10 of the World’s BEST Japanese style TATTOO ARTISTS: pt1

Over the next few weeks we’re going to pay tribute to Japanese-themed tattoos and the contributions of 10 Tattoo Artists widely considered to be some of the BEST IN THE WORLD.

For an ever-increasing  number of tattoo collectors (and artists alike), Japanese-styled tattoos are appreciated as the most sophisticated and visually pleasing style of tattooing, today. Though known about since the late 1800s, the popularity of Japanese tattoos in the United States, Europe and around the globe has really only expanded exponentially since the 1960s, prior to this time very few people could understand the depth to these expressions of ink in skin- historically or mythologically. Tattooing is a visual art form, however, and Japanese tattoo work has always had an incomparable effect on even untrained eyes. Just imagine early westerners traveling to a strange land, months at sea, stepping off and seeing such decorated warriors!

japanese samurai tattoos
Old photo examples of traditional Japanese body suit tattoos.

The history of Japanese tattooing and the mythological roots of its powerful yet elegant imagery are deep topics of study and the daunting pursuit of many modern professional artists and scholars, alike. The myths represented in these tattoos and Japan’s rich history of tattooing are subjects for future blog posts, but for our purposes, now, let us trace the various Japanese styles of tattooing, today, back to but a few primary influences- starting with (perhaps, surprisingly to some) the pioneering work of American master, Sailor Jerry Collins and his correspondence with Tattooers around the globe.

There are reasons Norman Collins (aka Sailor Jerry) is so respected by the tattoo community, not the least of which was Jerry’s continual exchange of letters with accomplished tattooists, worldwide. Jerry became one of the first truly global hubs of tattoo information in history, and was one of the first americans to learn anything of significance from real Japanese tattoo masters. Jerry took what he learned and made it his own, but he didn’t just keep all this stuff merely for himself! No, he shared what he learned with his clients, serious collectors and a handful of other professional tattoo artists who each, in turn, found their own way of sharing the exotic information. It was Sailor Jerry’s relationship with several “Young Gun” tattooers of his day, (including legends such as Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, Zeke Owen, and a handful of others), that allowed this once “secret knowledge” of Japanese Tattooing to begin penetrating into the US tattoo community and thereby into middle American culture. It’d be rather safe to say that, were it NOT for Sailor Jerry’s diligent work and willingness to share with others, tattooing would be very different today!

Sailor Jerry photos for sale
Japanese backpieces from Sailor Jerry’s portoflio, early 70s!

To further illustrate the lineage of this esoteric knowledge, it was one of Jerry’s star pupils, (a young art school graduate named Ed Hardy), who would soon become the first western Tattoo Artist to travel to Japan and work many months with a “Hori”, or tattoo master. Hardy studied hard for half a year to learn all he could, later he would later write of his  interaction with mentor Sailor Jerry and of his time and experiences in Japan.

It was Ed’s ability to mix east and west imagery and technique that would cement him in the pantheons of tattoo history. Yet, Hardy wasn’t the only American artist to ‘make a mark’, with the added contributions of Mike Malone, Zeke Owen, Cliff Raven, and a few other legends of tattooing, interest in Japanese Style tattoos grew in silent popularity for another decade before my generation of aspiring artists (of the late 80s and early 90s) then found these books and began to take up our own serious studies to better understand the history and purpose of Japanese tattoos. That same tradition, (of learning and sharing with artists and clients), continues today, with thousands of practicing tattooers (outside of Japan)
who now live and breathe Japanese Tattoo Art. Trust me, these men and women are passionate about what they do- the history, the techniques, and the overall look of  Japanese tattoos.

From one tradition, today there are various styles of Japanese-inspired tattoos– from the very traditional look, to Jerry’s unique “American-ization” of the traditional Japanese form & it’s formulas, to Ed’s revolutionary cross-pollinating of fine art and the Japanese forms of tattooing, to cartoon styles, swiss masterpieces in color and black & grey, and beyond! The whole Japanese tattoo phenomenon spread across the US and into Europe where it would again undergo all-new forms of evolutionary transformations, only to return once again to the US and then even back (full-circle) into Japan! There are a few, highly regarded artists responsible for these more modern movements, from the islands of Japan to Hawaii to San Francisco, Switzerland and beyond, and it is these KEY ARTISTS we shall highlight in the days to come. Artists such as…

Horiyoshi III, Mick Tattoo, Flip Leu, Trevor McStay, Chris Treviño, Shige, Jason Brooks, Dana Helmuth, Mike Rubendall, State of Grace, and MORE!

Varying styles of contemporary, Japanese influenced tattooing.

– Before moving further ahed on this timeline, I want to pause and give respectful attention to the artists from Japan, contemporaries of Jerry and then Ed, Malone, and others, who were the true linchpins for the transmission of this knowledge. 

-Horisada: Horisada traded photos and had some limited correspondence with Sailor Jerry in the 60s and early 70s. Jerry first encountered his work on a Japanese businessman visiting Hawaii. Not much of his work is preserved, but you can see the beauty and grace in these rare photos. Note the traditional hand-poking technique, known as tebori.

Horisada photos from Crash's Sailor Jerry Collection
Horisada photos from Crash’s “Sailor Jerry Collection”

-Horiyoshi II: A second generation tattoo master born in Tokyo, 1914. By way of an article in the 1940s on Japanese tattoos in Life Magazine, his work was seen by Sailor Jerry, but it was Ed Hardy who would later bring Kuronuma Tamotsu to the US to have his works exhibited in San Francisco at the World Expo of Tattoos in 1982.


Horiyoshi II photos from Crash's Sailor Jerry Collection
Horiyoshi II photos from Crash’s “Sailor Jerry Collection”

-Horihide: aka Kazuo Oguri from Gifu, Japan. Horihide was in communication with Sailor Jerry in the mid 60s, visited Hawaii and met Hardy in ’73, and then invited him to Gifu to work by his side and become the first Westerner to tattoo in Japan. He continued to correspond with Mike Malone following Jerry’s heart attacks and death in 1973. (Read a blog article on Horihide HERE:)


for SALE an original Drawing by Horihide from Crash's collection.
An original Drawing sent from Horihide to Sailor Jerry ’72. from Crash’s collection.

Each of these important tattoo artists contributed substantially to the growth of interest in japanese styled tattoos. Fortunately, at least SOME of their life’s work has been documented in some rare but fascinating books. These books are well worth purchasing if you are interested and want to learn more, and all but considered foundational for any aspiring tattooist wanting to actually DO Japanese tattoos, today. As a young tattooer back in the 90s, it was discovering these books and seeing firsthand just how powerful their work was that I began to understand the passion that drove Ed, Mike and others to learn and share ALL THEY COULD about this unique expression of the ancient craft of tattooing in Japan. And it continues still, today…


NEXT UP: Horiyoshi III 

PART 2: HORIYOSHI III http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/11/25/10-of-the-worlds-best-japanese-tattoo-artists-pt2-horiyoshi-iii/

PART 3: MICK TATTOO http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/12/14/worlds-top-japanese-tattoo-artists-pt3-mick-tattoo/

PART 4: FILIP LEU  http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2014/12/24/filip-leu-worlds-top-japanese-artists-pt4/

PART 5: CHRIS TREVINO http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/2015/01/16/chris-trevino-top-japanese-style-tattooists-pt5/


And check out these deals for the  Japanese tattoo lover (or artist) in your life–

TAM #4 digital copy! Horiyoshi III
TAM #4 is SOLD OUT, but you can buy a digital copy HERE!


BUY the TAM Japanese BUNDLE SET here!!
BUY the TAM Japanese BUNDLE SET here!! $120-value ON SALE for $70

Tattoo Artist since 1990 and creator/publisher of Tattoo Artist Magazine since 2003

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11 thoughts on “10 of the World’s BEST Japanese style TATTOO ARTISTS: pt1

  1. You should look into Don Nolan I stopped at his shop several years back an he is still strong . In the 70s he was on par With Ed and Cliff Raven and to look at this objectively he would be included .

    1. Thank you, Jack.
      I’ve always wanted to meet Don and get him in an issue of TAM.
      Admittedly, even though I’m familiar with the name, a bit of his history, and some of his older work, (definitely on par with what was going on back then, and a handful of others,as well), I don’t know his story…and I’d really like to…and share it.

  2. Informative piece, thanks. We are blessed in belfast to have the Japanese style master Chris Crooks on our doorstep and a local magazine called Ulster Ink. Cheers andy

    1. Greetings, Andy.
      Thanks for the kind words.
      I’m not familiar with Ulster Ink but Chris Crooks’ tattoo work is very impressive.
      I’d like to see more of it!

  3. I would add Mike Dorsey as an American master of Japanese style tattooing. He steadily puts out an insane amount of original Japanese style tattoos and paintings.Just my 2 cents worth. Great article

    1. Hi Jherek,
      Thanks, man! You’re right, he’s quietly and consistently produced as long as I’ve known him and he is definitely one of my favorite tattooers!
      Maybe we can finally get a nice interview out of him, soon:)

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