By Kazuo Oguri
by Mieko Yamada
(All artwork and photos Copyright Kazuo Oguri )
Oguri, known in Japan as Horihide, his tattooing name, is a famous artist and highly regarded as the pioneer that brought Japanese tattooing to Sailor Jerry, and subsequently Ed Hardy, after World War Two. Thus setting the stage for large Asian body suit tattoo design to change the face of western tattooing in the last half of the twenty first century. Here in his own words is his story.
I was an apprentice, feudal customs still existed in Japan. The
apprenticeship was one of the feudal customs called uchideshi
in Japanese. Normally, pupils lived with their masters, and were
trained for 5 years. After 5-year training, the pupils worked
independently, and gave the masters money that he earned for one
year. The one-year service was called oreiboko in Japanese,
the service to express the gratitude towards the masters. The
masters usually told new pupils about this system, 5-year-training
and 1-year service, when they began the apprenticeship.
left: Kazuo Oguri receives a lifetime achievement award from Steve
Gilbert at the first Northern Ink
Xposure in 1998.)
the first 2 years, I had to do only chores. The master didnít
teach tattooing yet. Tattooists must not make mistakes on their
job. The purpose of doing the chores is to discipline the pupils.
If the pupils completed 2-year chores, the master allowed us to
learn how to tattoo little by little. During this term, my master
let me draw rough sketches (designs) of tattoos, by modeling upon
masterís work every night after my daily job.
used to wake up 5 a.m., and sweep the whole house inside and out.
I also wiped thefloor with a damp cloth. In winter, my hands were numb with cold
water and got chilblains. My fingers were swollen.
meals, I was allowed to have only one cup of soup and one dish.
A bowl of rice was also served. Even though I wanted to eat more,
I could not eat enough because I was in training. It was right
after World War 2. Due to insufficiency of supplies, it was so
hard for us to get enough rice. We would eat a mixture of rice
and barley. I was only 19 and always starving. It was tough experience.
young people never understand how tough the training was. Sometimes
the master yelled at me and even hit me.. To endure such treatment
needs patience. Because of such unreasonable treatment, most pupils
gave up and ran away from the master. Of course, I often wondered
why he hit us. Although I had anger towards the master, I could
not talk back. All I could do in the feudal period was to obey
what the master said. I was so frustrated that I cried in bed
so many times. The master sometimes slapped me without any reason.
However, I found the master purposely hit me and forced me to
do overwork for my mental training after I became a tattooist
later on. I hated him so much during the apprenticeship. Looking
back now, I am ashamed of having had such feelings towards my
old days, Japanese tattooists worked at their own houses and ran
business quietly (without using the ads.). They didnít put up
a sign and list telephone numbers on the book. The practice of
tattooing was forbidden in Japan (until the end of World War 2).
The customers used to find the tattoo shops by word of mouth.
slept at the masterís workplace when I was a pupil. I wanted to
be a great tattoo artist as soon as possible. In the middle of
the night, I picked up the needles from the masterís tool box,
sat cross-legged and practiced tattooing on my thigh without the
ink, remembering how my master performed. I continued to practice
tattooing without using the ink. I used a thick bamboo stick for
sujibori (outlining), which was about 20 cm long. The edge
of the stick was sharpened, and 6-7 needles were put in order
and tied up by silk thread. The length of the tip of needles was
3-4 mm. I wanted to workas a tattooist soon, and practiced incising both my thighs with
the bamboo stick every night after work.I
did not know how to use the tattooing tools and how to adjust
the angles. Sometimes I penetrated the skin very deeply with the
needles, and the skin bled and swelled. I could not tattoo by
using the bamboo stick as I wanted.During the daytime I did chores.
If I had no work during the day, I would sit down on the left
side of my master and watch his work from the distance.
quietly watched how my teacher tattooed, sitting straight on the
left side of him. Every customer came to the master by appointment
and got hitoppori. Hitoppori in Japanese means to
get tattooed for 2 hours each day. If a big tattoo was to be done,
the customer came by every third day. I used to keep sitting straight
for 2 hours and just watching my masterís hands to learn his tattooing
skills. The master would say to me, "Iím not going to lecture
you. You steal my techniques by watching my work." Watching
is the fastest way to learn, rather than listening to the lecture,
if people really want to learn something. Even though I was full
of enthusiasm, my skills were not improved easily. I couldnít
see any progress at all.
day, the masterís wife asked me to split wood. ( Pupils normally
call the masterís wife ane-san or okami-san. The
masterís wife looked so happy when I called her ane-san.
So I called her ane-san during the apprenticeship.) One
day while I was splitting wood in the back yard, I got hotter
and hotter. I was in a sweat, and took off my shirt and trousers.
Ane-san came and asked me to take a rest. She brought a
cup of tea for me. Then, Ane-san happened to see my traces
of the needles on the thighs.
was surprised and said to me, "How did you get scars on the
thighs? Do you practice tattooing by yourself?"
I answered, "but I cannot tattoo well like the master does."
you ever seen my husbandís legs and ankles?" she asked again.
continued, "His whole legs are covered with tattoos. You
know what I mean? He told me that he practiced tattooing on his
legs with the ink when he was a pupil. Thatís why his legs are
all black. He also told me that a tattooist needs to learn by
tattooing his own body to become a professional tattooist. There
is nothing to replace human skin. So you have to learn tattooing
by using (tattooing) your body."
hearing this story, I remembered the master had tattoos on his
arms to wrists but that I had never seen his bare feet. I wondered
if Ishould practice tattooing with the ink. Otherwise I couldn'tít
get how the ink was inserted into the skin. I decided to master
the techniques until my whole body would be black. "I will
never give it up. If I give it up, I wonít be a true man."
Since then, I practiced tattooing on any parts of legs from the
thighs to the ankles almost every day. In order to keep practicing
again and again, I didn'tít use the ink when practicing tattooing.
the tattoo designs are based on ukiyoe (wood block prints)
by Kuniyoshi. The most popular work is from Suikoden, which
is based on Chinese legendary story. The warriors of Kuniyoshiís
Suikoden are wonderful and amazing. It is a good chance
for tattooists to show their skills, that is, to show how well
they can tattoo Kuniyoshiís pictures. Tattoo designs have meanings.
while I was a pupil, my master taught me those meanings.
(tattooing by hand) technique
I was an apprentice, my master taught me how to make tattooing
needles. Each tattooist has his own preferred way of making needles.
I put 7 needles in order, and curve the tips of them. Then I make
a fan-shape with them. The middle of the needles is set as the
top of the fan, pulling the rest of them down.The needles should
be arranged like the following figure and soldered up.
incising thin lines, I use 2 or 3 of 7 needles, which are the
closest to the hands, by adjusting the angle of the needles with
the skin. Normally when tattooing the outline, I touch the skin
with only the middle of the group of needles.
tattoo details, some tattooists use a separate tool consisting
of only 3 needles. But the professional tattooists can tattoo
whatever they want, using only one set of needles for outlining.
They donít have to use other tattooing tools. They can tattoo
any thin or thick lines, small circles and so on. The professional
tattooists tattoo the designs on the skin smoothly, from up to
down, down to up, right to left, left to right. When I need more
ink after tattooing from left to right, for example, I do kaeshibari,
flipping the needles. Kaeshibari is one of techniques,
which is flipping the other side of the needles and tattooing
by using the rest of the ink on the other side.
by hand requires special techniques. It should be done by puncturing
the skin with the needles gently, adjusting the strength of hands.
Human skin is very soft and elastic. As the needles leave the
skin, I can hear the sound, shakki. If I tattoo smoothly,
I can hear a rhythmical sound like "sha, sha, sha."
I dip the needles in the ink, and tattoo a line about one centimeter
long. This same step is done continuously during sujibori
(outlining).I keep the same speed (rhythm) to tattoo no matter
what kind of designs or shapes, such as circles, squares and lines,
are tattooed. I draw the outlines step by step on each part of
the body, such as the shoulders, the arms and the back, and finally
finish the art work on the body. Then the full body tattoo is
bokashibori (shading), sets of 12 and 13 needles are prepared,
and each set is made in the shape of a fan and soldered. The set
of 12 needles is put under the set of 13 needles and staggered
by pulling the set of 12 needles back a little bit. When I do
bokashibori , I insert the ink into the skin at an angle
which corresponds to the angle made by the two sets of needles.
I have to adjust the strength of the stroke by using both 12-set
needles and 13-set needles. If I use either one or the other,
the ink cannot be inserted into the skin properly. The lower 12-set
needles has to be used carefully, like touching the needles on
the skin gently. Itís very difficult to master how to use those
tattoo needles, especially the lower set of needles.
we Japanese tattooists order tattooing needles from the factory.
However, when I was a pupil, I would make tattooing needles by
using the thinnest sewing needles. Many of them did not have good
quality points. One package had 25 needles and a half of them
were no good. In those days, we used the ink called sakurazumi.
Now we use baikaboku for tattooing, which is made of soot
of cooking oil. The ink for calligraphy, which is made of soot
of resin, is not suitable for tattooing, because the color does
not last long.
number of Japanese tattooists who do sujibori (outlining
by hand) and bokashibori (shading by hand) hand is declining
today. Young tattooists tend to avoid a long term apprenticeship
studying under an accomplished tattoo master. Many young tattooists
use electric machines and copy patterns of tattoo designs. They
cannot draw pictures on the skin by hand. In fact, tebori, tattooing
by hand, is difficult. Itís not easy, and takes time and patience
to master its techniques. I am sad to think that the number of
Japanese traditional tattooists who can do tebori is decreasing.
who have not been apprenticed and trained by tattoo masters do
not know the reasons or meanings of the traditional designs. For
example, there are four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter)
in Japan. The seasons should be expressed in tattoo art as well.
Real Japanese tattoo artists express each season on the skin.
However, the untrained tattooists do not know traditional thoughts
on Japanese art. The untrained tattooists draw a snake and cherry
blossoms, but this is a wrong way in tradition. When cherry trees
begin to bloom in March in Japan, the snake still hibernates under
the ground. So the snake and cherry blossom cannot be seen in
the same period. In other words, it does not make any sense if
the snake and cherry blossoms are drawn together.
tattooists draw a carp climbing up the waterfall together with
peonies. Actually, we can see the carp climbing up the waterfall
from the late September to October in Japan. It is supposed to
go with maple leaves, not peonies. (The symbol of maple leaves
refers to the autumn.) When hutatsugoi (twin carp) and
huhugoi (a married couple carp) are drawn, two carp (one
carp for the arm, for example) can go with peonies, because we
do not have to express seasons in these cases. There are several
traditional combinations: Karajishi, which is a combination
Shishi (lion) with botan (peonies), and ryu (dragon)
with kiku (chrysanthemum) and menchirashi (men
means "a mask," and chirashi or chirasu
means "to scatter") with cherry blossoms. Those images
are particular sets for Japanese traditional tattoo designs.
day, I met a man who got tattoos called tenka gomen. (Tenka
gomen means "dismissal over the world." Tenka means
"the world." Gomen means "dismissal" or
"relief." However, in this case go means "five,"
and men is "a mask.") The man had tattoos of 5 masks
on the arms. There were 2 masks on the left arm, and 3 on the
right. He proudly showed his tattoos to me. I recognized that
the work was done by an untrained tattooist. In the traditional
way, 2 masks on each arm are supposed to be done. The human face
is counted as a mask, and 4 masks on the arms are a proper expression.
However, tattooists who have no experience to learn from the tattoo
masters are likely to make such mistakes.
continuously draw tattoo designs while working as a professional
tattooist. This is one of my masterís teachings. My master would
say to me, "You shouldnít be satisfied with your work as
a tattoo artist forever. Until you die, you must continue to train,
and make efforts to improve your skills." That is why I keep
practicing still now on even though I am done training as a pupil.
( Below, Mr.Hassan, Tattoos.com President Lyle Tuttle and Kazuo
means "tattoo" in Japanese. Hori or horu is "to
incise" or "to dig" and mono means "things."
Tattooing is similar to engraving a sculpture. A tattoo is not
a picture. It is supposed to be appreciated at a distance of several
yeards. What is expressed by the tattoo should be clearly recognized
from a distance. If the tattoo is too detailed, it can hardly
be seen from a distance. Like sculptures, tattoos need to be rough
and drastic to some extent. Such tattoos are more Attractive to
people. I can see why tattoos need to be bold after the work is
needles were often stolen by customers. I assume that some other
tattooists asked them to pretend to be customers and to steal
my tools, in order to know how I made the tattooing needles. Although
I understood that they had eager feelings to learn professional
tattooing, I was so angry with the attitudes. When I was tattooing,
I put my tool box beside me. While I was away (going to bathroom,
for example), they stole my needles. It is not difficult to steal
them. After all, I prepare the necessary needles only when I need
them. I usually lock the door of my studio after work. Electric
machines, color inks, my drawings (about 120 designs) for the
back have all been stolen at various times. The tattoo designs
were especially important for me. I had drawn many designs and
collected them for a long time. I am so frustrated whenever I
remember those incidents and think how much time I spent on the
though I am busy and tired, I still draw designs almost every
five or six years ago, I traveled all over Japan. If my customers
asked me to come, I would go anywhere for tattooing. I traveled
many times and met many people. I learned a lot of interesting
stories from them. I would like to talk about the episodes if
I have a chance to write them next time.
am very happy with my job and love it. As long as I can move my
hands, I will keep tattooing. I thank my master very much. Without
his teachings, I could not have been a tattooist. I will never
forget the gratitude towards the master forever.