In the shadow of Japan’s capital Tokyo, you will find the studio of Japanese tattoo legend Horiyoshi III. Still going strong on his traditional tatami, he is considered one of the most influential irezumi (traditional Japanese tattooing) artists, ever. We visited him in his studio for a chat about his career and the current status of tattoos in modern Japanese society.

An interview with Horiyoshi III means you need to talk to him while he does his job. Not because he doesn’t want to make time, he simply has too much work; his clients want their bodysuit to be finalised before he retires and that could be soon.

A loud voice welcomes us to a cluttered studio: “Come in!”

Horiyoshi’s workspace is stuffed with memorabilia. Old photos of Horiyoshi III, swords, books about the art of tattooing, old-school tattooing equipment. A tarantula housed in an aquarium. A tattoo studio couldn’t be more random than Horiyoshi’s one-room museum of memories.

At the centre of the room, you’ll find the most precious relic: Horiyoshi, kneeled on a tatami (traditional woven mat). In front of him is a new customer, who prefers not to be quoted with his real name. Other than that he is at complete surrender: his arms and legs spread. Let the master do his work, seems to be his attitude.

Horiyoshi’s hand is remarkably steady and his patience is intriguing. He shows the same patience in answering questions, taking the time to let them sink in and speaking carefully, weighing every word. He seeks eye contact with my interpreter, then looks down and spots a tattoo on her ankle, a tiny one. He is the first person to notice her tattoo, she tells me later that day. The master’s eye for detail is unrelenting.

While chewing on a block of ice (bought at the convenience store, meant for iced coffee), he goes back to the day it all started.

Horiyoshi III is an honourific title bestowed to him by his teacher in 1971. Born as Nakano, he grew up in what he calls a “bad environment.” If you have three good friends, he explains, you’ll be good, but if you have three bad friends, you’ll be bad. It’s as simple as that: your surroundings create who you are. It was in this environment where he first saw a bodysuit. “I was intrigued when I saw the naked men in the onsen [hot spring],” he recalls. It was subversive: at that time, only criminals were tattooed. He decided to become a tattoo artist at the age of 19. Only much later did he pinpoint the meeting with the men in the public bath as decisive in his career choice. “I could never have made it as an office worker, I didn’t have the qualities for that,” he says. “Maybe I would have been a good mayor of Tokyo city,” he adds jokingly.

In Japan, tattoos are both a literal and a figurative label. There is an assumption that whoever has a tattoo belongs to the yakuza (an organisation often linked with criminal activities). Tattoos are becoming more culturally accepted but are still generally associated with yakuza and vice versa.

Horiyoshi’s client doesn’t move a muscle, lies still on the tatami. “Death equals life, or, death balances with life. This is an old wisdom in Taoism, expressed by the concept of Jing and Jang,” Horiyoshi explains. When I ask him why he refers to this, he points at his customer’s arm, the tattoo he’s working on today: a snake. “Good lives in evil and evil lives in good. Both the good and the bad live inside the animal.”

Horiyoshi’s point also hints at the duality of the yakuza. The organisation, usually depicted as a crime syndicate, helped local communities to get rid of crime – Horiyoshi explains.

In the past, a little less than half of his clientele consisted of yakuza. However, today that number is less than 10 percent. The number reflects the growing popularity of tattoos in Japanese society.

Today Horiyoshi’s clientele consists of people from different walks of life: yes, yakuza, but more people who have regular jobs – doctors, teachers. He is happy that tattoos are slowly gaining admiration by regular folks.

It brings the conversation to tattooing as an art – does he consider himself an artist?

“Irezumi is art, but I’m not an artist,” he replies. “But when others call me an artist, I am delighted, of course.” According to some critics, tattooing can’t be considered an art form since it’s on someone’s body. “Depending on the person, how they look at art, it does not matter whether it is on paper or on the skin. It depends on the observation of the person who is looking.”

The value of tattoos – art or not – is something Horiyoshi will not dispute. “You die together with your tattoos, that is the truth,” he says with a comfortable smile. “It is a treasure that can’t be changed for money, it is an everlasting treasure.”

But don’t call Hiroyoshi old-fashioned or a romantic fool. Even he, a tebori legend, has started vacillating between the traditional hand-poke technique and the modern electric machine.

But why? “Hand-poking requires a lot of energy and you become more tired. When I got sick [with his kidney problems] I stopped. The machine delivers a higher quality. This is my work: I have to be professional and the machine is simply the best tool to get the job done.” 

To read more about Japanese tattooing follow our History of Japanese tattoo series!