The tanuki is an animal found mainly in Japan, as well as other parts of Asia. It’s sometimes called a raccoon dog in English, and is related to wolves, foxes, and domestic dogs, and has a vaguely raccoon-like appearance.
While the tanuki is a real animal, it is usually depicted as a creature with magical powers in Japanese folklore. It’s usually seen wearing a straw hat, holding a bottle of sake, with a large belly, happy or mischievous facial expression, and extremely large testicles (which, according to legend can stretch large enough to create sails for a boat).
Tanuki’s are mischievous creatures and enjoy playing pranks on humans and tormenting them. One way they do this is by transforming themselves into happy looking Buddhist monks, then mocking and imitating the humans during ceremonies to both confuse and delight.
They also enjoy transforming into tax collectors or police officers and showing up at peoples homes at odd times, accusing them of made-up crimes or pressuring them into paying additional or fraudulent taxes.
As a tattoo tanuki are usually done in a traditional Japanese style, sometimes accompanied by flowers or other creatures. Neo-traditional and black and grey are also popular styles for tanuki, and are sometimes only shown as a happy face instead of the full body.
Hyottoko and Okame are an endearing and comical pair of peasants that have been a part of Japanese folklore for centuries. They are two of Noh theatres most beloved characters and both are portrayed using very stylized masks.
Hyottoko is a male character with an oddly shaped face, prominent cheeks that are red from drinking too much sake, with one eye larger than the other, pursed lips, and a white handkerchief with blue dots tied and knotted around his head and under his chin.
He is a kind peasant spirit who according to legend could remove gold from his navel and spit fire through a bamboo tube that he always brings with him. This tube is also why he is usually depicted with pursed lips as though perpetually ready to blow fire through his tube. He is also described as a drunkard who enjoys dancing and parties. The handkerchief around his head is also a nod towards him being a drunk as toothaches were common from drinking too much.
Okame is a female character (also sometimes called Otafuku) with a smiling face and large cheeks. She also has white makeup and red lips, in the style of a geisha.
She is meant to bring happiness and enjoyment, and also embodies the ideal of feminine beauty. Okame is also often associated with geishas because of her playful nature and more silent and secondary role in theatre and folklore.
Chris is known for his notable work in two main styles, Japanese and traditional old school, with some black and grey or black work versions of both styles thrown into the mix.
Chris’ Instagram is full of both large and small scale work, including back pieces, full sleeves, one-offs, and job stoppers.
His work is crisp and detailed, and you can tell how much pride he takes in his work by spending only a few minutes looking through his portfolio. Much of his work takes direct influence from woodblock Japanese artists as well as old school tattooers from the 19th-20th centuries.
If you’re able to make the trip to Norway or are lucky enough to live in Europe where it’s easy to travel between countries, Chris is a must see artist.
Kintaro (literally translated as “golden boy”) is Japanese mythology’s equivalent to Hercules.
Despite being called golden boy he’s usually depicted as red-skinned. He is also always seen as quite a young boy, very muscular, squat, and usually either naked or covered by only a loincloth type material.
According to legend Kintaro was raised by an ogre in the mountains, and his feats of strength are just as well known in Japan as Hercules’ are in most Western countries. Kintaro defeated a bear and an eagle at the same time, uprooted a massive tree to form a bridge over a river, and most famously wrestled a giant koi fish into submission.
It is this last image of Kintaro wrestling the giant koi that is most often seen in tattoos. Utagawa Kuniyoshi most famously painted that specific image and made it popular for tattoo collectors.
Though Kintaro is a famous legendary figure, scholars believe he is at the very least based on a real person. The real Kintaro was most likely the son of Sakata Kurando, one of Emperor Suzaku’s bodyguards in the tenth century. Sakata’s wife Yaegiri was apparently a very beautiful woman, but when Sakata committed suicide after losing the Emperor’s favour, she took her son Kintaro to remote Mount Ashigara to raise him among animals, spirits, and mythological creatures. Here he gained powers of strength and was able to communicate with and control animals, and Yaegiri became a sorceress. Kintaro also eventually gained a powerful weapon, the very axe the god of thunder Raijin used.
Information found in the book “Japanese Tattoos: Meanings, Shapes and Motifs” by Yori Moriarty.
Rich Handford is a tattoo artist working out of Kapala Tattoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has owned the shop since 2003 and has a great team working at the shop, and his own experience as a tattooer dates back to 1999.
Rich specializes in Japanese but also does great neo-traditional and occasional American traditional work. On his Instagram page you’ll find mainly colour work, but if you’re in the market for a piece without colour Rich can handle that for you as well.
Rich’s portfolio is full of mainly large scale work such as sleeves and back pieces, but if you’re looking for something smaller he can take care of it.
Fukushi Masaichi (1878-1956) was famous for his interesting and macabre collection of human skin, specifically tattooed human skin. Dr. Fukushi was a Japanese physician, pathologist, and professor of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. He was studying moles and movement of pigmentation in human skin, which is how he became interested in tattoos; more specifically Japanese bodysuits. This interest led to him collecting tattooed human skin after people died (with their permission).
Dr. Fukushi worked for a long time at the Mitsui Memorial Hospital in Tokyo, which mainly helped the poorer and lower classes. At the time, these classes were largely the kind of people who were also getting tattooed in Japan such as gangsters, construction workers, and other day labourers.
The doctor had such a fascination and interest in tattoos that he even paid for some people to get full bodysuits, or to finish existing work on the condition that he could harvest their skin when they died.
This fascination also lead to him forming friendships with his tattooed patients, and helped form the Tattoo League of Japan. The League would meet in public bathhouses to show off their body art to each other and the doctor.
Don Ed hardy is one of the few lucky foreigners to have seen the collection in 1983 at the invitation of Dr. Katsunari Fukushi, Masaichi’s son, who also continued the collection. At the time there were over 3,000 photographs of tattoos, over 100 tattooed human skins, and notes and records from Masaichi.
Moon Cheon is a tattoo artist working out of Kodzunak in Seoul, South Korea. Cheon, tattoos traditional Korean motifs in various styles.
Most of Cheon’s work is done freehand in a more loose style that closely resembles an ancient Chinese style of painting called “Xieyi” or “写意.” This is mostly used for landscape paintings, and Cheon follows this style by applying this technique to land and waterscape tattoos, often including free flowing rivers and flowers.
Cheon also does delicate black and grey tattoos of Korean and East Asian animals, mythical creatures, and Gods and Goddesses.
While much of his work is delicate and beautiful, he also doesn’t shy away from blood, gore, and violence, in the form of severed heads, and Japanese ghosts and demons (yōkai and yūrei).
If you live near Seoul or are passing through, Moon Cheon is a must-see artist.
Hong Kong, a fascinating city with an equally fascinating history and culture. Tattoos are becoming more and more popular as they enter into the mainstream, making it hard to walk around the downtown area without spotting a tattoo either on a tourist or a local. But for a long time tattoos were seen as something only for criminals, mainly the triads (the Chinese mafia that also operates in Hong Kong and Taiwan among other places).
While tattoos of course existed in the area long before the 1940’s, the first official tattoo shop wasn’t opened until 1946 by the famous James Ho (father of Jimmy Ho). James Ho was a Shanghainese marine engineer in the navy in 1940 and was sailing on a ship in the Indian Ocean when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo. James was lucky and survived by clinging to wreckage and was picked up by an American warship and brought to Calcutta where he first came in contact with tattoos; hand poked tattoos to be specific. James brought his new passion home to Shanghai where he made a machine from bike chains and other spare parts. He fled Shanghai towards the end of WW11 because of political conflict and went to Hong Kong, where he opened the first shop; Rose Tattoo Studio. James had seen mainly old school tattoos on sailors, so that’s what he brought back both to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and why old school Hong Kong tattoos follow similar tropes of hearts, flags, pin-ups and more, all with thick bold lines and vibrant colours. The shop did very well, mainly working on those in the Navy during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Along with these American designs, tattooers in Asia were adding imagery such as dragons, koi, and tigers, among other culturally significant iconography.
To keep up with the high demand, James took on four apprentices; Ricky Lo, Pinky Yun, Benny Tsoi, and Swallow, and later eventually his own son, Jimmy. Jimmy started officially working for his father at the age of 14 after already tattooing clients after hours from around the age of 12. His mother didn’t want him working there but he insisted, and when he showed his father James the earnings, he was finally gifted two tattoo machines of his own. Pinky eventually moved to the US in the 70’s and became very popular after first working with Ricky at “Ricky and Pinky Tattoo”, Benny has a shop still in Hong Kong run by an apprentice (his daughter also tattoos and runs her own shop), and Jimmy’s shop is also still being run by an apprentice in Hong Kong.
When business declined for all tattooers in Hong Kong after the Korean and Vietnam wars, tattooers were working more and more with triads. Only a “大佬” or, “boss” could get tattooed then, and some of the main designs included dragons on the arms or back, or eagles on the chest. Now triads are tattooed less and less, similar to the yakuza in Japan. But when they do opt to get tattoos they are more likely to get them in mainland China where they are significantly cheaper.
Apart from gangsters, the most common people getting tattooed from the 70’s-90’s were construction workers and truck drivers. These developed their own kind of style which consisted of only an outline without any shading, often because they would run out of money. As long as you could tell what the design was supposed to be, it was good enough.
Hong Kong style is also compared to Japanese, particularly for full bodied work with backgrounds such as waves and clouds. This is largely due to Japanese tattooers visiting Hong Kong, and vice versa. For example, James’ son, Jimmy Ho was visited numerous times by Horiyoshi in the 1990’s. Jimmy then borrowed Japanese ideas of tattooing but made them his own.
Today, artists such as Marcus Yuen and Samantha Fung, both working out of 59 tattoo alongside other great artists, and Dave Ryo Lau working out of The Company Tattoo, are all keeping Hong Kong style tattoos alive by continuing to tattoo in the unique style. Marcus in particular works hard to keep Hong Kong style tattoos alive by also sharing information about the old legends, and many historic pictures on his Instagram account.