“I do this because I love tattoos. It’s just my thing. It’s an art.”

Takahiro Kitamura, also known as Horitaka, one of the premiere Japanese tattoo artists of the Japanese Horiyoshi III family, came to UCSB Monday to speak to a packed Girvetz 1004. He was invited by Art Studio 4D Professor Kip Fulbeck to enhance his class lecture on “art of the body.”

“I brought him here because this lecture is on the art of the body and tattooing is often the bastard child of art and I don’t believe in high art or low art and this definitely fits in,” Fulbeck said.

Fulbeck met Horitaka about six months ago while doing research on Japanese tattoos. “I’ve been researching tattooing for a few years and was reading his books and realized that he’s doing work in the U.S. So I flew up to San Jose and met him. I presented him with my card and everything, I did it totally in a professional way for work and we just got to know each other. He came to one of my shows and it’s turned into this whole symbiotic relationship. I see him as just a great artist.”

This was only the second time Horitaka has lectured; the first time was to a group in Italy. “That was different, a lot easier. I was up on the stage and, of course, nobody knew what I was saying so I had these two translators, so there was this lag time. It gave me time to think about what I was going to say.”

Although the lecture was for Art Studio 4D students, Fulbeck asked his students in the previous week’s lecture to invite their friends and anyone else interested in Japanese tattoos.

Senior art studio major Gakumei Yoshimoto is not in the class but came to the lecture to see Horitaka because it was something different than the usual art lecture. “It was great. I’m an art studio major and it was great to see far east style art because it’s not something you usually see,” he said. “It’s a great learning experience.”

Horitaka grew up in Davis and got a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz. He said his bilingual abilities and his college education helped him in his work with the Horiyoshi III family. He is one of a small group of Japanese tattoo artists not originally from Japan.

“We don’t think people should be excluded. We think idiots should be excluded, but we don’t exclude non-Japanese people. We have a German guy in our family. It’s kind of cool to have a white guy in your family, it’s like it means you’re international.”

He said he got interested in Japanese tattoos as a kid watching Japanese shows on T.V.

“I’ve been enamored with tattoos since I was really young,” Horitaka said.

He said he got his first tattoo in high school. It was done at his parents house “just fucking around with friends.”

In 1998 he became a client of Horiyoshi III. He went to Japan to receive the tattoo (you have to write a letter requesting that he do them) and got to know Horiyoshi III well. Eventually, Horitaka was invited into the Horiyoshi III family. The family is a group of apprentices chosen by a Japanese tattoo master to learn from him. They work together, even if they live in different countries, and represent the family at conventions.

“I was just floored when I first went to Japan because people would bow before the tattoo and after the tattoo. They give so much respect to the tattoo artist. I mean, you’re trusting this person so it’s probably a good idea.”

He said that being in a family is different from working in a regular American tattoo shop. Once you join a family you are expected to remain loyal to it and to work and behave for the best interest of the family.

“The restrictions that get me are that if I go to a convention and there are other Japanese there I can’t talk to them. There’s a whole hierarchy,” he said. “But it’s a small price to pay for what I’m learning.”

Horitaka learned the technique of Japanese tattooing from Horiyoshi III in Japan and has incorporated it into his work in the U.S. Traditional Japanese tattoo artists use a needle attached to a long stick or stainless steel rod that either has a well for the ink or is dipped in Sumi, black caligraphy ink that must be ground fresh daily. The Horiyoshi III family uses both modern tattoo machines and traditional needles that are altered to allow the needles to be changed for sanitation.

Symbolism is very important in Japanese tattooing, and Horitaka tries to keep that in mind with his tattoos. In the Horiyoshi III family, special attention is paid to the seasons as well as the symbolism, although Horitaka said he will give a client any tattoo he or she wants, regardless of symbolism.

“On the one hand it’s tradition and on the other it’s art. A proper tattoo, according to my master, should have the proper symbols and seasons, but not everybody needs a proper tattoo.”

Horitaka said he keeps a sketch book of tattoos he would like to do in the future and that sometimes he practices on grapefruits.

“I’ve gotten to a point in my career when people are very trusting of me, heaven knows why.”

He said the first time he did a Japanese tattoo, he did it to himself.

“If you’re going to do shitty work on someone else, you should have that on yourself too,” he said. “I hate these guys that don’t have any tattoos themselves but tattoo other people.”

He said that while he has a lot of tattoos of varying quality, other people should be careful when choosing a tattoo artist and when making the decision to get a tattoo, especially since tattoos change over time.

“I personally don’t give a shit what I look like. I’ve got a lot of shit tattoos, like I’ve had friends that don’t tattoo do tattoos on me. But I’m not endorsing it. Have it done right.”

Horitaka said the Japanese have been tattooing since around 3,000 B.C. The Japanese may have used tattoos to identify criminals, sometimes tattooing them on the forehead. Evidence of this is shown in Japanese woodblock prints.

“Tattooing was reserved for the lower classes. Samurai would never have gotten tattoos, even though there are lots of tattoos of Samurai,” he said.

He also discussed tattoos on Japanese firemen. He said they often got tattoos of dragons because they are supposed to protect against fire.

“They were rough and tumble guys, not like our firefighters today. They lived the ‘live fast, die young’ kind of lifestyle. A lot of them died in their early ’20s like our wild west heroes like Billy the Kid.”

Before the end of World War II and U.S. occupation of Japan, tattooing was illegal in Japan. He said the stigmas attached to tattoos in Japan are being lifted, in part because of its growing popularity in the U.S. He said that Japanese teenagers are getting English words tattooed on their arms like Americans are getting Japanese calligraphy tattooed on themselves.

“Whether they admit it or not, [Japanese people] are definitely being influenced by the West. They’re realizing that [tattoos are] not just a thug thing.”

Horitaka said the increasing popularity of tattoos both in Japan and in North America has led to the fusion of Western and Japanese styles. He said this can sometimes lead to conflict with people who think their idea of what is traditional should be preserved. His master, Horiyoshi III, worked in the U.S. for several years before working in the traditional Japanese style.

“Some people may even say my master isn’t traditional because he’s so detailed, but it may be he’s just better. Art always evolves.”

Horitaka is the author of three books on Japanese tattooing, two of which – Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo and Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-E Motifs in Japanese Tattoos – have been published. The third has yet to be published.