GIFU, Japan — Hidden away in the backroom of a modest apartment in this central Japanese city, one of Japan’s last remaining hand-tattoo masters is preparing his tools. Over the last four decades Oguri Kazuo has tattooed notable geisha and countless yakuza, members of Japan’s notorious mafia. Today, the 79-year-old artist, known professionally as Horihide (derived from “hori,” meaning “to carve”), is working on a client who is a little more subdued.
Motoyama Tetsuro has spent hundreds of dollars, traveled thousands of miles and waited more than three decades for a session with Horihide. The Japanese-born American software manager wanted the master’s ink in his skin — a living legacy for a dying art. With old masters passing away and young apprentices lacking the patience to learn the painstaking craft of tebori (hand tattooing), many followers believe its days are numbered.
“If you know the master, why would you want to work with someone else?” asks Motoyama, 62, who first received the outline of a dragon by Horihide on his right shoulder in the 1970s. Motoyama lost touch with the master — who works only by word-of-mouth introductions in backdoor locations — before the work was complete. Last November, after a 30-plus year search, he finally located Horihide and traveled back to Japan from his home in Cupertino, Calif., to finish the piece.
Japanese tattoos are steeped in thousands of years of history and bound by rigid tradition and social mores. This distinguishes them from American tattoos, which are largely personal expressions of individualism. Japanese masters spend years perfecting their craft and learning the stories behind the tattoos, derived from woodblock prints and Chinese folk tales. The body-suit tattoos, spanning shoulders to below the buttocks, can take hundreds of hours to apply and cost as much as $20,000.
Banned during the Meiji period, irezumi (literally “to insert ink”) remains underground today; many hot springs and bathhouses still bar tattooed individuals. Artists such as Horihide work under a cloak of secrecy plagued by associations with criminality. Still, social stigma has not put off the soft-spoken Motoyama who, with square glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, appears the epitome of respectability. Although the grandfather is happy to show off his tattoos in California, he, like most, is careful to hide his arms in Japan behind long sleeves despite searing summer temperatures.
Controversy is now flaring up again. Last month, the right-wing populist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, ordered all government employees to voluntarily divulge any concealed or visible tattoos. The 100 or so discovered to be inked, who mostly work in waste disposal and transport, are likely to face an ultimatum: Get the offending tat removed or find another job.
Such pariah status has led to a decline in tattoo masters, with Horihide estimating that there are only five or six left who can do the traditional black-and-white tebori as opposed to the machine-operated colored tattoos. (Horihide offers both.)
“Specializing in tebori is not commonplace,” says Kip Fulbeck, an art professor at UC Santa Barbara, who is organizing a 2014 exhibition of Japanese tattoos at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles with tattoo artist Takahiro Kitamura (known as Horitaka). “For one, it takes a great deal of time to traditionally learn how to do it correctly. It’s also a much slower tattooing method, so it takes much more time. [Unlike machine tattooing] it’s very subtle, it’s very quiet.” Although Horihide has eight students, none can yet draw their own designs and just a few are learning tebori.
Horihide became an apprentice at age 19 and spent five years learning the craft. “It was very strict. In the morning you have to get up at 5 o’clock and clean the house. If you didn’t do it right, you could be beaten,” recalls the artist, as he sits cross-legged on the floor, carefully filling in the yellow hues of a tiger on Motoyama’s other shoulder. “But nowadays young people can’t do that. Some people who want to be students ask me, ‘How much can you give me as a salary?'” He laughs, shaking his head. “So things have changed.”
As a teenager, Horihide fled to Tokyo after a street gang fight. When money ran out and hunger started to gnaw, he saw a sign offering room and board to a tattoo apprentice. Despite lingering prejudices surrounding the once-forbidden art (the ban was lifted in 1948 by the occupying forces), Horihide carefully practiced on his own skin — scars of now faded squares and circles on his thigh today.
Past clients were largely the yakuza and an occasional hot spring geisha, who marked themselves with phoenixes, dragons and killer whales. Horihide’s memories of the yakuza — who provided generous gifts — remain fond. “Younger people do not know how to be courteous and do not know how to speak to me,” he complains.
Today, however, his clients are largely construction workers and firefighters, members of fraternal organizations who are traditionally tattooed. Asked what a popular design is, Horihide describes the Japanese carp. When caught by a fisherman, the carp does not thrash around like other fish, but remains still, quietly accepting its fate. “So Japanese guys take the spirit of the carp,” he explains, “rather than struggle against fate.”
Motoyama pulls a white T-shirt back over his head and then buttons up a black shirt — carefully hiding both the dragon and newly inked tiger, which still bubbles with small specks of blood. “Today, tattoo artists just use a stencil and copy designs,” he says sadly. “With Horihide’s designs, every one is unique. [But] in the long run I don’t know how long they can survive.”
Photograph: Californian-Japanese businessman Motoyama Tetsuro is tattooed by Japanese (Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore )