Evan Senn, KCET Artsbound

May 6, 2014

In the world of outsider art, tattooing has the longest and largest history of any other. For centuries, people all over the world have been pricking their skin with pigments and inks for a multitude of culturally significant reasons. Some cultures originally used tattooing as a healing practice, similarly to acupuncture, like with the Neolithic Otzi the Iceman circa 3300 BCE.

Other cultures used tattooing as a cultural decoration, signifying what tribe or geographic area they came from, while others used tattooing as a means of punishment and criminal branding. The earliest documentation of tattoos were predominantly found in Asian, Polynesian and African cultures, but now, tattoo art spans the cultural communities of every country in the world, with the largest popularity here in the U.S.

Japan is an area with one of the largest tattoo histories in the world, and its indigenous Ainu people even traditionally sported facial tattoos, which later spread to Polynesians and African cultures. It’s difficult to imagine Japan with such an illustrated and supported history in the tattoo world, because in our lifetime, Japan has changed its views on tattoo culture quite a bit.

A once illegal art form, only designated for criminals and gangsters, traditional Japanese tattooing is as rigorous and skilled as any other traditional art form, with intense and arduous apprenticeships and technical learning processes.

The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo area has embraced the Japanese tattooing heritage and wants to engage a wider audience with their latest exhibition of Japanese tattoo art in “Perseverance,” which prominently features seven masters of Japanese tattooing, but also includes many others.

The Japanese word for perseverance is gaman, which translates directly as “patient suffering” or “endurance with dignity, for a purpose,” Takahiro Kitamura, the exhibition’s curator, explained. A perfect description for the art of tattoos, this term not only signifies the act of getting a tattoo, but the dedication of the tattoo movement throughout Japan’s – and Los Angeles’ – rich history.

“People within the community know that it’s actually the last museum we thought would’ve done something like this, just because there is such a long-standing prejudice against tattoos in Japan,” Kitamura said. “So when people came to the United States, they brought that prejudice with them. Especially with the internment and WW2, there is a lot of pressure by the Japanese American community to fit in, or not really rock the boat, or do anything a little strange.

Which ironically ties to when Japan opened to the West in the navy era, they didn’t want to appear barbaric to the Europeans, so they made tattooing illegal. And when they found out European royalty was coming to the West to request tattoos, they made it legal for non-Japanese but not for the Japanese.

So, for the JANM to do it was really progressive, I think Greg Kimura was very brave for doing this. You know, he probably gambled his career on this, but Greg really understands that it’s time for change, and also that the Japanese American National Museum, the internment exhibit is so important, without doing more contemporary things and branching out, people won’t go to the museum. He took a bold step.”

The first literal reference to the term “tattoo” was brought to Europe by the explorer Captain James Cook, when he returned in 1771 from his first voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand. In his narrative of the voyage, he refers to an operation called “tattaw.” Before this it had been described as scarring, painting, or staining the skin. Captain Cook set an interesting tradition for navy men that carried through centuries.

Sailors brought tattoo culture to the United States, from all over the world, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that American tattoo culture really embraced traditional Japanese tattooing as a major style of tattooing. “Perseverance” exhibition designer Kip Fulbeck attributes much of that popularity to Don Ed Hardy, who used his international connections and interest in traditional Japanese tattooing to bring some of the world’s greatest Japanese tattooers to the U.S.

Fulbeck and Kitamura worked tirelessly for two years with newly appointed Director Greg Kimura to create this monumental exhibit at the JANM. Fulbeck’s exhibition design gives insight into the history of Japanese tattooing while also exploring and mimicking the perfection of the Japanese tattoo composition.”When you walk in, I want people to think this feels done, this feels like this person finished this. Like when I show people my back piece, they’re like ‘Oh my god, yeah that’s done.’ I have a goddess of mercy on my back and I remember I could feel when Horitomo was finished, and he waited, and then he took some time just looking over his work. He then simply dotted the eyes, and then that was it. It almost felt like he brought the goddess to life in those last few additions. That’s what I wanted to do, bring the exhibition to life.”

Fulbeck and Kitamura both have connections to many of the renowned artists on display in “Perseverance,” and both felt it was vital to not only explore the rich history of this cultural tradition, but also to reflect the contemporary fusions and Japanese tattoo culture in L.A. as well.

L.A.’s tattoo history is extensive, with being one of the closest ports to the Japanese and Polynesian islands. Traditionally, sailors would get tattoos when they would dock – partly as a means to express themselves, to document where they had been, what they had accomplished, and partly as a means to identify their bodies as their own. Juniper Ellis, author of “Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin” says that tattoo art is one of the most fascinating person practices of art, indicating personal values and objections, helping to express individuality and belonging at the same time.

“Tattoo is a living practice, an art that is a way of life,” Ellis explains. “The patterns embrace the bearer, helping identify the person. In the Pacific that often means working with a well-defined set of motifs to proclaim the bearer’s genealogy and connections to the land and its guardians. Outside the Pacific, that often means a highly individualized creation of patterns and meaning. In both cases, the designs offer a way to make meaning and indicate belonging. They mark the interface between the interior and the exterior, and indicate where the sacred and profane emerge, the personal and political intersect.”

Long Beach still houses one of California’s first tattoo shops, near the Pike, in the port of L.A. Though it has changed owners, it still serves as one of the most notorious shops in tattoo culture, originally called Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, it is now called Kari Barba’s Outer Limits. Sailors may have brought tattoos to California as an outsider, criminal and originally negative art form, but the contemporary tattoo culture in California is one of the largest industries and cultures around.

“L.A. is very important – the West Coast as a whole,” Kitamura says. “There are only three ‘Japan-towns’ in the United States, and I’m sure internment and WWII had a lot to do with that but, the standing ones are San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. And L.A.’s Little Tokyo is the largest one. Plus, you have all these different kinds of tattoos in L.A.; you have all these Japanese nationals and ex-pats that live and work in L.A. creating authentic Japanese work here, and I think also L.A. – and the West Coast in general (not counting Hawaii) – is the closest point for Asian culture to come over.

So it makes sense that we would have a stronger connection to Japan. L.A. is a cultural melting pot and a culture of fusion. It’s funny because you have L.A. brands like Japangeles, brands like Lost Tokyo, and that says something right there. Those two brands alone speak volumes about the vibe in L.A.”

As a melting pot, L.A. is home to all kinds of fusion, and in tattoos, the traditions of Japanese tattooing techniques, style, composition and imagery mix and mesh with Chicano culture more than any other. “There’s a long history of this kind of Chicano-Japanese fusion, and I think L.A. is a cultural melting pot, and we’re just showing how other cultures are adopting Japanese style artwork, modifying it to meet their cultural needs and what not, and I think that’s what happens across the world. Many cultures borrow and fuse with other cultures,” Kitamura explains.

Chicano tattoo culture in L.A. has grown its own style and aesthetic over the years, often fusing with other cultural tattoo work, including Polynesian, American traditional, Japanese and Celtic. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s many tattoo styles in L.A. often revolved around criminal culture, often gang-affiliated, but in recent years, L.A.’s tattoo scene has widen its contextual themes as well as its demographics. Even face tattoos, often seen in the ’80s and ’90s in gang culture – borrowed from traditional Maori and Ainu peoples – now appeals to many alternative youth cultures as decorative additions.

The criminal connotation of tattoos is still heavily prevalent in Japan, with association of Japanese tattooing with the Yakuza mob. Fulbeck and Kitamura both value the importance of de-stigmatizing the Japanese understanding of the tradition of tattooing, but felt it was important to include all aspects of the rich Japanese history of tattoos, including the Yakuza tattoo traditions. “Did I photograph yakuza for this show? Yes, of course I did. But, that’s a very, very small percentage,” Fulbeck says.

“I also photographed professors, engineers, police officers, mothers and fathers. We didn’t want to judge our clients, but to focus on the work. I feel like I am a canvas of Horitomo’s work; it’s not about me, it’s about his work on my body.”We see a mainstreaming of tattoo culture present in many cultures and geographical locations like L.A. the growth of tattoo popularity and mainstreaming parallels that of street art’s resurgence in recent years. Kitamura’s choice of Chaz Bojorquez for the exhibition logo design was purposeful and relevant to this parallel.

“My decision to have Chaz Bojorquez to do the lettering–there were some people that were like ‘Well, why Chaz? He’s not Japanese, and he’s not a tattooer.’ He’s a lettering master, he was born and raised in L.A., he has a longstanding history in L.A., and if you know Chaz’s work, you know that all his lettering stems from Japanese calligraphy,” Kitamura explains. “If you look at a lot of his letters, to me, when I look at a lot of his letters I see Bonji Sanskrit–that sort of stroke power, that sort of elegance. I thought that Chaz’s role being an L.A. native and being an outsider artist was important. When you look at graffiti, they’ve gone through a similar thing as tattooing.”

Street art has had an easier journey into mainstream art world, in part due to its accessibility. “They’ve been more successful in the museum area, because you sell a painting, you can sell a canvas – you can’t really sell a finished tattoo piece of work, even a tattoo photo is very easy to replicate,” Kitamura elaborates. “I think the fine art world’s issue with tattooing is that they don’t know how to market it, they can’t make money on it and they can’t promote it.

But we watched as urban street art changed from gang-related temporary street tags, and we’ve seen that come full circle to where Chaz’s paintings are going for $30,000-40,000 in a museum. So, now we have graffiti artists making very nice livings doing legal graffiti and doing paintings. So, I thought there was a very good connection there.”

The exhibition highlights many different styles of tattooing and the long history of this cultural tradition, but Kitamura wanted to remain relevant and contemporary with his featured artists. The exhibition is definitely aimed at the younger generations of Japanese Americans, but Kitamura and Fulbeck traveled all over the world to photograph the leading artists and their fleeting artworks.

“I purposely didn’t invite some of the older generations, I felt I wanted to focus on what’s here and now, but all the masters are represented through their lineages,” Kitamura said. “You know, Horitsune may be deceased, but his work lives on through Miyazo. I also wanted to show the global nature of Japanese tattooing. We also show people who may not work in Japanese style, but show influence of Japanese work. So not only are people doing Japanese stuff, but they are also using things from Japanese tattooing to make things fit for them.”

Fulbeck and Kitamura both hope this kind of exhibition will spawn more and more like it, hoping to open the minds and hearts of many conservative Japanese, and hopefully exhibit this exhibit or others like it back in Japan. “The big thing is going to be whether it shows in Japan,” Fulbeck says. “That’s going to be the big one. Obviously they see that they’re getting acknowledgement, and praise from overseas, that’s great – but the big thing is if it’ll show in Japan, I think it’s just a matter of time. I think they see other people accepting this and you know, why wouldn’t you be proud of this? It is part of your natural history; tattoos are part of your culture, why wouldn’t you be proud of it?”

“We tried to tackle a pretty large amount of stuff,” Kitamura says. “I think it’s important, and this will actually have a lot of museum and tattoo communities all over the world. I’ve already heard of other museums starting to get tattoo shows in the works. But for me, being a Japanese American and doing a show like this at the Japanese American National Museum was amazing. I think that represented a huge stride forward, and it’s fun too, because at the opening, we had women in their 70s talking to people in full body suits – it’s like racism, it’s hard to be racist when you’re talking to somebody; all that prejudice just drops away – and they’re like, ‘wait, you’re not a gangster, you’re a nice person, you’re a schoolteacher!’ I think that broke down a lot of barriers.”

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