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Artist Spotlight: Ryudaibori

We had the privilege of interviewing renowned tattoo artist Ryudaibori prior to the opening of the exhibition Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World at Morikami where his Japanese tattoo work is featured. Here’s what he had to say…

Q How long have you been tattooing?

I have been tattooing since 1998.

Q How did you get interested in the art of Japanese tattoos?

My first memory of Japanese tattooing was the chambara television show Toyama no Kinsan, which is actually about a historical figure – a tattooed magistrate. In the epic and predictable fight scene at the end of every episode, he would whip off his kimono sleeve and reveal his sakura-fubuki tattoo. I was mesmerized! Later in life, as a punk rocker and skateboarder, I was further introduced to Japanese tattoo art by books published by Don Ed Hardy. But I must say, the interest was just there… I know that does not sound profound, but it’s the truth, I was instantly drawn to them. I think real art should hit you like that – instantaneous and intoxicating.

Q For those who don’t know anything about tattooing, can you explain what makes the art of Japanese tattoos different from other tattoo styles, such as American Traditional, Black & Gray, and New School?

Japanese tattooing is unique in that it represents the culture, history and mythology of a nation. Add to this a solid artistic foundation and a history of large-scale body coverage, and you have an extremely noticeable style. I think it’s clear, even with the many mutations, what a Japanese tattoo, even when poorly executed, looks like. With Perseverance I tried to show a variety of styles within the world of Japanese tattooing, since it, like all art, has a very broad spectrum.

Q Through photographs, we discuss issues such as this, what makes a tattoo Japanese? What are the key components?

There is a whole genre of fusion work we explore as well. Like anything good in life, real understanding only comes with patient study.

Q What are the common motifs or themes in Japanese tattoos? Do they have a special meaning?

I think two of the most important aspects of Japanese tattooing are the background (called mikiri) and the season. While many people focus on the focal image, I feel that the framing of it and the defined bodysuit lines created by the mikiri are very important. This is what really appeals to me about the Japanese bodysuit – good form, solid background and perfect balance. As many people know, Japan is a land of seasons and the tattoo is no exception. Most Japanese tattoos incorporate seasonal motifs and aside from the decorative purpose, they place the tattoo into a timeframe. Certain stories must be depicted in the proper season and these sorts of “rules,” while vexing at times, are inherent in all aspects of Japanese culture. I know the expected answer to this question was probably dragons and koi fish – which actually are two of the most requested images. And yes, all images have a certain meaning, and clients will expand on this even further.

Q Is tattooing in Japan common? Which demographic gets the most tattoos?

Tattooing is not common in Japan and has a very tenuous relationship within society. It has often been deemed immoral and illegal and even used as a brutal punishment by the government. Through all of this, tattooing has survived and flourished. Sadly, the Japanese tattoo is respected worldwide in every country except its own. I’m not too clear on demographics, but it seems most people that get tattooed are laborers, truckers, hipsters, and yes, the yakuza. Though I caution people against this stereotype, the numbers of yakuza that get tattooed seem to be dwindling.

Q Do you know how to do tebori, the traditional Japanese technique of hand-tattooing?

I have done some tebori on occasion. I do not implement on a daily basis the way Horitomo

Q Which tattoo artist has been inspirational to you? And why?

The most inspirational artist for me would be Don Ed Hardy. He’s much more than a clothing line. He has devoted his life to uplifting tattoos, bringing dignity to our profession and furthering his art. He has been a personal friend and mentor to me and I hope to one day be half the man he is. As far as other tattooers – too many to name but they know who they are.

What was the most challenging tattoo you have ever done?

For me the challenge is when I can’t get a design the way I or the client wants it. I would compare it to writer’s block, it’s very frustrating. I think this is more challenging than the physical act of tattooing.

Q Have you collaborated with other artists before?

I have collaborated with artists before. The Perseverance exhibit actually has a collaboration I did with Samoan artist Sulu’ape Steve Looney. We utilized the format of a Japanese tattoo and mixed it with elements of Samoan tattooing. It was a lot of fun and I think speaks volumes about the multicultural society we live in. I also think many of my tattoos are collaborations between myself and my client. In most cases, we come together, with mutual respect, to create something good.

Q What was the most challenging tattoo you have ever done?

For me the challenge is when I can’t get a design the way I or the client wants it. I would compare it to writer’s block, it’s very frustrating. I think this is more challenging than the physical act of tattooing.

Q What is the average cost for a tattoo? What is the most expensive tattoo you’ve ever done?

Large scale body tattoos are expensive and require not only pain tolerance, and time, but also money. I don’t know what an average tattoo price is and I’ve never kept a log on my clients. I think it’s more of a journey, not something you are going to get on a whim, rather something you will work on for years. I understand a need for clients to budge, but in general, I think this is not the purchase to price shop or Groupon.

Q Do you consider your tattoos walking landscapes or art for the general public to view?

I do not. I think tattoos are for the individual getting them. Now obviously many people want to show them off – evidenced by the large turnouts for Perseverance shoots as well as the live unveiling at the opening. I think it’s nice for people to be able to show them off, but I am not a fan of the assumption that a tattooed person wants to. People have varying reasons for getting tattooed and whether they want others to see them is up to them.

Q How much collaboration is there between the artist and the client?

This varies case by case, artist by artist. I’ve had clients give me complete free reign – as I did with my own back when I was tattooed in Japan, while others come in with very specific ideas and requests. I like to talk at a consultation, see how the interaction goes. We are not prostitutes, we don’t do anything we don’t want to do. If I feel I can’t do a good job or if the person is going to micro-manage me to the point that I can’t produce art, I will turn the client away. I’d rather pass on a tattoo than to do a tattoo I am not happy with.

Q The exhibition you curated, Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, for the Japanese American National Museum, is touring the country. Its next stop is at the Morikami Museum this spring. What makes this show unique and what should the visitors expect to see?

Dr. Greg Kimura and JANM took a bold move showcasing the Japanese Tattoo as a fine art. As curator, I did my best to assemble a variety of artists to showcase the wide world of Japanese tattoo. Obviously, we had time and space constraints but I think we did a great job in showcasing this 300-plus-year tradition. Kip Fulbeck did a wonderful job photographing and designing the exhibit and I think museum-goers have really enjoyed the presentation. I’ve also noticed, after speaking at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where we got an extended showing, that many people who come to see this exhibit are not tattooed and regard the museum as a safe space to view and understand this art and culture.

Q You have written several books and traveled extensively giving talks about the tradition of Japanese tattoos, so what is your next big project or event?

In addition to my full time tattooing, running State of Grace (my tattoo shop), and cohosting the Bay Area Tattoo Convention (in its 11th year), I am working on a second exhibit for JANM. This exhibit, titled Tatau – Marks of Polynesia, will focus on the Samoan tatau tradition. It’s been a lot of fun so far, we’ve traveled to Samoa, New Zealand and Hawaii for this and even interviewed the Prime Minister of Samoa and the Head of State. In addition to exhibition and catalogue, we will be producing a full length documentary film. I’m really excited about this project and am grateful for the love tattooing has shown me, from clients to museums, I am very fortunate.

Tattoos by Ryudaibori. Photos by Kip Fulbeck.

Ryudaibori (Takahiro Kitamura), formerly known as Horitaka, is a tattoo artist as well as the author and publisher of numerous books on tattoo art and culture. His books include Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo (Schiffer Publishing, 2001), Tattooing from Japan to the West (Schiffer Publishing, 2004), and Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in Japanese Tattoo (KIT Publishers, 2003). Ryudaibori is renowned for his advocacy of Japanese tattooing as an art form and has worked as a visiting artist across the United States and Europe. He has lectured at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, U.C. Santa Barbara, and at conferences in Italy and Hawaii, is the co-founder and co-director of the annual Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts, and the owner of State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose, California. Ryudaibori’s graphic designs have been used by Nike SB, Bacardi, and many other companies. (Photo by Ben Grillo)

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