Brian Ashcraft is a writer over at Kotaku and an author living in Japan. His latest book, Japanese tattoos: History • Culture • Design explores the rich and storied history of tattooing in Japan. Co-author Hori Benny is an Osaka-based tattooer specialising in Otaku tattoos. We caught up with both of them about the book, moving to Japan, and the changing attitudes to tattooing.
Interview by James McCauley
Photography by Hori Benny and Brian Ashcraft
You can buy Japanese tattoos: History • Culture • Design here from Amazon.
So let’s start at the beginning. When did you first develop an interest in tattooing?
Back when I was living in Minneapolis, in a magical era before 9-11 and social media, in the year 2000 my roommate (who herself was a tattoo apprentice already) told me that they needed a Japanese translator for a guest artist at their studio. I had never set foot in a tattoo shop before and very little exposure to the world of tattooing, but it sounded like fun, so I was in. I spent all day, every day for a week in this new environment – I had never stepped foot in a shop before – surrounded by working, breathing artists, watching their work dynamic, and in the case of their guest, translating those interactions. Everyone had a different style and every day they did something different. I was young and had no idea that as a medium, tattooing had so much diversity and potential.
What were you doing to get by back in Minnesota before you migrated?
At the time I was doing freelance graphic design but was already planning my future move to Japan.
What brought on the move to Japan? It’s obviously a huge commitment and total change of lifestyle.
Despite various road trips here and there, I’d been living in the Midwest my entire life. I didn’t see anything for myself there but more than that I really just wanted to see much more of the world. A short trip during my University years really whet my appetite, and so I applied for an assistant teaching job.
“Every day that went by, I felt more and more anxious about my future and felt I was doubling down on a fantasy.”
Was it hard to adjust and settle in those early days?
Not really. I was excited to live abroad and begin a new chapter in my life. I was barely 22 at the time, and there was no social media or smart phones to tether me to my old life, so basically everything was a new adventure. They also sent me way down to the southern tip of Kyushu in a place called Kagoshima – a beautiful part of Japan by the way – where I spent two carefree years before moving to Osaka. I led a comparatively slow life there compared to my Osaka life now.
What was it that drew you to Osaka in particular?
Osaka was the first city I had visited in Japan during a past excursion and also home to the tattoo artist friends I had made. Also, even though we can’t rival Tokyo’s socio-economic might, Osaka’s people are kind, have a quirky sense of humour, and their food is pretty amazing.
So you are one of a very small amount of Westerners given an apprenticeship in Japan. It’s almost unheard of. How did you go about making this happen?
During my last year in Kagoshima, I knew my job contract would be coming to an end and that basically, I had made little or no plan for my future. All I knew was that I loved art and drawing and wanted it to consume me. The allure of irezumi had simply become stronger than ever. I had made a few pilgrimages to Osaka to the shop of my first Japanese tattooer acquaintance. Several times I asked to be allowed to work in the shop and each time I was rebuffed. Finally, they agreed to take me on for a trial basis as it were. I think there was an assumption that I would simply give up after a month or so. It took a long time to prove myself to them – in fact, I did not formally become the apprentice of one of their artists, Wataru, until my third year.
Could you tell us a little about the rigours of that apprenticeship? Was it very formal?
This is a difficult subject to explain due to the large cultural differences between a Japanese and western style tattooing apprenticeship. Every ichimon or tattoo family has its own rites and practices, so I can only speak from my own experience. There were no days off, not for birthdays nor New year. I didn’t have my first day off for five years. Every morning I arrived before everyone and ordered their breakfasts, set up and cleaned their work areas, built their needles, ground their ink sticks, and basically managed the shop. Other tattooers already had apprentices there as well. Some were younger than me but had been there longer. I had thought that my Japanese up until that time had been adequate, but my formal language was still poor, and I was often scolded for it. We weren’t allowed to eat, drink, or smoke during work hours, and any drawing had to be done on our own time – of which there was very little. Every day that went by, I felt more and more anxious about my future and felt I was doubling down on a fantasy. I doubted everything and struggled with regret. Once Wataru took me under his wing, things slowly improved. He kindly explained not only tattooing but nuances of Japanese culture that helped me climatize to Kansai. He taught me to understand the way that Osakans people laugh at the world, even when they are in dire straits. My goals became more concrete and through his guidance, I was eventually allowed to begin taking formal work.
Have you stayed close to your master as many tattooers in Japan do after apprenticing?
I am thankful that our relationship has endured through the years. Sometimes a master and apprentice do not always see eye to eye and arguments are inevitable, but I am happy that we have weathered many storms. It is worth noting that “Apprentice” in Japanese is written with the characters “child” and “younger brother.” In this sense, an “apprenticeship” does not end per se – even though I have grown out and now have my own studio and my own deshi, I am always his deshi, just as he is always my “shisho.”
Your style is certainly not traditional Irezumi, so who or what were some of the biggest influences on your work?
The sights, sounds, shapes and symbols in Japan that one simply absorbs through osmosis is one such influence. Appreciation for the seasons, for nature, are present in much of Japan’s art. I am also a practitioner of Ikebana (flower arrangement) of which there are always new lessons to be learned. I am also very fond of Edo period woodblock artists, such as the famed Katsushika Hokusai. Not only were his works a major influence on traditional irezumi motifs, but he also painted what we consider precursors to the modern genre of storytelling – manga. Manga as an art form is a constant wellspring of inspiration, in both style and narrative potential.
Irezumi manages to tell a story of folklore, seasons, feelings or expressions all by looking at it. Was this a big draw of the style to you?
Cultural symbols bind people together. The same symbols you see in Irezumi might just as well decorate a kimono, a teapot, a wall screen or temple facade. They are also a product and place of the time in which they flourished. For me, I am also drawn to the stylistic choices made in Irezumi. Bold lines, Bold colours, and strong contrast – you can see what they depict a mile away. They are a large, time consuming, expensive, painful commitment but as such, they mark a critical turning point in a person’s life. My body suit was my first tattoo, and it was done piece by piece as I began my training.
I’ve been speaking to another Western artist who didn’t learn to tattoo in Japan but is there at the moment. His studio is pretty low-key because of what’s going on at the moment. You aren’t that way, with very active social media accounts and website. Was this a conscious decision or do you plan just to carry on as usual until a problem comes up?
You have to understand the extent to which this problem blindsided people. One day there was a few rumours, then a few more… then police were showing up at studios with warrants. Of course, tattooing is always oscillating between underground and overground in every era, but this was a large scale action, unprecedented in decades. For at least the last 15 years, you could waltz into any book store in Japan and buy a tattoo magazine with the names and address of hundreds of working artists. I mean, I can’t just pretend I’m not Hori Benny tomorrow and stop being a tattooer. That being said, my studio is private, appointment only, and I don’t publicly advertise its number or location.
Could you tell us a little more of Taiki, the artist who publicly fought against his conviction for tattooing in Japan?
Taiki is a young gentile Japanese tattoo artist who was caught up in the most recent wave of repression tactics by Osaka law enforcement. Unlike the other victims of these raids, he chose to fight back within the Japanese court system and by challenging his fine, his case is now the focus of activities for Save Tattooing Japan.
Has Save Tattooing in Japan brought tattooers together in a way that hasn’t been seen before?
It’s too early to tell. The problems facing tattooers here in Kansai have been reported elsewhere, but there is no way of knowing if and how they will spread. Many tattooers want to take a wait-and-see or don’t-rock-the-boat approach, and some disagree with the trajectory of the current court case. Regardless, the wheels are set in motion now, and the Olympics and the tattooed hordes that follow them will descend on Japan in 2020 so something will eventually have to happen.
It could be argued that Irezumi fits the natural flow of the body better than any other style of tattooing. Do you think this is rooted in a tradition of studying the craft with a master or do you attribute it to the subject matter itself?
It’s a very basic but important concept, and I think any skilful tattooer naturally considers the placement of the work. The traditional Japanese bodysuit was specifically tailored to fit all around the human form, and many of its conventions take this unique canvas of flesh into account. I was taught these concepts by older experienced tattooers, but such a convention is already manifest in Japanese art.
Could you tell us about ‘Otattoos’, a phrase you coined and about Invasion Club?
Otattoo (ヲタトゥー) simply combines “Otaku” and “Tattoos.” They feature characters and designs from manga, anime, and games, are aimed at otaku and generally done by otaku artists! It turns out that many Japanese artists, even very traditional ones, have at least one manga or some sort of geeky hobby that they are fond of. And as contemporary otaku continue to embrace this generation’s heroes, I think you’ll begin seeing not just heroes from the Suikouden, but figures from the likes of Evangelion, One Piece, and Final Fantasy. Like their Edo period counterparts, these are the modern Japanese myths that offer courage, inspiration, and ideals, making them perfect for tattoo subjects.
Who are some of your favourite tattooers?
Oh man, where do you even start? I follow about one thousand artists on Instagram alone whose skill just keeps blowing me away. I would just leave too many people out… but if you are interested in Japanese tattooing, you should definitely be paying attention to Miyazo and his extended tattoo family. Flows that are dynamic and deep – so solid and clean! Modern Avant Garde artists (and former colleagues) Gakkin and Nissaco are both inspirational. And of course, my otaku sister Mica in Tokyo!
What tattoo machines and ink are you using at the moment?
I am fond of Inkjecta’s machines as they are quiet and strong. I use almost every ink under the sun!
Lastly, could you tell us your favourite story from your time in tattooing?
So many lows, but so many highs as well. Million of stories, but I suppose my favourite would be from my event Otattoo Nights. Basically, we mash up otaku and tattoo culture, plus anything in between! It was my third time throwing it, and we rented this crazy two story boat on the river. On one floor we had tattooers working away – some of them and their clients were even decked out in cosplay. Downstairs we had an idol group performing, BBQ, live painting… guys and girls who were tattooed from neck to ankle dressed up as anime characters – it was totally mental! Anyway, some of our guests that day were a few of the local yakuza. As people were jumping, dancing, and singing in unison to anime music, one of them grabbed me by the arm and pulled me off to the side. He leans in close and says, “Benny, for the first time in my life… I truly feel afraid!”
Could you tell us what you do and how you wound up living in Japan?
Ever since I was a kid, I was interested in Japan. A family friend who was a flight attendant regularly flew to Tokyo, bringing back snacks and super robot toys. I remember getting a can of Japanese Coke, which was tall and slender and unlike the squat cans we had in America.
When I was in grade school, there was another student who had moved from Japan with his family. I remember going to his house, and the Famicom, the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertain System, looked very different but had many of the same games as well as games I had never seen before. Between the US and Japan, there were so many things that were similar, and so many things that were different. Take baseball, for example. Japan has a long, proud baseball tradition, but the way they approach the game is different.
And while in university, I spent my summers interning at Quentin Tarantino’s distribution company Rolling Thunder Pictures, and my boss went to Japan to try to get the distribution rights to some yakuza and Gamera movies. He wasn’t successful, but his trip inspired me to come to Japan. I was supposed to stay for only a few months. That was in 2001. I’ve been here ever since.
When did you first get the idea to write your book, Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design?
I was in a pitch meeting with the head of Tuttle. I was thinking about stuff that would be interesting to do after my book Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, a look at how young women have impacted Japanese society. I had interviewed Hori Benny before, and I was keen to do a tattoo book but do one that showed how deeply tattooing is connected to Japanese culture as well as one that people would find useful. This book has two audiences: people who like tattoos and people who like Japan. We wanted to make something that both would find equally enjoyable and informative.
When Hori Benny and I had met before, I felt like we hit it off and had similar prospectives on Japan. He’s a talented artist, and I knew his insights would be invaluable. I think the book is proof of that!
The way we collaborated worked well. Basically, we talked to each other pretty much every single day for the past two or three years. I’d research something, talk to him about it, he’d research something and talk to me about it. Then, I’d sit down and write up the chapters. We’d go through it, and he’d hit me back with any tweaks or suggestions. I enjoy collaborating with others and hashing out ideas. Hori Benny was a wonderful collaborator, and I feel lucky to work with him.
I’m eager to see how future generations of young tattooers will continue to push the form forward in new and exciting ways.
How did you first meet Hori Benny?
I met him several years earlier. Online in Japan, there are often threads about geek tattoos, and his work kept popping up in them. I shot him an email and then we met. After meeting him, I was blown away by his versatility. He is able to do Evangelion tattoos with the same ease he can do peonies, dragons, and koi. He has a strong background in the longstanding motifs but is also very much into otaku culture. I like that he sees the importance of both, and in this book, we wanted to make that clear. Japanese tattoos encompass many different styles, but the motivations for the work are often similar. That is one of the threads that links them together.
Was it helpful having a Western friend to help co-author the book, especially one connected to tattooing in Japan?
I think it’s less about working with simply a Westerner, but more about working with someone you collaborate with in a constructive manner. Right now, I’m working on another project with two Japanese collaborators, and it’s also going extremely well.
However, as I mentioned before, I think Hori Benny and I have similar views on many parts of Japanese culture. We both have been here for about the same amount of time (15 years plus), both speak the language, and both have settled here. So, in that way, I think we could often speak in shorthand about things. There’s a mutual understanding.
As for Hori Benny being a working tattooer here in Japan, his insights were incredibly helpful. If I had a question about something, he was more than willing to offer what he knew or talk to elder tattoos to find out what they knew. A good chunk of tattooing is passed down through oral tradition, so working with someone in that tradition was invaluable.
What was it like hearing that people you had consulted for your book had been picked up by the police?
I’m not an artist. However, I majored in Art History in University, and Art with a capital A is something I feel strongly about. We can have a healthy debate whether tattooing is Art or a craft, and I’m inclined to believe it’s both. But, any situation in which artists or artisans are prevented from expressing themselves in the most fundamental way in their chosen medium is something I find rather depressing.
Have you been tattooed or have any plans to be tattooed by anyone else in Japan?
As I mentioned above, I studied Art History in college, and I’m approaching this subject matter from that background as well as someone who’s written about this country for a long time. I have three kids, and I know that if I had tattoos, certain things would not be possible or made incredibly difficult, such as taking them to the pool or hot springs. However, since I do know acutely how having a tattoo can change one’s life in Japan, my respect for those who decide to get inked in this country–or any country, really–is immense. During the writing of this book, every tattooer I’ve met or talked to have been way more open-minded than many people in this country. I think everyone should have the freedom to decide what they want to do with their body, which is why the recent actions of the Osaka authorities are so distressing.
Many know about the recent troubles tattooers in Japan have been facing. Can you tell us a little about the recent strides ‘save tattooing in Japan’ has made?
The group has been meeting with lawyers and giving other tattooers legal seminars. I’ve also seen them set up stands at concerts and festivals here in Osaka to help get the word out. It’s a tough fight, but an important one. I admire their courage.
Back in the UK and parts of the US, various schemes tried to get off the ground to restrict tattooing or impose new legislation. They have all been met with huge backlash and have never really gained any momentum before being forgotten. Can you speak to how forceful with tattooing ban in Japan was when it came in?
Well, right now, tattooers are trying to figure out what this latest crackdown is about because everyone has been operating under the assumption for decades that tattooing had been legalised since the end of World War II. The last major ban was in the late 19th century as Japan began modernization and didn’t want to appear primitive to the outside world. That ban drove tattooers underground.
Do you think that Western tattooers would produce better Japanese style tattoos if they took the time to learn more about the culture and motifs used by Japanese artists?
Loads of Western tattooers do terrific Japanese style work, but the best ones have taken the time to learn the culture and the meaning behind the images. As with anything, this gives greater depth, understanding and authority to the work.
There’s a common feeling held by everyone in tattooing that it is much bigger than all of us. Do you feel like tattooing will eventually win in the face of this adversity?
Humans have been tattooing each other for seemingly forever. It’s not going away. People who have prejudices about tattooing need to set those aside and appreciate them as forms of human expression for both the tattooer and the wearer. Understanding and appreciation are key.
I recently read your article on how tattooing and the Japanese Olympics of 2020 might clash. What will be the reaction as thousands of tattooed tourists descend on the streets of Japan?
Honestly, I don’t think Japan is yet ready, but will Japan ever be ready? I don’t know. Generally, Japanese people are respectful of foreigners, so I think in most situations, everything will be okay, but there are bound to be incidents. Hopefully, in the next four years, people’s attitudes will change. The solutions being offered right now, such as passing out stickers at hot springs is silly. What if your whole back is done? Are you supposed to put on twenty stickers? I mean come on.
Currently, there is slight progress being made. When tattooed foreign athletes appear on Japanese TV, they sometimes have their ink on display for all to see. This kind of thing is unusual for Japanese people, but this might help change people’s attitudes.
That being said, tattooed Japanese celebrities continue to cover up their ink with makeup or clothing, so there is still lots of room to go.
Do you think the 2020 games will aid the work of those trying to fully legalise tattooing in Japan?
Let’s be clear. As legal experts have pointed out in Japan, there is no current legislation against tattooing in Japan. Rather, authorities in Osaka are trying to use a Ministry of Health classification from 2001 that said tattooing is a medical procedure and one must be a licensed medical practitioner to pierce the skin and insert ink. The authorities seem to want to set a precedent, which, once set, would be easier to go after more tattooers. This classification due to incidents regarding tattoo makeup at the turn of the century in Japan. This, obviously, is different from what people think of as tattoos in this country.
One possible way for the Japanese government to handle this would be to regulate the tattoo industry in Japan. Instead, you have authorities claiming you need to be a doctor if you want to tattoo Fudo Myoo on someone. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer it if some doctor wasn’t tattooing Fudo Myoo on people!
What was it like to meet Horiyoshi III, one of the most influential tattooers to ever live? I was so excited when I saw he made an Instagram account, to not only see his work of today, but beautiful body suits made 30 years ago that hold us just as well today.
As Hori Benny will tell you, Horiyoshi III is one good dude. When we showed up at this Yokohama studio several years ago, I thought he was only going to let us interview him for thirty minutes to an hour. We ended up talking to him for five hours. Hori Benny met up with him after that as well, and he was always incredibly generous with his knowledge, kindly fielding questions we had about tattoo history. He knows so much, and I’m so grateful that he was willing to set aside time for us.
What patterns emerging in Japanese tattooing can you see influencing Western tattooers in the years to come?
That’s a difficult question! There seems to be so much influence going between the West and Japan in tattooing, that I’m eager to see how future generations of young tattooers will continue to push the form forward in new and exciting ways.
Lastly, could you tell us your favourite story from being around tattooers or writing the book?
Talking to all the tattooers was great, obviously, but I found so many of the clients to be inspiring. Often when you read tattoo books, clients can be depicted as a canvas with the tattooer getting centre stage. All the clients we featured were so eager to talk about their tattoos and, against great adversity, how they had impacted their lives in positive ways. It was inspiring, really.
Find more of Brian and Hori Benny here: