Tattoo Art Embodies Proud Japanese Tradition

The work done at Onizuka Tattoo is painstaking.

As one may expect from any form of tattoo procedure, the feeling is painful but the people who endure this say it is worth it for every colorful, square inch.

“Taka has a real gentle touch,” says client Paul Norlein as he lays on the table and gets ready for the new addition to his tattoo.

The work done at Onizuka is traditional Japanese tattoo art.

One craftsman, a man named L.A. Horitaka carefully inserts green ink beneath Paul Norlein’s skin. In this Little Tokyo basement Horitaka visually changes Norlein’s entire body one prick at a time.

Horitaka uses a technique called Tebori as he works by hand with a long needle instead of using a machine.

Artists say Tebori is better for subtle gradations of color and detail.

When the work is all over Paul Norlein will have a body suit that will go all the way down to his ankles.

For thousands of years, Japanese practitioners have done it this way, turning human bodies into living, breathing canvases. Takahiro Kitamura is the curator to a special exhibit at the Japanese National Museum called “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” just blocks away from Onizuka Tattoo.

Kitamura showed us how the artists tell elaborate stories, with an attention to detail as unique as the body shapes they encounter.

The themes range from classical Japanese mythology to religious symbols to the beauty of nature. The practitioners often spend years working under masters.

Then, they must develop special relationships with their clients like Horitaka did with Paul Norlein.
Kitamura says, “these types of tattoos aren’t done overnight. They take, oftentimes, months or years to complete.”

They also cost thousands of dollars.

The commitment to this art form is life-long, like much in the culture from which it sprang.
CEO of the Japanese American National Museum Greg Kimura says, “Art is long; life is brief but this particular form of art turns that on its head. It only exists as long as its wearer is alive, and there is something very deeply Japanese about that sensibility.”

Interestingly, the country that produced this stunning visual artistry, and many of the artists themselves, does not embrace it the same way people do in the west.

Ironically, tattoos are heavily stigmatized in Japan as people often associate tattoos with organized crime.

People can even be fined for showing such designs in some public places but it is that shadowy aspect that sometimes attracts its aficionados.

Jiro, the owner of Onizuka Tattoo says, “I have been tattooing for twenty years, so I don’t know, it is like my life already.”

There is still an underground feeling as Horitaka says, “In Japan, sometimes, I feel like I am doing illegal things, but here, people call us artists.”

To highlight the artistry, Kitamura hung kites near the museum ceiling and at a distance elaborate graphic designs appear to be printed on them. But by looking closer one is able to realize that they are photos of tattoos on skin not on a canvas.

The photographer of the exhibit, Kip Fulbeck says, “These tattooers are not trying to fill every inch with ink. There is a kind of quietness to the work. It is never overdone.”

After thousands of years, Japanese tattoos are finally getting the recognition they deserve at least in cultures outside of Japan.

And if you have the time, the endurance for pain and the money, you can be part of this world too.

Paul Norlein says this art is special.

“I could have bought paintings or sculptures or something, but this is art that stays with me… and goes where I go,” Norlein said.

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