Monday, July 8, 2013


This is one I've been working on the last year at a fairly regular pace and don't think I've posted here before, so I'll just skip some of the progress shots and reports and get to it...
It's one of those unique, wonderful, and surprisingly more common situations where a client with no tattoos comes in that has done a fair amount of research on their own and decided to do a very large scale cohesive Japanese style piece for their first ever tattoo.
When we first spoke at our initial consultation, all he brought in was a printout of this amazing and well known image from Kuniyoshi, and told me that's what he wanted, and it was going to be a backpiece...

...pretty much a dream scenario as a tattooer.  He'd done his homework, brought in a single amazing piece of reference, understood it's meaning and connected with it on a personal and aesthetic level.  He told me that's exactly what he wanted, but I was free to tweak it if I was so inclined.  Doesn't get any better than that.
As I looked into other images of Oniwakamaru tattoos (the childhood name of the famous warrior monk Benkei, who's history and exploits I won't even get into here, but you should really click that link and get a sense of why he is such a famous and respected warrior) it became fairly clear that this Kuniyoshi image was by far the most used reference point (and for very good reason).  There are several backpieces of this exact composition, and my idea was to base it off of this print, but do it slightly different and change the dynamic a bit.  In the original, the giant carp is curled downwards, swirling under Benkei, who is upright lunging down with a dagger from above, positioned in the opposite direction.  The interaction of the subjects has a very yin yang type balance to it...together they form this very flowing perfect circle of action.  
My idea was to try and streamline the interaction...have everything rushing down in one direction, trying to add some velocity and movement to the composition.  I tweaked the fish so instead of swimming back underneath him,  it is powering downwards, head up, and Benkei's legs are firmly planted around him as if he's riding him down the river.  And the dagger instead of being perched high about to strike, is in line with the downwards diagonal flow kind of trying to emphasize that forwards motion and show some control on his he can kill him whenever he feels like it.  Not that my take is in anyway better or more interesting than the original, it's just my attempt to put a slight tweak and new direction on a classic image.
As far as the tattooing...
The first session (shown in the first photo above) was his first tattoo experience ever, and he sat for I believe a four or five hour outline...quite a welcome the world of being tattooed.  He did great and was/is highly motivated to keep it going and push forwards.  The initial piece was finished in less than a year, and as soon as it was, he wanted to start the back ground.
Over the last few weeks we've been drawing on the frame around the main piece with the goal of going onto the arms once it's done.  We started under one armpit and are going down that side, across the butt and up the other side (and not too far down the thighs for now as he's planning on more images and going down the legs eventually)...

The last session, we outlined up the rest of his left side and across the top of the shoulders and even got to some shading.

Even though we'll be going onto the arms we've decided to cap off the background around the shoulders like that so that it can be a stand alone traditional looking piece until we dip down and start the sleeves.  And in hopes it will look complete as a backpiece and ready to be photographed for a very special museum show on Japanese tattooing (which I was incredibly honored to be invited to be a part of) that will be coming up pretty soon and I will be providing more info on when I get some free time...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Karashishi and Peonies (#2)

Another really fun piece I've been working on and am getting very near to completing...
I've been absent from updates for the last year, so we'll just skip ahead to where we are now.  This has been done over the course of a few 2 to 2 1/2 day in a row sessions, as he's traveling quite a ways to come get tattooed and we're doing our best to maximize the time together (and it certainly helps that he sits like a rock and is able to endure that many hours in a short amount of time...especially with a style of tattoo like this that is so thick and dense).
We actually did his other arm about a year ago with a similar schedule...four trips total I think.  It was also a karashishi (or foo dog as it's more commonly called) and peonies that you can see here.  I was really into it, as it was his first ever tattoo and he chose to go with a large traditional themed piece (as well as just being very into the subject manner).  It's slightly more common these days, but still fairly rare that a first time client with no tattoos puts a bunch of research and though into images and artist selection, and commits to starting their tattoo life with a very involved piece and even having thoughts of large cohesive coverage in the future.
As we were winding up his first arm, he mentioned wanting to get going on the next one.  I was happy that he was ready to keep going, and super into his idea of keeping the theme together with another shishi and more peonies.  
Firstly there's the uniform look.  I really admire the restraint of not wanting to do another animal or motif on the other side in favor of the pair.  Shishi are often seen in pairs, mostly as statues or architectural elements guarding the entrance to Shinto shrines.  The idea was to try and do a visually balanced set as sleeves.  On the first arm the shishi is blue (cooler color), facing upwards, and has its mouth open (more aggressive looking).  On this new arm, it's tan (warmer color), facing downwards, and has its mouth closed (calmer looking).  Sort of a yin yang kind of thing, and they're making eye contact with each other when the arms are lined up together.  I also tried to get some of the background elements to match up a little (without being overly deliberate) when the arms are together, so it also has a feeling of one large tattoo split between two arms.  It's been a great reminder to me that when laying out a tattoo to think of the body as a whole, not just these separate pieces that won't go together if the client decides to start connecting everything (which so many inevitably do, and wished they had planned further ahead).
The other reason I was so excited to start this new side is that the design and feeling of the first was still so fresh in my head.  It's very cool and unique to do a set of sleeves with a matching theme one right after the other.  Myself and the tattooer friends I do have are constantly striving to improve and evolve, so what I do in a year or two from now will look similar to, but hopefully slightly different than what I'm doing now.  I'm often looking at past work and thinking about what I could do to improve it or what I might have changed.  Getting to do both these pieces at the same time gives them the strongest chance for aesthetic uniformity, and I'm hoping lays a good foundation for the backpiece he wants to start next...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fudo Myo-o

Well I think I might finally be ready to get back to this blog. It's been a very non stop last year with a new baby, moving to a temporary space for six months then setting up the brand new studio (which I couldn't be happier with...), and travel and reoccurring hand and back issues and basically just trying to keep up with life...
I've definitely still been maintaining a full tattoo schedule through it all and getting to focus on some really fun and interesting new projects.  Near the top of the list is this new backpiece of Mr. Fudo Myo-o.  This has definitely been the heaviest piece I've done in a long time.  Fudo has certainly been a popular Japanese tattoo motif for a long time (especially for a full back) and the more I started my preparations for the piece, and the more of a connection and understanding I formed around him, the more I can see why.  And as a side note I have to say...I really do admire and appreciate it when a client wanting a large "traditional" style Japanese piece goes with one of the "classics".  I think that a a lot of times people can have a desire to try and modernize some of these traditional themes, either by throwing several of them together to form more of a collage, or some how tweaking out or adding their own spin on it to make it more literally symbolic of their personal life.  Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with this at all, just realizing more and more that I'm straying away from wanting to blend themes and genres.  I think it's better to approach the image selection in a slightly more abstract way, understanding that no one picture can sum up your whole being.  It generally serves to water down the overall impact and strength of the tattoo.  I think this is truest of a backpiece, which has the most visual impact of any tattoo on the body.
I've always hoped to do a Fudo backpiece, and it's been a  fun, but fairly intense process getting it all together.  Firstly, he's a Buddhist icon, a protector deity in esoteric Japanese Buddhism, which lends a pretty serious air to it right up front.  Neither the recipient nor myself is a practicing Buddhist, so on one level I am fairly sensitive to wanting to do the image justice (not to mention in it's on a fellow tattooer).  I do believe though that it is possible to tap into the energy of the image and deity itself during the drawing and tattooing...and being respectful to its origins and importance to a lot of people, it's entirely appropriate to wear this kind of image as a Westerner, as it is a visual metaphor of some core human values that many of us strive for.  There is a very long and rich history of the origins of Fudo Myo-o iconography that I won't even bother getting into here, but I'd highly recommend checking out the book Immoveable by Horitomo.  It is by far the most comprehensive book on Fudo in English you can find (not to mentioned it's packed with beautiful art work by Horitomo).  Or check out for quite a good deal more information.
Basically deity images and symbols are a focal point of esoteric Buddhism, and there can be many rules and guidelines as to what needs to be included in the design (everything from number of knots in the hair, to which way the teeth are facing and many many more, each with a specific symbolic reason)...that, as well as just trying to make it a good drawing that will work well on this specific body and there's plenty to wrap your head around.  
Fudo is a particularly interesting image as he is total balance of ferocity and compassion (again, I highly recommend doing some more reading on the subject).  One thing I've really been realizing that I'm trying to achieve in my own tattooing is a balance between power and subtlety.  Something that has immediate visual impact and strong composition, but isn't too heavy handed and has a bit of finesse and detail as well.I feel like this piece is aesthetically and symbolically a real opportunity to try and find this balance and I'm really honored to be able to try my hand at this powerful ancient image...
P.S.  The above photos are the first three sessions in order.  
1.  Outline the main figure minus the rope in his left hand (just didn't look right in the stencil).
2.  Draw on flames and begin to outline them as well as new and improved rope hand.
3.  Finish drawing and outlining the flames on the right side and line in the pattern (8 pointed wheel) on the lower robes.