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A Dying Art – Traditional Japanese Tattoo

KYOTO, Japan- It was the apex of spring in Japan: the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the fierce winter winds had died down to a gentle, welcoming hum. I was on a bus with an acquaintance headed to Kitaoji Dori, a fashionable district in downtown Kyoto. There, I would be formally introduced to [...]

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KYOTO, Japan- It was the apex of spring in Japan: the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the fierce winter winds had died down to a gentle, welcoming hum. I was on a bus with an acquaintance headed to Kitaoji Dori, a fashionable district in downtown Kyoto. There, I would be formally introduced to the old horimono master, who I hoped would agree to tattoo the entire surface of my back.

My acquaintance’s name was Rosemary, and she reminded me of my father. She was so aloofly dominating that I could not even carry on the slightest conversation with her. She carried her 30 years of life on her face and in her stride; it was obvious that she had dug deep into the depths of life and had come out the other side a touch un-amused.

Article written by Wade from


Rosemary was close with a circle of men who were well-known for being involved with the Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicate. This fact alone shows the power of her character, as it is extremely rare for a foreigner to be trusted in such social spheres—and Rosemary was American. Even more unusual, she had an orange koi tattooed up the entire length of the outside of her thigh, which was done in the traditional tebori (hand-made) style by Hori-Itsu, one of the last surviving horimono (traditional tattoo) artists in Japan. Here, traditional tattoo artists do not advertise on the street, and in order to receive a tattoo from them, it is necessary to secure a formal introduction from someone who is already in their social circle. Rosemary was facilitating this type of introduction for me.

Irezumi Japanese Tattoo

We got off the crowded bus in front of a giant shopping complex, then walked through a series of canal-lined side allies, sprinkled liberally with sex hotels and other ‘pink’-colored businesses. Rosemary suddenly came to a halt, turned and then walked down a few steps to a windowless steel door. She spoke into a receiver on the wall. There was no sign, nor any other indication that we were at a tattoo parlor. The door automatically unlocked and we entered a dark, grey stairwell, where a young Japanese man escorted us into a room on the right.

Suddenly overwhelmed, I soaked in the scene before me. Ancient wood-block prints of Kuniyoshi hung all over the walls and drawings of large Japanese-style tattoos on tracing paper were taped haphazardly around the room. A Japanese man with a body-suit of tattoos laid upon a bamboo tatami mat while a horimono artist hand-poked ink into the colorful menagerie of tattoos upon his upper thigh. All I could hear was the gentle, “thap, thap, thap” of the needles entering his skin. There were two other clients in the room, both completely tattooed, who were missing fingers and whose faces bore deep scars. They smiled at me. I bowed excessively to everyone and then bowed some more, muttering overly formal greetings in unsteady Japanese.

Rosemary got down to business. She told the master’s head apprentice that it was my wish to have the entire surface of my back tattooed in the traditional Japanese style. The design that I wanted was of the ‘Flower Monk,’ who was one of the main characters of the legendary book, 108 Heroes of the Water Margin. The book, simply called the Suikoden in Japanese, helped to inspire the revolutionary fervor of Japan’s Edo period. The lower castes of Edo society could easily identify with the heroes in the book, who were outlaws that fought against injustice in the name of brotherhood. Subsequently, the book’s images of the rebels became extremely popular as tattoo designs. In fact, tattooing itself was viewed as a revolutionary act.

One of the apprentices formally introduced himself to me, and we sat down to discuss my request. This initial stage of the horimono processes is very volatile, as it is common for artists to decline clients whom they feel may debase the sanctity of their art. To measure the degree of my sincerity, not only in regards to the piece that we were discussing but also to the art and spirit of tattooing, the apprentice asked me many in-depth questions as to why I was interested in having the ‘Flower Monk’ tattooed on me.

“Why you like ‘Flower Monk?,’” the apprentice asked me bluntly. I knew that I had to answer this question carefully, as the acceptance or denial of my tattoo request hung perilously on my reply. “I like the ‘Flower Monk’ because he was bold and rash, yet, deep down, he was also kind and gentle. I like him because he was an imperfect character who, in spite of his personality flaws, was able to let his good heart shine through in the end.” The apprentice then smiled brightly as he presented me with a binder of tattoo designs.

He then pointed out four different drawings rendering the ‘Flower Monk,’ in various poses. I contemplated each drawing carefully; after all, this was no small decision. The tattoo design that I was contemplating would cover my entire back—from the top of my shoulders to the bottom of my buttocks.

As I was choosing between the ‘Flower Monk’ images, I was told that one of them was drawn by Horiyoshi III, who is of great international fame. This drawing conspicuously stood out from rest of my options, as it was finely detailed, realistic, and vastly more modern looking than the other three designs that were based off of the Suikoden’s original wood-block prints. Authentic Japanese tattoos are generally very simple images that can be seen clearly, as they lack unnecessary detail and are constructed with thick, bold lines. The complex drawing by Horiyoshi III did not comply with these traditional standards and was a compelling indication of the direction that Japanese tattooing is heading. Electromagnetic machines are taking precedence over tebori (hand poking), chemical inks over ground sumi, walk-in parlors over intimate and hidden studios. Instead of single pictures that cover a body’s entire surface, Western influenced, free-standing tattoo designs are gaining popularity. Some say that the foundations upon which the art of horimono was built—the attributes that give it its depth, spirit, power and beauty—are being undercut by the flashy, quick and easy methods of the West.

As I held the drawing by Horiyoshi III, I knew that it was heavily influenced by Western tattooing, and did not have the authentic character that I was looking for. I quickly discarded it and chose a drawing from among the traditional options. I wanted to be tattooed with an image that was pure and authentic horimono; I wanted a tattoo that was in the same style as the one the ‘Flower Monk,’ himself, proudly wore upon his back. The apprentice nodded his head as he inspected the image that I choose. “I like this one, too,” he said with a deep smile. I knew that I had made the right decision.

We then set about discussing the particulars of the tattoo. Most often, a client chooses a design from an artist’s collection of drawings- which have been passed down from horimono master to student for hundreds of years- and then minor adaptions are discussed to suit personal tastes and interests. Rarely does a hormino master design a tattoo from scratch for a particular client; rather, nearly all traditional tattoos are based on the collection of time-honored drawings .

I soon found out that there are a plethora of unspoken rules by which the artist governs the creative direction of his art. More than once, the apprentice told me that my request to alter or add to the design simply could not be carried out. His explanations as to why were straightforward and curt. “No, cherry blossoms and maple leaves cannot go in the same tattoo. They are from different seasons,” he said, with a nearly exasperated look on his face. I soon got the feeling that I was making myself look really dumb so I threw my suggestions to the wind and took solace in the fact that I was dealing with time-honored masters of the art, who would create a piece of beauty and depth regardless of my interjections. Besides, in Japan, the tattoo is more the property of the artist than the one onto whose skin it is being etched.

It was at this time that the Master entered the room. Everyone present, including the apprentices, immediately stood and bowed to him in reverence. The master’s name was Tsukasa, an heir in the tattoo lineage of the sensei Hori-Itsu. We exchanged greetings. The mood of the room was a bit tense, as we did not know how I would be received. A foreigner’s presence in a traditional horimono studio is very rare. But the master smiled at my pitiable attempt to speak Japanese, and the suspense of the moment was broken.

Tsukasa’s eyes spoke of a man who knew how to control others. Like many other yakuza, his hair was short and bleached, his skin a well-tanned brown and his face pockmarked with scars. The small finger on his left hand was cut off at the first knuckle.

Tsukasa grabbed my lower left arm, which was covered in Western-style tattoos, and began closely studying each one. In simple English, he asked me questions about their significance, where they were done and by whom. I answered him succinctly, trying hard to suppress my nervousness. Although we were surrounded by many people, I was aware of nobody but my interviewer.
When Tsukasa had satisfactorily concluded the interrogation, he exited with his apprentice into an adjacent room and closed the curtain behind them. For 10 minutes they stood in the little room talking, while I sat on the couch consumed with apprehension. I tried to make small talk with Rosemary, but it was useless; instead, we just smiled at each other and waited for the decision.

Tsukasa and the apprentice emerged from behind the curtain. My heart nearly skipped a beat before the Master told me to take off my clothes so that a stencil could be made. It was a go. They had accepted my request.

After I stripped off my clothing, the apprentice taped a large piece of tracing paper upon my back and drew the outline of my torso from my shoulders to buttocks. I then dressed and returned to the reception room to make the necessary logistical arrangements. I paid a rather large deposit and was told that I would be called in at the appropriate time to view the initial drawings.

The call never came. After three months of anxiously waiting, I contacted Rosemary to find out what was going on. She assured me that she would get down to the bottom of it. Another week quickly passed in which I tried to busy myself with other Japanese related pursuits. I tried to concentrate on Haiku poetry, I made an honest attempt to learn about Zen Buddhism, but I could not stop thinking about getting this tattoo. I was nearly at the point of consumptive mania when Rosemary showed up on my doorstep one morning with sad news.

She told me bluntly that Tsukasa’s liver gave out after forty years of incessant alcohol and drug abuse, and that he would probably never tattoo again. I was momentarily awestruck by this information, as I was not only notified of the eminent death of a man that I had known but also of the end of a great tattoo lineage. Later that day, I hurried down to the studio to confirm this news. I found the apprentice sitting alone in the tattoo parlor that was once bustling and full of life. I asked him about the medical condition of the Master, and he just despondently shrugged his shoulders and gave a weak smile, as he confirmed what Rosmary had told me. He knew that it was coming, everybody did.

In these modern times of glitter and flash, ancient crafts are as impermanent as the old masters who practice them. The traditional art of horimono is dying and, like Tsukasa, it does not look as if it will be saved. Cultures change, people die, and traditions fade away. With the death of each Horimono master, the world comes a little closer to the death of the ancient art of Japanese tattooing.

Writer’s Bio:
Wade P. Shepard has been tramping around this here planet for the past eight years; he has wandered into the outback of Mongolia, lived in a monastery in Tibet, ate a puppy in China, danced with mystics in India, thought he was a gardener in Ireland, and got really lost in Patagonia. He has now run aground in Morocco, where he has finally decided to finish his undergraduate degree with the Friends World Program of Long Island University. Throughout all of this, he has been working diligently on his website, www.VagabondJourney.com where you can go to find more information and stories about Japanese Tattooing.

For more about tattooing around the world go to Vagabond Journey Tattoos or In search of a tattoo in the new Japan


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Filed under: Art and Music, Articles, Asia, Craftsmanship, Culture and Society, Disappearing Traditions, Japan, Tattoo

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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