A Tattooer By Any Other Name

When I first met my friend John, he was still pretty green and had a shop in Tupelo. The first business card he handed me read, “Tattoos by Ginsu.” When I asked about the name, he said that his mentor had given it to him. The joke was that if it even remotely had an edge, he would somehow manage to cut himself on it. I thought of this and had to laugh when I watched Jake interview Yogi Barrett and he told how he came up with his name. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you should really check it out here

Of course, this got me thinking about the different ways names work in tattooing and the reasons and backgrounds for different types of aliases that some tattooers use, from titles to nicknames to professional names, there is a fascinating connection between names and personal branding.

As I mentioned the Ginsu thing for John, I had to think about some of the more colorful aliases that some of the old school guys have and how they have developed their branding and images. Joseph O’Sullivan aka. Spider Webb has always promoted tattoos as a form of fine art with an almost activist level of public inking in a time when New York City still had tattoos outlawed. Making his name as a tattooer and historian during his time as the owner of the Tattoo Museum in Amsterdam, a name like Hendrikus Johannes Everhardus “Henk” Schiffmacher is quite a mouthful, but Hanky Panky is a much easier name to remember, as are the stories behind his mythos. Last of course is one of my personal favorites, Lucky Bastard. It is pretty obvious that also was not his birth name, but I’ll vouch that he is still a pretty cool guy to hang out with. Of course those are just a few that I could name off the top of my head.

You still see the assumed nickname style branding, but it really started to thin out back in the 90’s when people began to specialize more and wanted their work directly associated with their real names. You also see less and less of the professional titles associated with some people’s backgrounds. Most former navy tattooers often go by the “sailor” title, probably the most widely known being Sailor Jerry Collins. There are also quite a few guys with PhDs in other backgrounds, using titles like Dr. and Professor in front of their names. Using the names from previous backgrounds helps focus on a more specific clientele. It is probably pretty obvious who someone using “sailor” in front of their name might be catering to. And yes, if I were still tattooing full time, I could totally call myself the Doctor or Dr. Art or something along those lines.

With more people creating a brand around their own names, it may be no surprise that you see less and less of the previous two types of pseudonyms that a person can tattoo under. However, the Japanese take the name thing very seriously. There are no shortage of American tattooers that think that by adding the word “Hori” in front of their names that they can imply a more formal Japanese style background. However, a “hori” title is just that, a title that has been given by a master. Since I was fortunate enough to hang with and get work from several members of the Horiyoshi tattoo family, I got to see the process in full evolution.

The first person I knew, was actually Kazuaki Kitamura, but at the time I met him he went by “Washo.” Back around 2001, I watched him leave his post as head tattooer at Three Tides in Osaka to move up to Yokohama to work under the head of the Horiyoshi tattoo family, Yoshihito Nakano (better known as Horiyoshi III). He would later be given the title Horitomo. The title doesn’t come free and you don’t stop paying after you have put the blood, sweat and tears in for an apprenticeship. The family is a worldwide organization, and people baring the title must pay a yearly tithe to the head of the family. This may or may not have been a central factor several years back when Takahiro Kitamura (Horitaka) and the other artists at State of Grace left the Horiyoshi family. Regardless, the name thing is not just a point of personal branding for the Japanese, it denotes an inclusion into an organization, a family. The brand is not just reflective of the single artist, but the family as a whole.

This leaves us to reflect on our current age of Rockstar tattooers and how their personal image and brand go far beyond their actual tattoo work. However, the main thing to remember is that no matter who you are or what you call yourself, your brand IS your reputation. It is built over time. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. A name may be given as an honor or a joke, but the person behind the name along with their work are what make it into a brand. It has taken all your life to build your identity as a person, there is no fast track to your identity as a tattooer. And if John is reading this, I’m glad you dropped the “Ginsu” thing.

Till next time kids.

As always, give us your thoughts. Do you have a nontraditional name that you have made into your personal brand? Let us know. And as always, thank you for supporting the tattoo Improvement Network.


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