Rarely do we ever meet tattoo artists that are globally recognized and respected as true artisans. In this day and age of smoke and mirrors, hype and fan-based assumptions often makes for overnight celebrities but not for Horiyoshi the Third. His loyal fan base was adopted from underground roots and the cult following of his work is something that bas been bestowed upon new recruits through respected resources and years of illusive mystery. He’s not in it for the fame, the hype or the publicity, rather, he’s in this business to do what he was born to do and that’s tattoo. In this very exclusive interview, Lowrider Arte sits down with one of Japan’s most legendary tattoo artists.
Yet the respect he’s earned is something, which is more than just word of mouth, as he’s also been granted use of the Japanese title of “Hori” (meaning “to engrave”). This illustrious honor has only been bestowed three times throughout the course of history, and only twice among tattooists. Horiyoshi III, born Yoshihito Nakano in 1946, proudly carries this honor on his heavily-tattooed shoulders, and is widely regarded by tattoo enthusiasts as the world’s best full-body tattoo artist, or “horishi,” as it is known in Japan. The 63-year-old Horiyoshi received this honor in 1971 after serving as an apprentice under Yoshitsugu Muramatsu, who was the Horiyoshi of Yokohama, a man Horiyoshi III met when he was only 21. Upon his retirement, Muramatsu bestowed this title of “Horiyoshi” upon his only son, as well as his best student, Horiyoshi III, whom he chose to uphold and carry on his tattoo legacy.
Like the outlines of his drawings and sketches, Horiyoshi III’s existence has been a series of long and winding strokes, seeking to ultimately define who he is and what he represents. A man born into poverty, Horiyoshi III was attracted to the secrecy and the power of the Yakuza at an early age, a lifestyle he was only able to escape through the power of his own artistic merit. Principle, tradition, and beauty act as guiding lights in his life now, a life that could have just as easily been filled with darkness, had he chosen to stay on the wayward path he walked as a youth. Instead he chose discipline, balance, and righteousness as the inspirations and motivations behind his study of “Horimono” tattoos, ultimately becoming somewhat of a mythical figure himself upon the completion of his apprenticeship. To receive a tattoo from Horiyoshi III is as spiritual of an experience as it is a painful one, and to walk inside the doors of his Yokohama studio is akin to walking through the doors of some ancient temple, you can almost feel the history and power all around you, it is surreal. In his own words, Horiyoshi III speaks on the past, the present, and the future, as well as the importance of kindness, generosity, and honesty in relation to everyday living.
What do you attribute your success to and where do you feel you are in terms of accomplishment?
I believe I have not realized my full potential yet, but I owe my past success to my friends and family who have supported me along the way.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in life?
There are no shortcuts. To climb the Himalayas you must start with the first step at the base. Patiently without rushing, you must take definitive steps. Nowadays it is normal to have elevators in buildings, but I believe that taking the stairs to make your way up in an old fashioned manner is what leads to a fulfilling life. It is not good to always take the quick and easy way up like on the elevator.
I believe that having an honest heart and to value the feelings of the people around you is always important, despite the possibility of being betrayed and taken advantage of by some.
To take care and value people is to love them. An honest heart can tell apart the good and the bad. I think the starting point for both friendship and relationship is love.
What is your definition of success? And have you achieved it?
I think I am still on a route to success but not quite there yet. I wonder to myself when it will be and how I am supposed to feel when I do succeed.
What has been your biggest failure in life? And how did you overcome it?
After being betrayed by people I trusted, although knowing that they were at fault, I chose to believe I played a part for things to go wrong. I consider events like these as valuable experiences and coming out of the situation, I tell myself I have grown as a individual that much more. There is no vain in life. I think that failure in life is an ordeal that God throws at you to provide you with the experience you need to get through life in the future.
What advice would you give to the younger generation when it comes to living a happy and successful life?
Love the people around you. The world is made solely of connections among people. One’s life is limited, value every second of everyday, do not bear grudges, do not envy, but be positive and always have a dream. Follow that dream and work hard for it; if you focus your passion on your desires, your worries will go away.
Who were your mentors in life? And what were the four most valuable lessons you have learned in life?
My father was a gambler and he caused a lot trouble to the family. My mother on the other hand was a gentle lady with good human nature. Although we were poor, she had such a kind heart and I have a lot of respect for her.
In life, what matters is the reason for heaven, reason for earth, and reason for people. The reason for heaven counts for that moment, reason for earth for where you are, and the reason for people’s existence opens doors to life when all of these coincide…
Always keep your ears and eyes open and be cautious of your surroundings, and once again take care of people.
How and why did you get into the art of tattooing?
Being a Yakuza at a young age, I naturally liked the powerful tattoos that gave off the outlaw image. I was tattooing my own designs on people but soon to decided to take things seriously. I quit being a Yakuza and became the apprentice of a tattoo artist.
How long does an average tattoo take?
I must draw out a picture of the tattoo to have an idea of the piece, and I must think of what direction I want to take it. I do not tattoo the way I used to because it really depends on the design. But I must think of the future because I cannot tattoo forever. For now, my work will be a collaboration with my son Kazu.
How does the Horiyoshi style of tattooing differ from the rest?
I tattoo directly on the skin without stencils. I take whatever inspires me at that moment and find new methods to do it. There is nothing special really about me that I can boast about.
What has been the most someone has spent on a tattoo?
It’s hard to say. A friend of mine, a tattoo artist who had passed away, told me one day that after he completed a client’s chest piece, to express his gratitude, the man gave him a newly built, two-floored house with a big yard and an entrance that looked like the gate to a temple (of course, the tattooing fees were paid separately). This happened about ten years ago but I believed it was worth more than 340,000 yen. As far as I know, it was the best gift given in Japan. I have been offered a house one time as well.
What has been your most memorable tattoo that you’ve ever done?
It’s difficult to choose because memories come with every tattoo that I do. One I remember I saw done by another artist as a child was of a black climbing koi across the back.
What are the two things you would like to teach your son besides tattooing?
Effort and trust.
Is there anything that’s off limits to you as far as tattooing? Is there anything you would NOT draw?
I would never tattoo offensive words and expressions of spiritual or religious nature. Also words or expressions of discrimination that is hurtful to anyone in any way.
What was the reasoning behind starting your own clothing line?
People desire for beautiful and novel things. Unlike tattoos, you can change out of clothes. People can be content and satisfied wearing things that they think are beautiful and rare.
If my designs can be used for that purpose, I would be honored.
What kind of monkeys (pets) do you own?
10 Slow Loris, one Bush baby, five toy poodles, and two Chihuahuas. These are all my wife’s hobby. They are our pets, however, they get the same food, toilet, sickness, physical conditions, as the humans, and we look after and take care of every part of their lifestyle. I think humans are equivalent to their slaves. These animals have better lives than us. They don’t even work and live everyday by sleeping and eating. I’m jealous to tell you the truth. They are expensive but my wife enjoys having them around. The monkey prices range from about $3K-10K for each.
Horiyoshi III is a man of few words, and even fewer interviews. When he speaks, however, a calm fills the area around him and affects everyone who is nearby, instantly sending relief to what could otherwise be an awkward situation. A person who survived the cold world of the Yakuza, and the secret world of apprenticeship, you wouldn’t expect him to so personable and kind-hearted. His humility is genuine, though his title reflects that of a master, in his own words he feels he “hasn’t yet reached his potential.” As warm as he is dedicated, it becomes clear that his love for art and people could only lead to tattooing, the only world where both collide in an ongoing search for expression and definition. A living canvas could be the only place where the depth of his art can truly be understood. It seems destiny has truly led Horiyoshi III to the best of both worlds.