Serpents twist over the shoulder amidst a cacophony of peonies and cherry blossoms; dragons breathe fire across a pectoral muscle; a tiger creeps over an elbow. The designs of Horiyoshi III
, Japan’s undisputed tattoo master, come to life with every twitch and shudder of the skin. Born Yoshihito Nakano in 1946, Horiyoshi III had his epiphany when confronted with a Yakuza
(Japanese gangster) sporting a full body tattoo—or “suit”—at a public bathhouse as a young boy. Inspired, he visited the studio of his later master, Horiyoshi I, for his own tattoo, and subsequently became his apprentice at the age of 25. Now based in the suburbs of port-city Yokohama, Horiyoshi works from a secluded, quiet atelier, crammed with skulls, Japanese Noh
theater masks and even a dragon-print umbrella from Vivienne Westwood. His status as the most respected tattoo artist in Japan is confirmed by his adoption of his master’s honorific title, which he aims to pass down to his son, Kazuyoshi Nakano. “It’s important to remember that ‘Hori’ means ‘to carve,’” says photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd
, who made today’s film about the living legend for NOWNESS. “They are called skin carvers [because the process involves] sharpened bamboo being pushed again and again into the skin, creating gradations like you would in a brush stroke on a painting.” Because of the underworld associations with tattoos in Japan—tattooing was outlawed in 1868 by the Meiji emperor, who saw the practice as barbaric—the designs stop sharply at the wrist and ankle; often a gap is left down the middle of the torso so that clients are able to entirely cover their bodywork, even when wearing a traditional kimono. Horiyoshi for the most part draws the tattoos freehand on the body, using an electric needle for the outlines and traditional bamboo tools for filling in color. “That’s where he shows himself as a great artist,” says Shand Kydd. “Acting on impulse and creating harmony where there wasn’t beforehand.” Horiyoshi considers each symbolic figure, dragon or floral motif as a component of one great masterpiece—for which clients will pay tens of thousands of dollars, making weekly, hour-long visits over the course of several years to obtain an indelible, corporeal artwork.