A few of us were more than keen to say the least (and just a tad excited perhaps) to take a trip to London to interview the artist Alex ‘Kofuu’ Reinke AKA Horikitsune. On arrival, we were welcomed into his private London studio and home, with its authentic Japanese feel.
Alex is for me, one of the best Japanese artists working in the UK, and after listening to him talk in depth about his work and his dedication to Japanese tattooing culture and the lifestyle that he has adopted around it, we think that this insightful and honest interview is sure to inspire our readers regardless of what style of tattoos you are into.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Rich Luxton
Where did you grow up and what were your first memories you can recall around becoming interested in tattooing?
I grew up in the south of Germany close to the Swiss & French borders. The first memories I have of becoming interested in tattooing? Well it started with an interest in martial arts when I was 12, and I always drew when I was little so I started to draw a lot of Asian themes, dragons and so on.
I was always a person who became easily obsessed with things; when I got into to something, I was totally obsessed and then all of a sudden something new came along and I discarded the old thing and became obsessed with the new thing. Obsession: I was extreme with this stuff. But the amazing thing is, that once Japan introduced itself into my life, it never got discarded. That was basically it from then on.
What age were you when you really knew that you wanted to get more interested into the world of tattooing and discovered Horiyoshi?
As I got into my teens, I got a bit more steady with what I wanted to stick with and I ‘stuck’ with Japan as a subject through the martial arts and then I bought a reference book to draw from and this book happened to be about Japanese traditional tattooing and I saw these beautiful tattoos and for me that was it! I knew then I wanted to have something like that.
I was 14 when I got the first book and it actually said Horiyoshi was the artist who was behind these tattoos so I wonder if I had bought a book with someone else in it, some other name, I might have ‘fixed’ myself on some other person… Maybe.
But looking back from being nearly 40 years old now, looking back on my career, and how it all went, I believe it must have been some sort of fate or destiny.
Because if you think about it, why would I pick up a book of his? And then when we met, he was such a cool guy and we got along so well and all this whole thing just developed out of this little thing of buying his book.
Really if I had bought another book from someone else he might have been an arsehole or maybe Horiyoshi might have been an arsehole as well haha… And then I would perhaps have got tattooed and that would have been it!
But it all was like a ‘red thread’, I didn’t plan anything at all, it really just happened, I followed my heart, followed what I wanted to do, what I felt I wanted for myself, like getting a tattoo and so on and it all just fell into place.
So what caused the transition from picking up a book up to the next part in terms of your work – what made you take the step into tattooing?
I went to America for a year when I was 17 and I got my first tiny tattoo that I designed myself from a book that I had, it was Japanese then already of course: my obsession. But my parents were freaking out, my dad is a surgeon and he said “You know don’t make it big, make it a 5 German Mark piece size so I can cut it out in one go if you ever want to get rid of it, it has to be where there is a lot of skin” and where is that? It’s on your arse!
Haha so I went to this guy in Cleveland Ohio in America, in “Don’t Touch-My-Arse” kind of America you know what I mean? And I was like “hey I want this thing on my arse” haha and he was like “WTF !?” so he did it double gloved, standing 2 metres away from me tattooing my arse haha and it was very painful!!! And being German the arse is something completely normal for us but for the dudes over there they were freaking out! So that was quite an experience… That was my first tattoo!
Also while I was in America, I bought this white jeans style jacket and I painted it with textile paints, I kind of ‘tattooed’ the jacket with all these Japanese designs, I still have that jacket back in Germany, I kept it all these years, that was the start.
After that I came back and had to finish 3 more years of high school and go to the army and do mandatory service so I didn’t actually pick up tattooing until in my last year of high school at 21 just on friends, self-taught and it was horrible really when you don’t have any guidance. It’s not that easy really.
How did you get to meet Horiyoshi and start getting tattooed by him?
I heard Horiyoshi was coming to Italy for a convention and I went there to meet him and talked with him about going to Japan and he said “Yeah come, come to Japan and we’ll start your body suit” and I did, that’s basically what I did the next opportunity that I had I went over there, and we started, half sleeves without the chest though and the back piece, so that was my first tattoo really.
But he kept the little one that I had on my arse, he worked around it no covering, he said “No! you have to keep it!”
I was young, stupid and had no experience so I thought it’s all cool and I was quite strong so I had every day one appointment, 25 appointments in one month!!!
I lost ten kilos, I was a nervous wreck and by the end when I just heard the machine start up I started crying for the last 4 or 5 times!
Sounds like torture, how long was each session each day?
Yeah hmm and Horiyoshi kept saying “Oh you’re very strong” haha. I think I was just very stupid, that was pretty crazy I thought it was normal but obviously it wasn’t and I’d totally miscalculated the money, I didn’t bring enough, I didn’t have money to eat and every time I went back to Japan I did the same, it was pretty tough.
He only tattoos an hour each day, but you know he is very brutal. I mean after when I got tattooed by other people I knew it’s a walk in the park compared to him, he is very quick but the ‘quickness’ has a price to pay. Something has to give and he’s just cruelly painful; excruciating. But then it was back and ass and all those places, other places might have been less tough, but he is very brutal haha.
Tell me how did you progress from being tattooed by Horiyoshi, to eventually working with him?
Well I was always into Japanese traditions and stuff as I said, anything Japanese. I don’t know if I had a past life there but I was just totally into everything Japanese and he loves his country, he loves his culture and its traditions apart from just tattooing, he knows about all the mythology and all the good deeds and the moral stuff that has gone on there, which goes beyond moral actually.
While I was with him he recognised my interest and he enjoyed teaching me about swords and his vast collection of antiques and all that sort of stuff, he just loved to teach me.
So I was able to watch him tattoo a bit while he worked and then one day he decided he would introduce me to tattooists he knew in Europe and he said so you need to meet these guys, Filip Leu, Luke Atkinson and Mick from Zurich “You have to contact Filip!”
Back then everything was very different it was much more family style, it was very positive I was fortunate to start when everything was a bit old school, I’m probably one of the last to come in when it was like that, it was really different then.
In Japan introductions are very important and Horiyoshi wanted to introduce me to his European tattoo friends so he called up those guys Filip, Mick and Luke and I went and met them. Mick was like… “Show me your body suit”. So that just opened a lot of doors for me and I was allowed to watch them work and they taught me how to work with machines.
Was it a different to watch and to learn from those guys compared to what you’d been used to seeing in Japan?
Horiyoshi has a very unique way to work, he uses his machine quite differently to how we use coil machines he has a very rough set up, which works for him because he just pulls lines thiiiiiiiis loooooooong and they’re straight! Like super straight and it’s amazing how quickly he drills it in! To pull lines that quick, that straight and it’s in, can you imagine the power when he cranks that thing up?
You know those little machines with that blue spark when you do tattoos… I’ve never really seen that blue spark at Filip’s or Mick’s, but I thought it was normal to have the blue spark after coming back from Japan, if you have the blue spark you have it on something like 20 volts its crazy…But you know it works for him and he does amazing stuff with it.
How did you make the transition from tattooing to becoming Horiyoshi’s apprentice?
He wasn’t interested in having anyone as a student for a long time, but then when the Tokyo convention came up in 99 and a lot of people came over to Japan, it was a huge party and it was really great. Horiyoshi had a son who was around 13 back then and he had the idea that his son would start to tattoo one day. All the guys there, they all invited his son over. “Whenever your son starts to tattoo you can send him over to us” Filip and Mick said. “You better send him to us to Europe and we can take care of him show him how to tattoo properly”. So he started thinking about someone he could really rely on and trust so one day they could take care of his son, and it led him to think about expanding the family.
Around the same time in 99, he came over to Germany for the Berlin convention and we went to London together to do some antique shopping for his museum and in a black cab, he asked me if I wanted to be in the family. But after he had checked with his wife first, because she is the real boss you know! Haha.
I said yes, of course I was totally up for it, so I have a strong connection here a lot of great things have happened for me in London.
So was it a kind of a natural progression for you? Are there strict rules to the apprenticeship?
Yes, again something that’s just happened, that’s how the apprenticeship really started. Before I was allowed to hang out in the shop and draw and stuff whenever I went there, but once I started it got really serious.The thing is Horiyoshi does many things his own way he is a very unique tattooer and probably the most well-known and famous tattooer in Japan.
He was one of the first to take a foreigner as an apprentice into a Japanese traditional family, there was no case of it before, or at least I don’t know of any case before that I’ve heard of.
So how to deal with something like this was a new thing for them because I’m not Japanese, there was another guy who was an American, he was much more American than he was Japanese really but I was a totally a new thing. So yes he kind of expanded into the Western world and he had to find a unique way to deal with everything so he is kind of a pioneer in many ways.
He did it in a very liberal way, unlike the way the old masters did the apprenticeships back in the day, he doesn’t do it that way, I mean it’s tough but you can’t have western guys going through super strict rules, but being a fan of Japan, I knew a lot of the rules already, I’d made it my obsession or sport to follow as many of these rules as possible.
He said often to me “Sometimes you are more Japanese than some young Japanese people.” Because I was so interested in keeping it real. But there were some strict things going on like it used to be back here in the old days. I don’t know if you know Jock this old guy at Kings Cross, he was just you know like one of those really old school real hardcore guys haha.
Obviously it’s very different now to then but he must have trusted you a lot to bring someone Western into the family. How hard was it, learning all the rules and behaviour expected of you in Japan?
Of course apprenticeships shouldn’t be easy anyway, but yeah we knew each other a few years, he saw that I understood many of the rules and behaviour patterns, but still I’m not Japanese!!!
It’s impossible to understand it all, as many of the rules and behaviour patterns you know, you can’t learn it all, in a way being Western meant you have a free pass so if you fuck up you get away with it a bit, if you make a mistake with the chopsticks you’re forgiven.
It was a bit disillusioning in some ways, it wasn’t really appreciated, if you knew too much and if you were too good with everything they didn’t know where to put you. They would take me to parties and show me off and talk to each other in Japanese about me assuming I don’t understand, but as soon as they know you understand then they’re not going to take you to these things anymore.
If you are perfect Japanese looking and speaking what are they going to do with a guy like that? It’s really tricky so I slowed down on the learning thing cause it was good for my relationships and I’m a bit lazy also, the more Japanese I learned, the more I realised the language is unlearnable! You have to be born there or study it in a university, for years maybe, even the Japanese run around with a dictionary, it’s quite amazing such a complex language it was fascinating, for me anyway.
So when you were introduced to the other families there, was there any reaction to you from the others or were you welcomed?
Well its quite an old feudal system over there with a hierarchy and this clan and this family don’t speak to each other etc., but Horiyoshi keeps himself to himself in whatever he does actually and there weren’t any other students at that time, I was the first one for a long time, so there was nobody else to complain really.
So you’ve been 17 years tattooing now, would you take on an apprentice yourself?
I’ve been tattooing 17 years and I have been with Horiyoshi 15 of those years. I used to have one apprentice but he left and I have another one now, but I’ve learnt from the first experience so now I have a trial period with this guy, he is Japanese but born in London; the first member of his family to be born outside of Japan.
What do you expect of him as an apprentice?
Oh Jesus Christ! Haha that’s a very hard question, first of all he is older nearly the same age as me … And as Yoda might say …“Too old he is” haha. He has kind of done a lot of things already, that he has already accomplished in his life so it’s difficult for me because I have to treat him like a man, like a person in his own right. If I had a 20 year old yeah fuck haha he’s gonna get “You do this, you do that, you do this!”
With him it’s very different, you have to sit down and talk about things together and it’s a bit of a pain in the arse really haha.
What I would expect is loyalty, and if I make him part of the family – because that is what he would be – after the trial period, then he could continue the lineage he would be Horikitsune the 2nd if I didn’t have any heirs of my own, if I didn’t have blood-related family of my own. Which means that he would be like my son, so if he ever has a problem then I’d take care of whatever he has, so he’d better not cause any problems!
It’s amazing the system the way they do things in a Japanese tattoo family.
Yes it used to be more, back in the day before I started, the old style system of the master and his wife being the mum and dad, of course it’s very different to the western world. But there have been some situations with Horiyoshi, once in Berlin I was supposed to pick something important up for him in a van and I crashed the van and I was just starting off really and I had no money that was in 99. I was devastated and it was going to cost 1000 marks. I was crying my eyes out to cause so much inconvenience, so he gave me the money to pay for it and took care of the problem.
But yes, then I’d do anything for him, it’s a life-long commitment.
How much work do you plan to do around other artists and in conventions in the future?
I used to do more, I go to Stockholm sometimes and I worked in Frith Street, I used to work there for a year when I moved here. I was a guest with Tin Tin in Paris this summer, he’s invited me to go back and after his fantastic convention I think I will because it’s such a lovely place.
But normally I’m in Stockholm around twice a year, it’s always changing there, it used to be East Street Tattoo but they all split up and now they all have different shops so I’m working in Imperial Tattoo sometimes with Iain Mullen, Johan Losand and with Dario Ristic also in Stockholm Classic Tattoo with Max Stålhammar.
Conventions; I have done so many in my life, Stockholm, and Milano, London of course now Paris, I may go to Rome and Barcelona.
You work from the private studio now, do you think you will open your own shop ever in the UK?
I’m married and living here, my daughter was born here, so yes I’m going to stay here. I worked at home after working that year in Frith Street because there was a lot going on down there it was super busy, and I was used to having this private shop in Japan.
It was forbidden to tattoo for years in Japan, and I just loved that hidden away style, Horiyoshi’s shop was in Yokohama – if you didn’t know where it was you’d never find it, even cab drivers don’t know where to find it.
I kind of like that flare and with 17 years on my back with tattooing I hopefully have a good enough of a reputation that I could sit in a cave and people would come to me to get tattooed.
So I worked from home and I did that for some years and then we had our daughter and my wife thought it was better to get out of the house with all the customers coming around, so mostly I work in my studio 600 metres round the corner, in my book publishing office.
I have my little desk, my computer, my books some storage and if someone comes in and wants a tattoo…
But I don’t know what I want to do, people say I should open a shop and have people work for me and as I grow older and I’m getting tired and life gets more expensive with the kid growing up, maybe I should do that. So many people do that but I don’t know if I’m ready for that headache, finding the right people and everything that goes with that.
Yes it can be a real headache sometimes, I know. It’s a really cool studio, you get used to seeing a lot of shops same after same, it’s nice to see something different and that you have this way of working.
Yes, and then I’m selling an experience really as well, you know you come in here and its different work, you can’t do that in a street shop, so I decided I’ll do this, but then there are lots of ideas, maybe I’m going to change that again.
But I love this (looking around the room), this is my living room basically. In Germany I have a flat next to the family house there and I still have that and it’s basically Japanese style, all raised platforms and this is what I love and this is what I want to do here; live and work like this.
Maybe I’ll do a shop and then have a back room studio like this for myself to work in. But then I think maybe I’d rather have it under some back street run down Asian restaurant in some run down place like in Blade Runner – much more after my taste haha.
And the thing is how much money do you want to make? I always made enough money from what I do, I’m not like a caterpillar that can’t get enough, I’m happy. If I accumulate more and more stuff, when I die someone has to get rid of this shit, with this way when I die someone can just make a little bonfire. Haha . As long as it’s all still working (referring to his hands) because if that goes I can always go and sweep some factory.
I mean I love my job this is what I want to do in life, but life IS change… I’m grateful to be able to do this as long as I can, if something changes… I don’t know if I want to expand, that’s always the thing do you really need the crap? Keep it simple!
Do you paint a lot when you’re not tattooing?
I do, I’d love to do more. I did this thing for a charity recently, but I need somebody to kick me in the arse and say “Can you draw this in 2 weeks?” If you tell me in 6 months Ill forget about it, and now my daughter is here I don’t have so much time.
Do you follow what people are doing around the world with tattooing? In particular the way people are modernising the style and how it’s becoming more about art work on the skin?
That’s a question many people have asked Horiyoshi many times in interviews.
I think I’d take it the same way as he does – the Japanese way – you can’t stop change. Change always happens so everybody needs to try and do what they need to do whatever it is their creativity tells them to do, but I really keep it as real as possible.
Really just for myself I make it my mission to be as strict and make it to be as old school traditional as possible and if someone else wants to do something else, that’s fine, but then it’s a question of if you like it from the point of view of aesthetics?
When Horiyoshi is asked if he likes it he says… “Of course, do what you like” but it’s another thing if he really likes it or not, he goes “Hmmm” and he doesn’t say “No” but of course he means no! Haha
Hmmm, he only likes Japanese traditional tattoos from Japanese masters. Even then when he sees some newcomers he laughs his arse off, in a positive way, sometimes he’s laughing at the wit or at the courage that some people have… “Look at that”! That’s crazy, but interesting”. I’m similar along those lines.
I have not seen many people doing traditional Japanese work on a scale such as yourself in the UK. There are some but not many.
UK? Hmm there are a lot of people doing oriental and Japanese tattooing.
Well there is Stuart Robson, he’s a fantastic all-rounder. He does it all so indeed I think he can pull it off very nicely. I always would say to him – because with Japanese the whole subject matter is so vast – to concentrate on that, but he wants to do it all. Then there is Aaron Hewitt, Ian Flower, Phil Wood: he is trying hard which eventually will lead to victory if he is dedicated. There are people, also Rodrigo Souto.
Luca Ortis also!
Yes Luca Ortis, an important one! These are the only ones though. I mean that’s quite a lot and for example Luca and Phil they are really trying to really keep it real, all these guys are and some take it more seriously, I like that.
We thank you for taking your time to talk to us and wish you well on your way with your future plans, work and the family.
Yes, I’d like to add that in Japan tradition in general is in a downfall and my Zen master there he is alone, (funnily enough I have a Zen master, a flute master, a tattoo master, a master for sword so it’s quite crazy). But most of those guys have the opinion that the future of their trade lies in the West, like when my Zen master comes to London for a retreat in the realm of meditation for example, he’s now 80 and he needs someone to take over his temple and there is no-one – he is alone in Japan.
So do you think they also would consider taking a Westerner in then?
It’s a possibility, basically because traditional is so important, to keep the real thing alive and that is the only thing that has weight and substance; realness. And so it’s not meaninglessness, in Japan every little tiny thing has a meaning. If it doesn’t have a meaning it’s senseless then the whole meaning of life ceases to exist, it vanishes, so that’s why you have to have dedicated people that are set on the path the whole way putting their ego aside.
Maybe you get a bit tingled by new things and you really want to get into it. Maybe if you’re a real master, but you need to learn the form first to have freedom but freedom without form is anarchy so learn the form first.
Learn how it is really working, once you learn the system then you can find a freedom in the form, then you can really call yourself a master once you really understand it.
But these changes are all evolutionary not revolutionary. You can change a lot but you really need to know how to.
I wish that some of the Western guys if they really want to keep it alive then concentrate on this, go for it all the way but some people don’t want to focus on one thing some people want to be an all-rounder and do everything and I respect that. But Westerners are the ones who will keep this alive.