The Top 10 Best Japanese Style Tattoo Artists

Although nowhere near the scale of LA or NY, Japan is slowly opening up to the idea that tattoos are fashionable. Led by celebrities such as Amuro Namie and Hamasaki Ayumi, the notion of getting skin art is hardly as taboo as it used to be, with its stygian yakuza associations. Japan is home to a rich tradition of tattooing. Despite the widespread discrimination towards people with tattoos, with rules that prohibit tattooed people into hot springs, golf courses and gyms, it is still one of the best places in the world to get the best quality ink jobs. Now here are just some of the amazing tattooist that can decipher and understand the Japanese motifs of art.

1. Horiyoshi 3

Born as Yoshihito Nakano, Horiyoshi is a famous Japanese style Tattoo Artist based in Japan. Nakano was inspired when he saw a Japanese yakuza in a full suit of tattoos when he was around eleven or twelve. This inspired Nakano to visit legendary tattoo artist Yoshitsugu Muramatsu and got a tattoo from his son. Since then he became Muramatsu's apprentice at age 25. Horiyoshi III is the second tattooist be granted that honorific title, which passes from master to apprentice. The tattooist affixation Hori means to engrave or "to carve."Muramatsu bestowed this title upon Nakano in 1971.His wife, Mayumi Nakano, is the general manager of his public "Tattoo Museum" located close to the Yokohama Station, which he founded in 2000. At Horiyoshi's studio in Yokohama, Japan tattoos are outlined freehand using an electric needle. Shading and color is added using the traditional tebori, or Japanese hand tattooing, technique. He restricts his motifs to the classical repertoire of the vast variety of traditional Japanese stories and designs: peonies, koi, dragons, tenyo (she-angels), etc.


2. Horikitsune

German born Alex Reinke is one of the only Europeans to be taken in as an apprentice from a Japanese craftsmen. He is the only apprentice of Horiyoshi III apart from his son Souryou Kazuyoshi and part of Horiyoshi III family. Alex is Horiyoshi’s second apprentice in the Yokohama studio (the first being his son) and the only Westerner fully trained in traditional 'tebori' methods. Tebori uses an instrument of bamboo and needles to manually drive ink into the skin and has been done the same way since late 18th century. According to Alex "The mystery involved in a Japanese tattoo is beyond Western comprehension as all the designs have deep philosophical meaning. They are heavy with messages of great virtue and portraits of the human condition, so important to the Japanese – to wear a Horimono or Irezumi [that’s a full body suit tattoo to you and I] shows character, personality and perseverance and the tattoo master is purveyor of all these things."


3. Horiyen

With over 16 years of tattooing experience, Jess Yen is the fearless leader and creator of My Tattoo Family. He offers services in both electrical tattoo machine and traditional hand-poked tattooing (known as Tebori). He is a multi-awarded artist by both national and international tattoo conventions. His specialties are Oriental body suit and realistic portraits in both color and black & gray. He is known as a master of New School Oriental art style where you find elements of realism and materialism in his tattoo. Born and raised in Taiwan, his background in Japanese and Chinese cultures helps inspire unique and creative designs to a list of clientele booked up to two years in advance. Jess has, over the years, built up a loyal following of tattoo fans as well as a large ‘family’ of tattooists, all of whom served a proper apprenticeship under the tutelage of Jess himself. Once each student has finished their time as an apprentice they are welcomed open-armed into the family that is My Tattoo. My Tattoo’s apprenticeships are strict but fair with the emphasis on the reputation of the studio being maintained. Jess has won many, many awards for his bright and vibrant tattoos and as such has a long waiting list but the wait will always be well worth it. Walk into My Tattoo and you will be greeted with happy, smiling faces, a very chilled out and laid-back studio, and you will walk out with a wonderful tattoo to remember the ‘My Tattoo Family’ experience by.


4. Shige Iwasaki

Shigenori Iwasaki, better known as 'Shige', is a world-renowned tattoo artist, known for his original take on classic Japanese tattoo styles. He is the owner of Yellow Blaze Tattoo Studio in Yokohama, which he operates with his wife Chisato.Shige was born in Hiroshima in 1970, and in early adulthood was making a living as a guitar teacher, with aspirations to become a musician. However his interests shifted, and he moved to Yokohama where he became a mechanic of Harley-Davidson motorbikes. Seeing the tattoos of the many bikers at close-hand led him to his calling as a tattoo artist. Completely self-taught, he started by tattooing his friends at night. Getting a tattoo in 2000 from French tattoo legend Philip Leu was a turning point, as he began to take tattooing seriously as an art-form. Shige eventually went to Switzerland for three months and got a full body-suit tattooed by Leu, which he considered to be a fantastic learning experience. He has cited his main influences as the Leu Family (especially Philip) and Horiyoshi III.Opening Yellow Blaze in 2000, Shige faced many obstacles. Being self-taught with no teacher, he didn't have the knowledge about the irezumi (Japanese tattoo) culture and tradition that is normal for a senior tattoo artist, and even received letters denouncing him. However he soon began to win fans and plaudits, going on to lift numerous awards at various international tattoo conventions. He continued to explore the boundaries of the tattoo art-form, while also exhibiting paintings, and published a self-titled art book in 2009. In the same year he also took on an apprentice Tomokazu Ikarashi, known as Tomo. Shige's standing in the tattoo world is evidenced by the rumored 2 year waiting list to get a Shige tattoo.


5. Haewall


Haewall is a tattoo artist from South Korea. He is considered to be one of the best tattooers to do Japanese style tattoos in Korea. The smooth, clean approach he has on his Japanese tattoos are a thing of beauty. His tattoos, although brutal looking, still look elegant because of the technical application.


6. Henning Jorgensen

Henning thanks all his customers for the trust they show him. It fascinates him to give something that will stay with them for life. The learning process is vital to Henning and is what motivates him to preserve the art of tattooing. Ever since the 90`s Henning has won many awards and has been honored with the title “Tattooist of the Year” three times.
Henning's interest in tattooing started when he was 13 years old. He finally began his education at 18. Starting out in the Red light district and working his way through Nyhavn with the late Ole Hansen, he founded Royal Tattoo in 1983.The first time Henning Jorgensen became interested in tattoos was at the age of thirteen; he started his career at the age of eighteen, and worked his way up in the Danish and international tattoo scene to become one of the most highly regarded tattoo artists in the world. With over fifty international tattoo prizes won, he is well known for his Japanese tattoos, which have been displayed for years in various tattoo magazines.


7. Inkrat

Inkrat are a modern street shop in Koenji that has taken as is its mission the task of introducing American traditional to a local audience. They are exemplary of the Japanese fascination with overseas culture, and the importation of tattoo culture from America to Japan, that helped bring tattoo culture into the mainstream. Inkrat is made up of two artists, Rei and Hata. Rei the owner has been tattooing for 14 years, making him one of the pioneers of modern tattooing in Japan – starting in the hot bed of tattoo talent, Osaka, and moving to Tokyo. Although he insists he does all styles “except for biomecha” much of his work focuses on American traditional, and says of the appeal of traditional: “It has a background, just like Japan’s traditional tattooing, I found that really appealing, and got influenced by the way of thought, it’s really positive, and has strong conceptualization, so gradually started to do more.” Most of the tattoos consists of solid, minimal color usage, good line work, appealing designs, and are decidedly clean, and simple.


8. Hocus Pocus


“Tattoo trends are the same as music, probably. It goes in cycles,” he says. “Just before it was Japanese illustrations, now it’s Tibetan style — with my clients, anyway. In Japan, there are lots of people wanting lettering this year, such as kanji and English, for some reason. Makoto believes that he should be able to insert anything rather than stick to one style. Hocus Pocus artist Makoto is a self proclaimed “all rounder”, and prefers larger pieces of the oriental/Japanese persuasion. Tattooing since 94, he traveled around Japan and settled back at Shizuoka 7/8 years ago, saying, “I could do the illustrations I liked, and the clientele was good. Shizuoka is probably the most average place in Japan. If a company puts out a new product, they test it on Shizuoka people! The climate, the winter is mild, and the summer is mild, the people are easy going. ” Although this shop is in Shizuoka Prefecture, not Tokyo, it is worth the trip for quality work, and one of the most comfortable and stunning studios in Japan. For many Japanese clients who are worried about the underground image of tattoos, this is particularly important. “The clientele usually come in groups, which happens a lot in areas out of the big cities. Like say one kid wants a dragon, the next will want a carp. But still it will be in the Japanese genre.”


9. Studio Muscat


Female tattoo artist Asao is super friendly and down to earth, operating out of a small and clean studio in Shibuya. She tells us that she used to be a pattern maker in the fashion industry, and turned to tattooing after she got fired! She says a lot of her clients are female musicians, and she does get a lot of clients because they feel less threatened by her.While she can do any style, she does a lot of tribal – strong lines and shapes, but with a certain delicacy, and an undeniably Japanese aesthetic. She says she is conscious of her being Japanese and, accordingly, uses traditional Japanese motifs, and draws inspiration from Japanese art such as wood block prints. Her Black and Gray work is stunning.


10. Horiyasu

If large scale Japanese work is your cup of tea, then Horiyasu is one of Japan’s best. His work is flawless, but take note that he only specializes in Japanese work- no anchors or roses here! He is tucked away in an apartment in the Asakusa area. He requires advance notice and a Japanese translator who will make communication, although he is one of the most hospitable and genuinely lovely people in the Japanese tattoo industry. He is one of the most highly regarded Japanese masters, and is world renowned for his striking traditional pieces that are executed with a modern flare, having won numerous awards at conventions internationally. He will only take on large pieces, as traditional Japanese work is typically of a prolific size – although the end result will flow beautifully with the body. Horiyasu has one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any artist in the Japanese tattoo scene. Starting as a sword smith, after working on blades for 16 years, he changed his career at the age of 36. He quickly rose to the top, winning the respect of both old school tebori artists and modern street shop artists along the way.

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