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“I Want to Spread Traditional Tattoos” Horitomo – The Japanese Tattooist in America – Part 1

In 1993 or 1994. Horitomo in Nagoya in 1993 or 1994.

By Yoshikazu Nakajima                                                             Translated by Mina Otsuka                                                               For the North American Post

I have a book here. It is an English book titled Monmon Cats. Readers can find pictures of cats tattooed with a variety of Japanese designs throughout its 118 pages. The writer is a tattoo artist by the name of Horitomo, originally from Mie Prefecture, Japan, who now works in San Jose, Calif. For those who don’t know that the word “Monmon” is another name for tattoo, the book title might sound completely unfamiliar. However, in this book we can find the deep beliefs of Horitomo as a tattooist. It was published by his current workplace, a tattoo studio called State of Grace, in 2013, six years after Horitomo moved to the United States. How did Horitomo write and publish this book? In learning about the process, we can find his lifelong wishes and dreams.

“Tattoos and Cats”

In the preface, Horitomo explains how cats have been treated by humans since the beginning of history. For a long time, in both Eastern and Western parts of the world, cats have been alienated by humans. They were removed from the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and characterized as cat ghosts or in company with witches. They seem to be disliked in Buddhism, too, as we can rarely find cats in Shakanehanzu among many other animals. On the other hand, in contemporary history, they are cherished as the symbol of “good luck” as in beckoning cats and as animals that protect crops and silkworms from rats. Horitomo reflects how tattoos have been dealt in society onto how people have treated cats.

“There seem to be similarities between the conflicting feelings that people have toward cats and how they feel about tattoos in Japanese society. Because of this, cats and tattoos are a great match for me.”

Horitomo says that as a tattooist he was greatly inspired by the drawings of cats by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, an ukiyoe artist who flourished from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji era, but it’s been many years since he first became strongly interested in traditional Japanese tattoos and their design. It goes back to when he was working in Japan.

Discovering Tattoos

His first encounter with tattoos goes back nearly 25 years ago. He was working to become a chef at the time, but then realized that it was not for him as he learned more and more about the industry. So he quit. Without any clear ideas about what to do next, he worked part-time and spent his free time surfing. Some of his fellow surfers had tattoos, yet at first they did not strike him much. He just thought they looked “cool.” But gradually he began to want tattoos on his own body—those of a Western style. He looked for a tattooist in his hometown, in Mie Prefecture, yet such “Western-style” tattooists were rarely found in those days.

It was just at this time when a friend of his told Horitomo about a tattooist in Nagoya who had returned from Brazil. He had been an engineer in Japan, but he quit his job and moved to the United States. After moving around Central America, he went to South America and studied tattoos in Brazil. He had long hair and was wearing hippie-like tiedyed pants. He looks like a fun guy to be with— this was Horitomo’s first impression of him.

Horitomo went to his studio in Nagoya to get tattoos. There he saw a collection of tattoo magazines from the United States.. He still remembers the excitement that he felt when he first saw them.

His First Tattoo

Horitomo says that he did not hesitate. “I was young, and at the time I was ‘living in the moment.’ I wasn’t thinking about having a long, healthy life ahead.”

He was not sure how he wanted to live, so he had no real plans for work.

However, one incident changed his mind. It was surfing accident. He went surfing in the sea as there were big waves forming from a storm. And he was badly injured.

“I’ve been afraid of big waves ever since. I realized that I was just pretending to be strong. So the accident made me think about my future more seriously and change my living-in-themoment lifestyle.”

Having realized that he had to change his life, he began to think about his career and future. Then he found a road to becoming a tattooist.

Working Toward Becoming a Tattooist

Horitomo’s career as a tattooist began as an apprentice at a street tattoo shop in Nagoya, the first of its kind in Japan, which was opened by the tattooist mentioned before who had returned from Brazil. It was back in 1993.

Of course, Horitomo had some anxiety, but his desire to become a tattooist was stronger and made him keep going. At first he did not tell his parents about the work, but his father seemed to have an inkling as to what his son was getting into. Being a stubborn carpenter as he was, he had worked with tattooed artisans before, so he didn’t object to Horitomo when he made the confession, about two years later. He told his son that it was his life. “My mother cried and wanted me to change my mind. Even to this day, I don’t think she approves of my work 100%,” Horitomo says.

Four years later in 1997, he moved to Tokyo and worked in two studios: one on Takeshita Street in Harajuku, and the other in Nakameguro, owned by his friend.. In the following year, 1998, he moved to Osaka, took part in opening a new studio and worked as a lead tattooist.

Horitomo also visited a number of tattoo conventions overseas. He’s been to such conventions in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Seattle in the United States , and in the Netherlands. Back in those days, the tattoo boom was already taking place in the United States and Europe, with conventions as big as ones we see taking place today. In 1996, he worked as a guest tattooist in a tattoo shop in San Francisco, which was known as the “sanctuary” of tattoos at the time. And in 1999, he participated in a convention in Spain. As such, he had chances to learn about tattoos in other countries.

Meeting Ryudaibori for the First Time

As mentioned before, Horitomo changed his workplace from Nagoya to Tokyo and to Osaka. He says that each shop had its own characteristics. “The experience I had at each place is so deep that it would take hours to talk about them.” In those days, he was learning about Western-style tattoos, which were rarely seen in Japan at the time, and Horitomo learned and absorbed many different techniques. However, he would not be where he is now, without his encounter with Ryudaibori (his old name: Horitaka), the owner of Horitomo’s current workplace a tatoo studio State of Grace in San Jose..

It was in 1997 when Horitomo met Ryudaibori for the first time, who had come to Japan from America to get his training. In fact, Ryudaibori had come to the studio in Harajuku where Horitomo was working at the time, but their relationship did not develop any further.

In 2001, Horitomo moved from Osaka to Yokohama, to seriously start learning about traditional tattoos in Japan, and he began to learn under some active tattooists there. Ryudaibori was also learning there. Thus began their relationship as fellow pupils. The fact that their last names are both “Kitamura” seemed like some kind of fate.

When Horitomo was training in Nagoya, he did not have much interest in traditional Japanese tattoos. But he became more and more drawn to them as he built his career as a tattooist. He had already started learning on his own about tattoos in Japan when he moved his residence from Tokyo to Osaka, but he moved to Yokohama for more serious study. He had started his training on traditional Japanese hand tattooing in Osaka, which turned into a much more serious project after he moved to Yokohama.

Also, he had already planned on going to the United Sattes when he was still in Nagoya. He was learning about Western-styled tattoos in Nagoya, and was struck by the sight of tattoos at Western conventions. Then he came to think that it would be best to work in America if he were to learn about Western styles. This was in 1995 and 1996, but the problem was that he did not have a visa. He did a lot of research, but there was no such visa that Horitomo could get, as he did not have extensive career as a tattooist or much of an academic background.

So he gave up on moving to the United States and left Nagoya for Tokyo to gain more experience in Japan. He later moved to Osaka and to Yokohama as developing his interest in Japanese traditional tatooing.

Editor’s note: The article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at www. discovernikkei.org managed by the Japanese American National Museum. The writer is a Los Angeles-based journalist and is a former editor of the Rafu Shimpo Japanese section.