Madison Wade, NBC Los AngelesWatch Video

May 17, 2014

The work done at Onizuka Tattoo is painstaking

As one may expect from any form of tattoo procedure, the feeling is painful but the people who endure this say it is worth it for every colorful, square inch

“Taka has a real gentle touch,” says client Paul Norlein as he lays on the table and gets ready for the new addition to his tattoo

The work done at Onizuka is traditional Japanese tattoo art

One craftsman, a man named L.A. Horitaka carefully inserts green ink beneath Paul Norlein’s skin. In this Little Tokyo basement Horitaka visually changes Norlein’s entire body one prick at a time

Horitaka uses a technique called Tebori as he works by hand with a long needle instead of using a machine

Artists say Tebori is better for subtle gradations of color and detail

When the work is all over Paul Norlein will have a body suit that will go all the way down to his ankles

For thousands of years, Japanese practitioners have done it this way, turning human bodies into living, breathing canvases. Takahiro Kitamura is the curator to a special exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum called “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” just blocks away from Onizuka Tattoo

Kitamura showed us how the artists tell elaborate stories, with an attention to detail as unique as the body shapes they encounter

The themes range from classical Japanese mythology to religious symbols to the beauty of nature. The practitioners often spend years working under masters

Then, they must develop special relationships with their clients like Horitaka did with Paul Norlein. Kitamura says, “these types of tattoos aren’t done overnight. They take, oftentimes, months or years to complete”

They also cost thousands of dollars

The commitment to this art form is life-long, like much in the culture from which it sprang

CEO of the Japanese American National Museum Greg Kimura says, “Art is long; life is brief but this particular form of art turns that on its head. It only exists as long as its wearer is alive, and there is something very deeply Japanese about that sensibility”

Interestingly, the country that produced this stunning visual artistry, and many of the artists themselves, does not embrace it the same way people do in the west

Ironically, tattoos are heavily stigmatized in Japan as people often associate tattoos with organized crime

People can even be fined for showing such designs in some public places but it is that shadowy aspect that sometimes attracts its aficionados

Jiro, the owner of Onizuka Tattoo says, “I have been tattooing for twenty years, so I don’t know, it is like my life already”

There is still an underground feeling as Horitaka says, “In Japan, sometimes, I feel like I am doing illegal things, but here, people call us artists”

To highlight the artistry, Kitamura hung kites near the museum ceiling and at a distance elaborate graphic designs appear to be printed on them. But by looking closer one is able to realize that they are photos of tattoos on skin not on a canvas

The photographer and designer of the exhibit, Kip Fulbeck says, “These tattooers are not trying to fill every inch with ink. There is a kind of quietness to the work. It is never overdone”

After thousands of years, Japanese tattoos are finally getting the recognition they deserve at least in cultures outside of Japan

And if you have the time, the endurance for pain and the money, you can be part of this world too

Paul Norlein says this art is special

“I could have bought paintings or sculptures or something, but this is art that stays with me… and goes where I go,” Norlein said.


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