Judit Kawaguchi

Words to Live by: Tattoo artist Horiyoshi III

Interview by Judit Kawaguchi

Horiyoshi III is revered by tattoo enthusiasts as possibly the world’s greatest horishi, or full-body tattoo artist. (Horimono are tattoos done purely for fun, while irezumi are tattoos that mark criminals.) Friendly and too cool for words, the 61-year-old loves digging his needle into people — he definitely gets under their skin while doing his beautiful works. Although Horiyoshi considers the human body as his canvas, he has published 10 books of artwork on both paper and skin. His latest collection of drawings, “36 Ghosts,” arrived in bookstores this month.

A master knows his own mistakes and wants to erase the evidence. I heard of a swordsmith who was dying and ordered his apprentices to find and destroy all the swords he had made when he was younger. I wish I could do that with some of my earlier tattoos.

One must suffer for beauty and for art. Normally women and artists experience such pain, but in my business it is the client, especially since it is illegal to use painkillers while tattooing. Although it’s a real pain to be poked at, the results are so amazing that people are happy to lie down to suffer for at least one hour a week for about two years.

Some things can never be fixed. Tattoos walk and talk, and the mistakes stay there forever. Of course, that is part of my past, and it reveals the process I am going through.

Every creature is beautiful, whether it is a whale or a spider; but for me the most beautiful is the human body. When I met German film director Leni Riefensthal 20 years ago, I complimented her on her photo book on the Nuba people in Africa. I think the Nuba have the world’s most balanced and gorgeous bodies, with long, muscled legs and amazing proportions.

For some, getting tattooed is healing. To get a full-body tattoo takes years of suffering, and that requires maturing as a human, learning to experience and overcome pain. It is as if with each piercing of the needle, they become stronger and more complete.

If you think you’ll regret it, don’t even think of doing it. Tattoos are serious business. They stay on, they mark you for life, so you had better think long and hard whether you are ready for such a body alteration.

The creatures I draw only come alive on somebody’s skin. This is why I never show my designs as so-called art. I draw simply for fun and to have samples to show my clients so they can pick a new design. The creatures depicted take the person’s breath away once they are on his or her skin — and then the two start breathing together, in unison. Human history alters the look of the animals and plants I paint, and when the person wearing them dies, so too do they.

Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III in Tokyo, photo by Judit Kawaguchi
Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III in Tokyo, photo by Judit Kawaguchi

Our lives belong to the young, and they must lead us. To do that, they need to know Japanese history and feel proud of their culture. Only then will they take responsible steps that are worth following.

Ghosts are real. I was painting one day in my Yokohama studio, when I saw a figure walk in. I turned to say hello and it disappeared into black powder. I told this to a psychic and he said that in the Meiji Era there was an execution ground where I live, so there were lots of ghosts wandering around my neighborhood.

Tattoos should only be seen in private. I have even tattoed the private parts of men. They are really upfront about it but, of course, only to a select few. That is how the whole body should be viewed: in secret.

It is pretty when you hide beauty. Japanese put the loveliest designs on the inside of our clothing so that it can only be peeked at, not stared at. Similarly, I only allow photos of my own body as I am proud — as a tattooist — to show my work. If I were not in this line of work, I would never show them to anyone, except my family and buddies who also have tattoos.

Matsuri — Japanese festivals — are the best time to feel unity with our fellow men. That is the only chance we have to see yakuza in their full-body horimono and not fear them. It is OK to stand next to them and even take smiling photos with the scariest guys. They transform into cute neighbors for one day. The same guy on any other day is scary. This is the special psychological state of the Japanese.

Horimono are cool as they have the smell of the outlaw. People are attracted to criminals because they are scared of becoming one. Fearsome equals strong, so we love such people.

Tattooing is part of our national tradition. I feel responsible for keeping the classical repertoire of Japanese designs alive, one prick at a time. The many magical creatures that I portray must not go extinct.

Ryu — the dragon — is mysterious. It doesn’t exist, but it feels like it should.

Studying is not for achieving promotions or improving your circumstances. Studying teaches us how to enjoy life, where to begin and end things and how to behave in between.

I respect all life forms, which means I think of others first, then myself. People who talk ill of others make me sick. My goal as a human being is to be nicer to others and care about them more than I care about myself.

Women have the power and the responsibility. They are stronger than men psychologically so they can act weaker just to make us feel bigger.

Men who have iki — or cool spirit — are scary. They are like hawks who hide their talons — they don’t need to show off their strength because they are secure in it. Such men never bully the weak.

Real beauty is often hidden. Young men want to show off: their manhood, muscles, jobs, women, cars and tattoos are all on display. As a man matures, he shows off less outside and learns to hide his beauty in his heart.

Women should not go to bed quickly. Men are wired to hunt. The longer we have to wait for the prey, the more we will see it as a treasure.

The same quality that we love about somebody might end up annoying us later on. So choose a partner who is good, as kindness can be forgiven, even in oversized proportions. My wife, Mayumi, loves animals and even after their death she puts food and drinks for them on the altar. I think she does too much, but this is exactly why I love her — she overdoes it but her heart is beautiful. So I just stay calm and quiet and remind myself that this is why I married her. She does drive me crazy, but I do not let her see it. That is a man, and that is love.

Those who help others without taking credit have my respect. I heard of a woman who sent money to a coworker but never told him she was the one who helped him out. Now that is what I call super-cool behavior.

A version of this interview appeared in the Japan Times

This Quote

It is pretty when you hide beauty. — Horiyoshi III