Turning Japanese | Fireside Blog

Turning Japanese | Fireside Blog

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The first time I walked into Three Tides Tattoo in Osaka was in February of 2001. I knew that I wanted to get a traditional Japanese tattoo while I was living in Japan for the year, but I had no idea how to seek any of that out. I had read about this shop in Skin and Ink magazine. I had to get a friend at work to look it up for me. This was to become my command center for what I would commonly refer to as a “tattoo outing” to other well-known tattooers, as well as the place you could find me hanging out on any given weekend for the rest of my time in the country.

Because of the guys at Three Tides, I would venture to Nogoya to meet Sabado. I would go to Yokohama to get tattooed by Horiyoshi III. Most importantly, the shop owner, Masa Sakamoto would let me spend my weekends hanging out in the shop and let me ask endless questions about Japanese tattoo style and the block print style painting that influences it. I got to meet a revolving door of what I would later find out were rock star tattooers. Although it has been a very long time since I have seen or talked to anyone there, I am forever indebted to them for the world they opened up to me in artistic influence.

I had always had an interest in tattooing, but when I was in Japan I saw for the first time just how far you could really take this unique art form. One of the most beneficial things I learned was the history behind the medium. The coolest thing was that all the artists they were telling me about had work that was easily accessible since we were in the country of origin. One of the first things I got to seek out was a Yoshitoshi show that was going on at the Kyoto National Museum.

With full understanding that many people don’t really have the same opportunities I’ve had, I thought it might be good to just give a breakdown of my top artists to look at for Japanese style and image references. If you are already into this, then it may not be that helpful, but if you are just getting started or want to learn beyond your shop’s ragged copy of Ed Hardy’s Dragon Tattoo Design book, then this blog entry should be a good springboard for you.


During the time of the Tokugawa Shoguns, more commonly referred to as the Edo Period (1603-1868), the block printing style of art arose as a way for culture and art to spread to the masses in a method that was accessible on a scale that had not been previously seen. The artists that practiced the Ukyo-e style would influence the irezumi or traditional Japanese tattoo style by providing thematic images that were commonly taken from traditional Japanese folklore.

As much as I would like to throw in some stuff about the irezumi style and the tebori method of tattooing, that is a subject for another day. The following are my list of personal favorites if you are looking to expand your collection and understanding of the style and imagery that shapes how you should approach an authentic looking Japanese tattoo. I will also provide a list of other references for Japanese tattoo style at the end.


Katsushika Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1849 and is the most iconic of the artists in this style. I think it was 2006 when I was last living in Tokyo area that I saw the largest show ever assembled of his work. It took up a whole wing of the Tokyo National Museum and was totally amazing. The only things missing were his collection of Ghost Prints that were at the Chicago Museum. I highly recommend checking out the ghost prints, but the catalog from that show is one of the best one stop sources of his work I have found.



Utagawa Kuniyoshi is another of the more iconic artists of what is known as the Utagawa school. Living from 1797 to 1861, he created one of the most influencial bodies of work for traditional tattooing. This includes a highly stylized collection of mythical animals and creatures of Japanese folklore, as well as a large body of samurai themed images, including the famous Heroes of Suikoden.



Tsukioka Yoshitoshi lived from 1839-1892 and is my favorite artist for a number for reasons. First, he was one of the most famous students of Kuniyoshi, so he is a good reference for the same thematic images that Kuniyoshi did, but Yoshitoshi’s art is still uniquely his own in its style and dark focus. Second, he was one of the few artists that spanned more than one period successfully, living through the end of the Edo and into the Meiji period where he would die clinging to the old way of doing his art in a time when western influence was drowning out the older more traditional methods. Sadly, a lot of traditional knowledge died with him.



Hirose Kinzo, more commonly known as Ekin lived 1812-1876, but is probably considered a bit more obscure than the artists from the Utagawa School, even though he lived into the beginning of the Meiji period. Check him out though, great color and composition.



Once again, these are my personal list of favorite influential artists. There are plenty more if you want to get obscure and really exert yourself finding them. If you are a fan of Japanese tattoo style, what are your favorite references? Who are your favorite tattooers? As always, we love to hear from you.

As promised

If you want to look at actual tattoo artists for references, I highly recommend anything by Horiyoshi III. His art books are amazing and totally tattooable. I am partial to my copy of 100 Demons, but if you want to see some Kuniyoshi influence, he has his own version of the Heroes of Suikoden. He also has a great series of Namakubi or “fresh cut” heads.

For an easier to access artist, Don Ed Hardy is going to be one of your more prominent names in an Amazon search. Check out his 2000 Dragons if you really want some good dragon references. However, he has a number of books of his artwork devoted totally to Japanese art. He has even given lectures on Ukyo-e style.

As far as westerners doing Japanese work go, there are number of really talented folks doing some amazing stuff, but my personal favorite is Chris Trevino. He keeps pretty low key when he is stateside, but he goes on a regular basis to tattoo in Japan. I may be partial to him because I have work by him, but I will say that Horiyoshi III agrees. When I was getting tattooed in Yokohama, Horiyoshi stopped to look at my sleeve work by Chris and asked who did it. When I told him, he simply smiled and said, “I think Chris Trevino is very good tattooer.” I think a thumbs up from the head of a Japanese tattoo family is pretty much as good as it gets as far as validation goes.


Till next time,




  1. The Final Great Artist of Ukiyo-e: Exhibition Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The Museum of Kyoto. Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc.
  2. Hokusai. Tokyo National Museum. Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc.
  3. Gabriele Fahr-Becker. Japanese Prints. Taschen

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