By Liz Ohanesian
On Saturday afternoon, four tattoo artists went to work inside Little Tokyo’s Japanese American National Museum for the opening of “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in the Modern World.” They spent hours taking ink and needles to flesh, adding to the large, detailed illustrations that already marked their client’s bodies. Crowds gathered and dispersed throughout the day, watching with interest.
Most seemed unfazed by the buzz of tattoo machines. Many of the onlookers here have gone through a similar process. Some had tattooed sleeves that crawled out from under t-shirts. Others had art that peeked out above collar lines or below hems.
Instead, it was two of those tattoo artists working in silence at their stations who could provoke a wince from the crowd. They were practicing tebori. That’s the traditional Japanese way of applying tattoos. In other words, they were using equipment that wasn’t motorized. The artists dipped their instruments into ink before poking repeatedly at patches of skin on their clients. One lay on his back, an arm crossed over his eyes. His stomach moved with breaths that grew deeper as the prodding persisted. Another remained still on his stomach. From certain angles, you could catch the tension creases form on his face.
Tebori is an old-fashioned way of tattooing, but it’s not antiquated. Takahiro Kitamura, known as Horitaka in tattoo circles, is the curator of “Perseverance.” He notes that there are still plenty of tebori practitioners at work. Many of them choose to use machines to outline the tattoos, he says, but they’ll still use their hands for shading. It’s more than an adherence to tradition. He notes that some believe working by hand makes for a better, longer-lasting tattoo.
“Perseverance” is an unusual show in that it both documents and celebrates the art of Japanese tattoos, as well as the impact this style of body art has had globally. Tattoos date back to Japan’s ancient history, but flourished during the Edo period. Despite an extensive history, tattoos in Japan aren’t mainstream. In fact, many who have traveled to the country have reported of signs that ban people with tattoos from certain institutions. Even in the U.S., where body art is relatively commonplace, the Japanese style is extreme in comparison to everyday tattoos. These are not your typical daisy on the ankle. Some people invest in full bodysuits. Others may stick with the trunk of the body or limbs.
According to Horitaka, one of the major misconceptions about Japanese tattoos is that they aren’t “fine art.” Tattoos have some similarities with other traditional Japanese art forms that have found homes in museums. Take the names of the artists as an example. A number of the tattoo artists here are known by names that use the prefix “hori.” Horitaka explains that this word means “to dig or carve” and notes that woodblock prints are often signed by artists whose names also begin with “hori.” It is, he says, something that tattoo artists adopted from wood carvers.
In curating this exhibition, Horitaka is challenging the misconceptions about tattoos. Artist and professor Kip Fulbeck photographed numerous human canvases bearing the work of the best artists in the field. Horitaka selected photos that zoomed in on the art, juxtaposing those with full-sized portraits of the people who wear the tattoos. The goal was to explore the diversity within the Japanese tattoo tradition, while making the show as much about the people as it is about the art. It’s a massive collaboration between the curator, the photographer/designer, the tattoo artists and their clients. For the opening day festivities, many of the clients turned up – some traveling to L.A. from Japan – to model work that can take months, even years, to complete.
Shawn McHenry and Chad Sachman, both from Rancho Cucamonga, are both clients of Inland Empire tattoo artist Espi. They were amongst the models at the exhibition’s opening event. McHenry has a full back tattoo. It took about a year to get that done. He also has work on his leg that’s been in progress for two-and-a-half years. His tattoos tell the story of Kintaro, a folklore hero, and his encounter with a large carp. It’s a tale that relates to McHenry’s work. He owns a koi fish shop and got into the business when he was barely an adult. “If you’re foolish and blind and just want to do it,” he says of the story’s message, “you can succeed.”
Horitaka says that tattoos almost always tell a story. Those may be based in folklore, religion or history. You’ll see narratives unfold down the back, below the buttocks and onto the upper thighs. They might scroll down arms or across the chest.
As Japanese tattoos have increased in popularity, the stories they tell have changed as well. “We’re in a world of fusion now,” says Kitamura. Time-honored tales aren’t the only ones told on skin. Chris “Horishiki” Brand is an artist at Good Time Charlie’s in Anaheim. He’s also part of the L.A.-based art collective UGLAR. For this exhibition, he presented 108 Heroes of Los Angeles. It’s a retelling of Shui Hu Zhuan, a Chinese novel that later made its way to Japan, where it’s known as Suikoden. In this series of tattoos, Brand merges Japanese and Chicano art in a story of rebellion. Photos of the tattoo piece are exhibited in the museum.
Undoubtedly, with narrative-based pieces as involved as these, getting a Japanese-style tattoo requires a serious commitment. Shawn McHenry once went through three days in a row of tattoo sessions, with each one clocking in at about 12 hours. “It got to the point where we would have to stop because of the smell of flesh,” he says.
He says that there is an endorphin rush that comes with being tattooed. That, however, can wear off when you’re in the lengthy sessions that occur with large pieces. He says that, at a certain point, the pain stays in a specific part of the body. It doesn’t move with the needle. Chad Sachman agrees with that sentiment. Last week, he had work done on his lower back, over the spine. “I was actually feeling the pain in my knee,” he says.
As for the artists, their work requires constant study. Horitaka, who owns a tattoo shop in San Jose, spent several years as an apprentice in the U.S. and another decade studying under a Japanese tattoo master. Although he works solo now, he’s not done learning. He says, “I think I’m always going to be a student of the Japanese tattoo.”