10 Questions: Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura on “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World”

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Tattooing by Yokohama Horiken

For most within the tattoo world, Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura needs no introduction. Aside from being a renowned tattooer, Kitamura boasts an impressive resume as owner of State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose, co-organizer of the Bay Area Convention of Tattoo Arts, and author of a number of widely-published books including Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo (2001), Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo (2003), and Tattooing from Japan to the West: Horitaka Interviews Contemporary Artists (2005). We recently caught up with Kitamura to discuss his most recent endeavor – curator of the Japanese American National Museum’s upcoming exhibition Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. Composed primarily of photographs by Kip Fulbeck, Perserverance showcases tattooing by a number of international artists and will surely be a landmark event within the history of tattooing. Just days away from the March 8 opening, Kitamura discusses with us, among other things, how the exhibition came to be, the artists involved, and the various issues that arise when organizing a show of this magnitude.

The exhibition takes place at the Japanese American National Museum – the largest museum of its kind in the United States. How did the exhibition come to fruition and why is the Japanese American National Museum such an appropriate venue?

Perseverance is the result of a bold move by director Greg Kimura and his staff. Dr. Kimura has long been aware of the increasing popularity of tattooing as a whole, as well as the appreciation and ubiquitous nature of Japanese style tattoos. This piqued his interest and he called on Kip Fulbeck, (professor, author, artist, poet, photographer, awesome guy extraordinaire) who has exhibited in the past with the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). Kip has sleeves and a back piece himself but was adamant that I was the only one to curate this exhibit. I of course was ecstatic at the prospect of curating an actual museum exhibit of this magnitude, something which, to my knowledge, has not been done before in the United States. From there, a proposal, generous help from sponsors, a lot of hard work by a very large group of people, photo shoots in San Jose, San Francisco, New York, Yokohama and Osaka, and here we are!

JANM is a strangely appropriate venue- this might sound odd if one is not aware of the tenuous relationship the Japanese tattoo has with Japanese and Japanese American people. While we see younger Japanese Americans embracing Japanese style tattoos as a form of cultural identity, many of the older generations still can’t separate the Japanese tattoo from its most infamous collectors- the yakuza. Perseverance is not here to pass judgement, rather we are presenting Japanese tattooing in all its splendor, photographed on the bodies of all types of people, a plethora of races, occupations (even a few yakuza and police officers), and nationalities. This is a huge step forward for JANM and Japanese tattooing and symbolizes the open mindedness to appreciate and examine what I believe to be a very important part of Japanese art and culture.

Could you talk a little about the title of the show – Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World – where it came from, what it means, etc?

The title of this show is extremely important. Perseverance is the closest english translation of the Japanese word gaman. Gaman means you persevere and silently endure, a concept all Japanese and many Japanese Americans know. It is also used as a word in some regions of Japan for “tattoo.” The concept of gaman and perseverance became thematic throughout the making of this exhibition. Perseverance was needed to do the hard work, for the museum to take the risks that accompanied accepting the challenges of this particular art form and of course on the part of the tattooers and clients who clocked long hours to finish tattoos for the photo shoots.

The subtitle: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, also describes the show. An aficionado of Japanese tattooing would be quick to point out that the older generation of tattooing is noticeably absent- though omnipresent through their influence on our generation. As curator, I chose to focus on the current generation of tattooers- my generation. Another subtle point about the subtitle is the absence of the word “The” at the beginning. This is intentional, as I felt claiming “The Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” sounded too pompous and all encompassing. I am forty years old, have been getting tattooed since 1991, tattooed since 1998, and was an apprentice and family member to a Japanese tattoo master for ten years and one thing I can say for sure is that there are no absolutes in any culture, especially this one

In 2008 you helped bring live tattooing to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for a one night only event. Similarly, the Perseverance opening will feature live tattooing from a number of artists in the exhibition. Why is it important to show the process of tattooing alongside photographs of the finished product?

I think it is very important for people to see live tattooing alongside the photographs of finished tattoos. For those that do not know the process, this will allow for a much deeper appreciation and understanding of what goes into these amazing “drawings” on skin. People who may never want to venture into a tattoo studio can see and hear first hand what the tattoo process is like. As this is a show about Japanese tattooing (and like the Asian Art Museum SF event) I will have people demonstrating tebori, the Japanese technique of tattooing by hand.

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Tattooing by Yebis

You also co-organize the Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts. Could you talk about what it’s like curating a museum exhibition in comparison to organizing a tattoo convention? 

There are similarities and vast differences in organizing a Tattoo Convention and curating a museum exhibition. On one hand, both events are striving to showcase as many upper echelon tattoo artists in a limited space situation. In both cases, tough choices have to be made, especially with the high level of tattooing that exists today. This was definitely a challenge. Both events require many people to work together for a common goal and of course there will be differences of opinion- differences which bring good discussion and the necessity to really understand your own position. As curator, while I was given final decision making power- I also felt the responsibility to be able to explain and defend said decisions. I think there was a difference in that our convention is really geared toward tattooers and aficionados (usually called collectors), which of course leads to better tattoos for the uninformed as well but with the museum exhibit we are really trying to expand the audience for the Japanese tattoo while still being interesting and informative for those that are already in the know. I guess the exhibit was much more difficult in that there were many things I had not and could not have foreseen- the convention is now on its tenth year so much of the work has become somewhat routine. I was in uncharted territory with this exhibit and I while I have certainly learned a lot, I have a lot more to learn!!

Perseverance navigates around one of the primary issues that arises when attempting to present tattooing in the museum space – their attachment to the body – by displaying the work in photographs taken by Kip Fulbeck. Why was Fulbeck chosen to fulfill this role and how does his own artistic vision contribute to the exhibition?

We are well aware that the best way to view a tattoo is on a living person and will have 50 models, each with back piece coverage or more, at the opening.   But with a Phase One 80 megapixel camera- well, you get a pretty detailed shot. This is also an issue that I think places tattoo art in a grey area in the fine art world. Most other types of art can be sold- paintings, music, photographs, sculptures, but with the tattoo, it belongs to the wearer. Even if photographed, it can be photographed again, it can not be owned and maybe this adds to the non acceptance of the tattoo in the fine art world.

Kip Fulbeck was chosen as photographer (and designer and coordinator) for this exhibition based on his previous portrait photography work as well as his impressive resume. Working with Kip was a great experience and one that often challenged my judgement. I would focus on the tattoo, a natural inclination as a tattooer, and Kip would often remind me that the viewing public, especially those new to the tattoo, would be able to appreciate it better seeing faces and personalities along with the art. I think the combination worked well and without Kip’s insight, I would have missed some great shots. Kip’s artistic vision is also present in every facet of the show, the layout, the construction, the choice of art on the walls, I have been blown away by his design skills and it has been an honor to work with him.

Although the Japanese American National Museum is not strictly an art museum, one of the aims of the exhibition is to “explore Japanese tattooing as an art form by acknowledging its roots in ukiyo-e prints.” Since this is a photographic exhibition, how will ukiyo-e prints and their influence on Japanese tattooing be factored in?

The influence of woodblock print art on tattooing is a relationship that is widely known and understood in Japanese tattooing. The easiest way for us to illustrate this was to compare a woodblock print image and a tattooed version of the print. We have prepared a series of examples of this tradition. We have also created a “kite” project- but you’re going to have to go to the exhibition to see this comparison of Japanese tattooing and another traditional Japanese art form.

Promo_CTatooing by Takahiro “Horitaka” Kitamura

The exhibition features the work some of the world’s best tattooers, including yourself – Horitaka, as well as Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken. Why were these particular artists chosen and how does their work contribute to the theme of the exhibit?

As I said before, choosing artists was difficult. I wanted to feature the current generation of tattooing as well as show a wide range- essentially live up to the subtitle and thesis- Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. Including myself was Kip’s decision, Kip insisted that I needed to be in the exhibit to validate my role as curator to which I reluctantly agreed. As far as the rest of the seven samurai (our own little joke) they were decided based on their skill and unique styles. Horitomo is a powerhouse of Japanese tattooing, by hand as well as machine, and has a very distinct tattoo style. Chris Horishiki Brand tattoos in Los Angeles and has created his own unique style of fusion Japanese as well as more straightforward traditional Japanese work. Miyazo is heir to the famed Horitsune lineage and represents the city of Osaka, a city rich in tattoo tradition. Shige is a household name to any tattoo aficionado and represents a very modern but still ultra-traditional version of the Japanese tattoo. Junii is a living legend and though her tattoo career has been in San Francisco, her strong ties to the Horitoshi Family of Ikebukuro is evident in her work. Yokohama Horiken also tattoos by hand and has an extremely graceful yet powerful take on the Japanese tattoo. Thus, a wide range of styles and cities are represented in this exhibition.

The show is not limited to works produced by Japanese artists, and includes work by Western tattooers known to work in a Japanese-influenced style, such as Chris Garver, Chris O’Donnell, Stewart Robson, and Mike Rubendall – to name a few. With this in mind, how does Perserverance address the relationship between Japanese tattooing (and perhaps more broadly, Japanese art and imagery) and the West?

As you know, since it was known to the west- Japanese tattoo has had fans and collectors and also practitioners worldwide. I think the inclusion of many tattooers of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds shows the global acceptance and appreciation of the Japanese tattoo. We have included tattooers from three continents as well as shown how fusion and form have changed the Japanese tattoo. Perseverance is a global show.

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Tattooing by Stan Corona

What are you hoping visitors – especially those without a prior knowledge of Japanese tattooing – leave the exhibition having learned? What sorts of educational components are included in or alongside the exhibition to help facilitate this?

Firstly, I hope they are amazed at the artistry we are exhibiting. After all, tattooing is largely a visual art (ritual and cultural aspects being harder to convey to one without tattoos) and we have photographed the work of some of the world’s best artists. From there, I hope they can understand that this is much more than just pictures on skin, I want people to be aware of the long hours, the dedication, the culture conveyed. As this is a museum show, we have included educational explanations of common tattoo motifs as well as the aforementioned woodblock print to tattoo comparisons. We also have on display hand tools as well as  both rotary and coil tattoo machines.The catalogue also includes historical essays and discussions of modern Japanese tattooing. Also, as the exhibit exits into the permanent internment exhibit- I hope every attendee sees the internment exhibit- this to me is much larger than the tattoo exhibit and serves as an inspiration for me to get as many people to go to JANM.

How are the selected photographs/works displayed, and as curator, how do you hope for this to contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the work?

We have many of the photographs hanging in the wall – which I understand is very typical of a museum show. The stunning clarity of the Phaseone camera really allows the viewer to see the tattoo very well. Of note is the center display in the main room- we have 7 life-size full body photos hanging in a circle- but this is something best seen, not described. I love the design of the show, Kip has a great vision- you’ll just have to see it!!!

 

For more on Perserverence visit the official Facebook page here and view a number of related videos on the State of Grace YouTube channel here.

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