke Atkinson, Jack Mosher and Josh Roelink would ask me if I could hunt down specific books, and eventually tattoo reference became the main body of my collection. In doing research for them I developed my own understanding of Japanese tattoo symbolism and the stories behind the motifs and with that I was able to hunt out volumes and artists independently. I love it. It is fascinating.

OW: You got tattooed in a caravan at 13 years old!? WOW! That I did not know!

CM: It was not a “caravan” it was an “airstream.” You make it sound like I was marked by gypsies or something! I am sure I’ve told you this before! Dude, your memory is so bad you’d forget your name if it wasn’t written in your underpants!

OW: I just Googled it and it’s a caravan no matter which way you look at it lady. You can call it an Airstream-a-tron 3000 but it’s still a caravan… and yes, my name is written on my underpants along with ‘wash before wear’ it’s how I get through life. Moving right along… Your knowledge of Japanese art and culture is infectious (bad choice of words considering pretext) as you’ve enlightened me on so many creatures and subtext to stories that I find myself wanting to know everything about them. Is this where your tours began, from artists wanting to know more and experience it first hand?

CM:It was an airstream. A caravan is what carnies used in the 20s to transport the lions. They look like wagons! I was not tattooed in a wagon.

The tours started as a fluke really. When I started traveling to conventions and actually meeting people I had been selling books to for years, conversation would always eventually turn to Japan and what it was like here. I housed quite a few guests and took them around, I love showing off Japan. But it got to be a lot. I had friends over 10 days of every month during the nice months (this was before the earthquake).

So I figured if I could organize a set time, and had people with similar interest come out together, I could organize some things for them that would be financially impossible to do solo. That was the basis for the tours. I figure I will run them until I get tired of them or get too many tiresome people! So far I have had really fun groups… We do a tebori (Japanese hand traditional hand poke tattooing) seminar, I hire a geisha to come pose so people can draw and photograph her for reference, we go inside shinto temples and are blessed by the monks, we get together with clients with bodysuits and party in fundoshi (the diaper).

I took a group last December to the hot springs to see the snow monkeys, that was amazing. We visit the Horiyoshi III tattoo museum in Yokohama and he always makes time to meet everyone which is very sweet, we go out the beach area of Kamakura to see the gardens and the Daibutsu (big Buddha) and travel to some of my favorite historical sites as well as make more than one foray into the seedy underbelly of Tokyo nightlife. The tours are out of control… Super fun, but you truly have to be prepared to throw caution to the wind and soak up this crazy culture full force…

OW: And I can’t think of a better guide to be honest! I’ve seen half of the photos from the tours, from ninja restaurants and sushi places where you have to catch your own fish to the most amazing custom car culture show I’ve seen yet. From the beautiful to the err… obscene, there’s definitely a guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself, which is why I’m heading back this year! You seem to be very close with master Horiyoshi III and often bring tours by to see him, where did this relationship begin and what’s with the “fat-ass” remark?

CM: Aha-ha! I hope you don’t remember this story so you can laugh at me all over again!

I wanted to get a piece from here, living in Japan and not taking advantage of the amazing talent that is here exclusively is asinine. So I called and went into talk to him and I was so nervous I kicked over an ashtray. Ha-ha. He asked me what I wanted and I told him an octopus, and he looked up at me (he was tattooing at the time) and ask me why? I told him I was really fond of them and figured he was tired of doing dragons and foo dogs. Then his client looked at me, because of course, he was getting a foo dog. So I am NOW even more uncomfortable and Horiyoshi asked me where…

I ripped down my pants and said here, on my ass… but I was in a bike accident earlier that week and had this HUGE bruise on my ass and it totally looked like I probably got spanked for a living. Horiyoshi started laughing, I must have been red by then, and he goes on to tell me that he only does wabori (traditional Japanese imagery) and I said I understood that but brought Kuniyoshi and Jakuchu books in as reference and he was really looking at me then, but he said okay, come back next week. Next week came and I was even more flummoxed, but when I went in it was just me and him, and he’d drawn up an amazing huge octopus. He threw the stencil on and I laid down and he started, I flew off the floor like a fish out of water!

He started right on my tailbone and his machine runs like a lawnmower. It was everything I could do to sit through that outline, and by the end he had his knee in my back. It was horrible. Easily the worse tattoo session of my life, and it was done in less than an hour. I sat up and was getting dressed… no wrapping, just jeans right over my chewed up rear end, and I asked him why it hurt so bad. He tells me the ass is always a really painful spot. I said yeah, but I had a lot of meat on mine, I figured it wouldn’t be so bad. He said, “Yeah, your ass is like a marshmallow.”

I looked up and said, “Did you just call me a fat-ass?” He laughed and said, “No no, but you are not Japanese.” Ha-ha-ha, after that I was fine, no more nerves. That was the icebreaker I needed. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met and is just so giving with his time and knowledge. Truly a living legend.

OW: AH HA HA! Hilarious! Oh God I can so seeing you knocking that ashtray over too. You definitely haven’t told me that one before, this hole in the bucket memory would have surely retained that! Horiyoshi III also helped you with a book you’ve published. Was this your first foray into publishing and what does the future hold for Gomineko Press?

CM:The book Japanese Buddhism x Horiyoshi III book was our fourth publication. We did a sketchbook with my buddy Ade, followed by Horimasa’s sketchbook. The third book was Japanese Ghost Stories that started out as a competition. I was working with a Gallery here in Tokyo that exhibited the pieces so I would translate a Japanese ghost story, give people a few months to do an illustration based on the write up and those pieces would then exhibit here in Tokyo. After we did four shows I made a book out of the artwork.

We did the Buddhism book and an art book from my friend Cody Meyer and followed those with the just released Japanese Mythical Creatures book, which was organized the same way as the ghost stories book. I put a write-up out online and showed the illustrations at a gallery space here in Tokyo. I wanted this book to have a little more kick to it so I took my time, we did six creatures this time and the project spanned over two years, I am really stoked with the end result, the illustrations people sent over were awesome, and the individual styles and approaches to each theme made for very compelling exhibitions.

I really want to continue this series and plan to center the next book on Japanese Yokai (monsters). I am ironing out the details now but I have big plans. I love yokai. Japan was so isolated during is initial development that they were forced to come up with their own explanations for the paranormal.

They created their own unique things that go bump in the night and they are fantastic. Amazing… So psychologically different from western goblins, yet they make total sense when you step back and study what life was like here before the dawn of electricity. I started teaching a seminar on Japanese yokai and mythical creatures, basically it is three hours of me rambling about monsters, but it is based on the research I have been doing for this book. I plan to start it in earnest this fall. I cannot wait. Maybe you could actually submit something… There isn’t even a deadline yet, if you started now you could probably make it!

OW: With the way my extra curricular artwork goes I’d be rushing to finish it if the deadline was 60 years away! You’re quite the avid collector of figurines and toys, from mini godzillas to Star Wars and kewpie dolls, which I’ve only seen a fraction of, yet take one step to the side to ventriloquist dolls and you break into a cold sweat and get a death stare. Why the separation? Did someone lock you in a room full of them while they watched you sleep with their lifeless faces awaiting reanimation… Creepy much?

CM: I hate you. I wish I had never told you about ventriloquist dummies. Ventriloquists are weird, I mean their lips may not be moving but they still look like they just had a shot of moonshine and are waiting for the burn to go away. All the while their hand is shoved up the ass of a doll who usually looks like them. Only it’s usually a crass doll who abuses them.

But dolls can’t talk so really it’s one person sitting on stage abusing himself. It’s all very surreal and confusing and uncomfortable. And the way they turn the heads around, ugh, and some of them blink!!! No thank you. Yuck-ola! Kewpies are creepy too but they don’t move. I think once you’ve seen a ventriloquist’s dummy in action… in your head he’s alive and even if he’s just sitting on the shelf you recognize the potential reanimation. That fucker could totally spring into action at any moment… Okay, I am digging a hole here. Thanks Owen now I sound like a card-carrying crazy person!

OW: Ah ha ha! Shot of moonshine, totally! If IKEA sold dolls we could actually have hell on earth! At least people know what to get you for your birthday now…

(Owen can be found at Tama Tattoo Studio in Melbourne, Australia.)

(Crystal Morey works for Gomineko Books and is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. For more info on Gomineko Books please visit their website: www.gominekobooks.com.)

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