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The secretive world of traditional Japanese tattooing
Japan's rare breed of irezumi artists are preserving an art form often considered unsavory
The majority of people in Japan are wary of tattoos. In the past they were outlawed and those who bore them tended to belong to criminal gangs. They are particularly associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). So, although tattoos are increasingly seen as fashionable among Japan's younger generation, the art of irezumi, or traditional Japanese tattooing, has been forced underground and remains a secret world that few people get to see.
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Irezumi are created using a style called tebori, which uses bamboo poles, home-made needles and sumi ink made from charcoal. It is a difficult style and pure practitioners number no more than 10, the majority of whom have yakuza among their clientele, supporting the notion that tattoos are in some way associated with crime and are therefore something to be feared. However, according to one pure tebori style artist, Kenichi Kato, who works under the name of Horimyo, the roots of tattooing in Japan did not start with organized crime, but come from an art form that was believed to bestow powers onto those who bore tattoos.
Horimyo doesn’t advertise his work. Potential clients come to him by word of mouth, and are only accepted if he feels they have a meaningful reason for getting a tattoo. For those accepted, Horimyo makes a unique design that is symbolic of the kind of power the customer wants from their individual work of art. Before tattooing his clients he spends hours praying to Buddha. He says he chooses to use the tebori method as it’s not only the end product which matters, but the manner in which something is done that bestows meaning. Unlike many other tebori artists, Horimyo’s clients are not yakuza. They are university professors, salarymen and even include well-known Japanese sports stars.
Horimyo has an impressive clientele and has won a string of awards abroad for his work. Yet due to the negative image that surround his art, he and his clients stay out of the limelight, they avoid showing their tattoos in public and Horimyo himself even has to lie about his occupation so he can rent the apartment that acts as his studio. Attitudes towards tattoos in Japan are changing, but very slowly and there is still a long way to go before artists like Horimyo can be open about their work.