ANCIENT ART OF THE JAPANESE TEBORI TATTOO MASTERS | INK IN HARMONY

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Taking off from JFK today for a two week trip that will take me on a quick stop at Tokyo, then on to Korea, China, and finally Hong Kong.  The zen and artistry of Japanese tattoo has long fascinated me, and with this trip, this post seemed only fitting.

“Oguri, known in Japan as Horihide, his tattooing name, is a famous artist and highly regarded as the pioneer that brought Japanese tattooing to American tattooists, like Sailor Jerry, and subsequently Ed Hardy, after World War II. Thus setting the stage for large Asian body suit tattoo design to change the face of western tattooing in the last half of the twenty first century. Here in his own words is his story~

“In old days, Japanese tattooists worked at their own houses and ran business quietly. They didn’t put up a sign and list telephone numbers on the book. The practice of tattooing was forbidden in Japan (until the end of World War II). The customers used to find the tattoo shops by word of mouth.

When I was an apprentice, feudal customs still existed in Japan. The apprenticeship was one of the feudal customs called uchideshi in Japanese. Normally, pupils lived with their masters, and were trained for 5 years. After 5-year training, the pupils worked independently, and gave the masters money that he earned for one year. The one-year service was called oreiboko in Japanese, the service to express the gratitude towards the masters. The masters usually told new pupils about this system, 5-year-training and 1-year service, when they began the apprenticeship.”

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Mid 20th century, Japan ~ A group of traditionally tattooed gamblers. Umezu (c), the chief of gambling, sits among them. ~ Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

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“I slept at the master’s workplace when I was a pupil. I wanted to be a great tattoo artist as soon as possible. In the middle of the night, I picked up the needles from the master’s tool box, sat cross-legged and practiced tattooing on my thigh without the ink, remembering how my master performed. I continued to practice tattooing without using the ink. I used a thick bamboo stick for sujibori (outlining), which was about 20 cm long. The edge of the stick was sharpened, and 6-7 needles were put in order and tied up by silk thread. The length of the tip of needles was 3-4 mm. I wanted to workas a tattooist soon, and practiced incising both my thighs with the bamboo stick every night after work.I did not know how to use the tattooing tools and how to adjust the angles. Sometimes I penetrated the skin very deeply with the needles, and the skin bled and swelled. I could not tattoo by using the bamboo stick as I wanted.During the daytime I did chores. If I had no work during the day, I would sit down on the left side of my master and watch his work from the distance.

Every customer came to the master by appointment and got hitoppori. Hitoppori in Japanese means to get tattooed for 2 hours each day. If a big tattoo was to be done, the customer came by every third day. I used to keep sitting straight for 2 hours and just watching my master’s hands learn his tattooing skills. The master would say to me, ‘I’m not going to lecture you. You steal my techniques by watching me work.’ Watching is the fastest way to learn, rather than listening to the lecture, if people really want to learn something. Even though I was full of enthusiasm, my skills were not improved easily. I couldn’t see any progress at all.”

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1946, Tokyo, Japan ~ A Japanese tattoo artist works on the shoulder of a Yakuza gang member. ~ Image by © Horace Bristol

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“One day, the master’s wife asked me to split wood. (Pupils normally call the master’s wife ane-san or okami-san. The master’s wife looked so happy when I called her ane-san. So I called her ane-san during the apprenticeship.) One day while I was splitting wood in the back yard, I got hotter and hotter. I was in a sweat, and took off my shirt and trousers. Ane-san came and asked me to take a rest. She brought a cup of tea for me. Then, Ane-san happened to see my traces of the needles on the thighs.

She was surprised and said to me, ‘How did you get scars on the thighs? Do you practice tattooing by yourself?’

‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘but I cannot tattoo well like the master does.’

‘Have you ever seen my husband’s legs and ankles?’ she asked again.

‘No.’ I said.

She continued, ‘His whole legs are covered with tattoos. You know what I mean? He told me that he practiced tattooing on his legs with the ink when he was a pupil. That’s why his legs are all black. He also told me that a tattooist needs to learn by tattooing his own body to become a professional tattooist. There is nothing to replace human skin. So you have to learn tattooing by using (tattooing) your body.’”

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