It’s early evening and the wind is picking up high above the Northern shore of Maui on the slopes of Haleakala Crater. Blue skies quickly darken, casting a shadow over the sprawling green lawn sprinkled with blue-violet hyacinth.
There are just a few minutes before the night’s event and the Makawao visual arts center, Hui No’eau, is already inundated with people. They’re here for “Wood Skin Ink: The Japanese Aesthetic in Modern Tattooing,” a series of lectures, symposia and workshops that ran July 29-31 examining the influence of Edo period motifs—Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, themes and icons—on the modern tattoo movement.
Small clusters of people form. A British abstract artist mingles with a Kauai tattoo shop owner; a Honolulu newspaper publisher talks to a tattoo artist from San Francisco. It’s an immersion of the world of fine art with that of the dubiously titled “lowbrow” ink slingers.
“So are you due to have more tattoos?” asks a demure woman with cropped salt-and-pepper hair. A well-dressed man in his 40s talks animatedly about skin art trends in various regions he’s visited.
“When I was in east L.A., it was all black and gray styles,” he says. “To me, they’re all collective parts of the whole experience. I had my head tattooed when I was a kid in New York. It’s a predatory place, so I wanted to look tough.”
To the right of the gallery shop, under a white awning with rounded white columns, a group of five guys stand around waiting for the conference to begin.
They’re all dressed in dark clothing, the colored contours of tattoo-covered arms and calves peeking out from rolled-up sleeves and shorts. The young men talk while watching the clouds gather overhead.
“There are scenes that Kuniyoshi [Japanese Ukiyo-e Printmaker, ca. 1797-1861] did that never happened—”
“Yeah, but they look cool.”
Down a small flight of stairs past the gallery, the crowd files into a large white tent furnished with a projection screen and rows of chairs. John Lofgren, the Hui’s Executive Director, jovially addresses the crowd.
Immediately, almost as if a knee-jerk reaction, the crowd responds accordingly.
“We are here to celebrate and be part of this incredible exhibition,” says Lofgren. “I must admit, I feel a little naked. My arms are bare and my, well, you know…”
The crowd laughs.
“I’d like to introduce the person who made it all possible, a young kid from Minnesota—Paul Mullowney,” says Lofgren. “I’m gonna give him a lei now and if you’d all just blink for awhile, I’m gonna give him a kiss. It’s the tradition.”
Mullowney, head of printmaking and Program Administrator for the Hui, then thanks main conference speakers and guests, Don Ed Hardy and Roger Keyes—the leading master of American tattooing and the leading authority on Edo period woodblock prints, respectively.
Keyes begins the slideshow “virtual gallery tour,” taking the audience through the exhibit, piece by piece. He mentions a concept he calls “The Three T’s”: emphasizing the premise of “tradition, creative transformation and transmission, or the passing from artist to artist,” in understanding the scope of Japanese tradition and contemporary art.
As he flips through projected images, Keyes explains the stories behind the various themes in Kuniyoshi prints—fictitious heroes of Chinese novels, esoteric Buddhist deities, Kabuki actors—themes which are repeated in the tattoos of specific characters. Often, there are tattoos within the tattoos of these traditional images.
“You don’t just copy the art,” Keyes says. “You find a deep understanding of what the artist did.”
And the stories are always dramatic. “The Flower Priest” is a madman, a drunkard, tattooed with flowers, who smashed a statue that wouldn’t answer him. A “Water Merchant” hero loses his temper and is thrown in jail, only to get out and become a fugitive after he murders his father-in-law who was intent on goading him to do it. Then another of a magician who created a plague of rats, and one of a guy who is tattooed with a monkey, rips out his hair as each strand turns into another monkey.
Keyes, a thin man with a crown of silvering hair and an open, friendly face, effortlessly tells story after story of fantastic creatures and animals of power. There’s “the Story of the Lion… Dragon and Bats… next… Tigers, lots of tigers in Korean paintings… next… Look at how the color red plays around the picture—you can read it for the reds, blues, greens… next…
“These are fun, very intelligent artists—visually, intellectually, culturally,” says Keyes. “There’s a sense of playfulness… next… You have to look at this for a while—there’s a tattoo of a hawk or an eagle, with a carp swimming up his robe. It’s so energetic. It’s like the artist asked, ‘How can we have more fun?’… next…”
At this point, Hardy steps in.
“I was so disinterested in all this when I first started,” says Hardy. “Ukiyo-e made me mad. I knew there was something there but wasn’t ready to face it.”
But then Hardy goes through subsequent slides to show how Ukiyo-e artists layer colors and stories within stories, how they simplify the theme to carry the energy of what the image is about.
“These prints keep imploding,” Hardy says. “And your appreciation just grows with time… next…”
Another theme is ghosts and goblins and scary things.
“Horiyoshi’s… uh… committed to his art,” says Hardy. “They say he put his own blood into some of his paintings. There’s horror, menace and playfulness in this supernatural stuff.”
Widely attributed with introducing Asian art to the Western tattoo world, Hardy says he’s interested in breaking down the strictures of Japanese art, and doing something new with his own.
“This [dragon image] is from the late ‘80s, maybe ’90,” he says of one slide. “It was for back pieces for these rockabilly guys in Tokyo—now available on T-shirt in the gift shop. Support the Hui!
“Tattooing is a transformative art,” he says. “If you’re going to get a tattoo and feel better about yourself, art and your place in the world, then that’s great. Fitting art on a body or with other tattoos sometimes takes you in new directions of design you wouldn’t have thought of. And sometimes, it just drives you crazy.”
After the virtual gallery tour, we’re led outside to an area in front of the Hui solarium. A Hawaiian kapuna greets us, inviting the crowd to join in a blessing of the exhibition. As a light breeze cools the fine mist of rain on our skin, the kapuna talks of the relationship between tattooing, the cold air and our presence on the grass.
He asks us to “respect this place so that all tattooing of cultures can become new art here to Hawai’i.” He talks of tattooing as “the art of spirituality.” He also talks of past kings who were tattooed, and the difference between warriors and soldiers. He chants: “Ho’omeheu makaku—stomp your foot! There’s a footprint here of cultures.”
He drops flowers into the small pool in front of the Hui, and asks Mullowney, Keyes and Hardy to turn around and face the building. “I want to shake up this gallery! Say ‘E’o! I am here!’” The three men do as instructed. Kapuna concludes his blessing. “Okay, koukou, guys—let’s go eat!”
Inside the gallery, next to the banquet of sushi and skewers of chicken, western civilization’s venerable Godfather of Tattooing sits alone at a small table. Don Ed Hardy appears as an everyman—a pleasant-looking man of 60, wearing a colorful shirt, black pants and burgundy sneakers. Both arms covered with tattoos, he has a cane by his side and is adorned with the requisite VIP lei. A blonde woman in her 40s wearing a bright yellow suit approaches. She beams at him, leaning down to speak.
Off to the side, a pretty Asian woman in a pink tank top and Kanga beret, her right arm tattooed from shoulder to wrist, talks to a similarly tatted young man with dreads.
The room is full of snakes and pinups—arms, legs and necks covered with Japanese finger waves, koi fish, dragons and lotuses. A glimpse of kanji symbols on a hand here, a flash of tribal design on a foot there.
Keyes talks of book publishing with Takahiro Kitamura, one of the conference speakers and apprentice to one of Japan’s leading Tattoo Masters, Horiyoshi III of Yokohama. Two guys discuss the process of woodcut prints in Japan. Everywhere in the room, talk turns to new ideas for tattoos. A local artist wants to go home and draw. A visiting artist yawns happily.
“It’s great to see some really awesome people not on the bill—like that guy over there, Adrian Lee. He’s really, really good.”
“I’ve already seen a lot of these prints,” says Lee. “I just came to hear Don Ed Hardy and Roger Keyes speak. Plus I had frequent flyer miles and needed a little vacation.”
“This is a once in a lifetime thing,” says another artist from San Diego. “I don’t think you’ll hear these people at the same time and place again.”
A special panel discussion is taking place in the white tent. Hardy and Keyes are joined by Kitamura and Chris Treviño, a conference speaker and highly respected Japanese-themed tattoo artist from Texas. The group is explaining the tradition of art in Asia…
Hardy: It’s about tracing things, following patterns—and it’s very set from thousands of years ago—transmitting it and then maybe transcending it. There was no shame in that.
Keyes: The challenge for artists is not how to do a Japanese cherry blossom but how to make those “katas” your own.
Kitamura: When I first started working with Horiyoshi, he said, “When you get home, trace all my books” and I was like, “Blecch! I’m an artist—I don’t trace!” And he was like, “You little shmuck—I’ve been tracing for years.” Learn your master.
Keyes: The main thing is to go out and look at things—don’t draw, just look, go back to the studio and then draw. Then go back and look. Get to know your subject well.
Hardy: It’s about your perception of reality—attempting to get into the core spirit through imitating those forms, katas, the cherry blossom. When you get the fact that they’ve codified these things, it’s like learning a language… It becomes more profound, so hypnotic… That’s what’s attractive about the Asian tradition—not just picturing but perceiving the world and your place in it. They see it, they have that shock of recognition and it sucks you in, feeds your spirit that, in a way, no other art does. As you know more about the iconography, it gives it more meaning. It’s a swell hobby!
Kitamura: There’s that movie with Tom Cruise—The Last Samurai—everyone asked me if I saw it, and I was like, “Of course not.” But there’s this romanticized, idealized notion that attracts us to this culture—in theory it takes you to a time where you want to believe those ideals existed.
Treviño: When I first saw tattoos when I was a kid, they were ugly and green. But when I saw the squid that Ed did in ‘73, that’s when I knew to use the needle as a paintbrush.
Kitamura: When these stories came about—this was not a culture that had therapy or psychology. They had myths and stories to deal with it. There was a whole take Japanese had on alcoholism…
Hardy: There’s a romanticized sense of heroics and high drama—a crossover of samurai warrior with Western gunslinger—that factors into tattooing. It’s about dramatizing your life, that sense of going for heroic gesture, strength, valor. It’s high time that Japanese tattooing received the same respect, attention and documentation.
Kitamura: The Japanese tattooing world is about speaking out in constructive ways… a sort of working class revolt.
Hardy: It boils up from the passions of humanity.
Kitamura: There’s a lot of amuletic use of tattoos, too. Like, I won’t tattoo a ghost on someone unless I can balance it with something else.
Keyes: We’ve been talking about Buddhist images, but in the supernatural tradition of shamanism in Japan, the basic principal is everything is alive—another is there’s an invisible world. The way artists bring that into the perceptible world of pictures—a powerful work of art, archetypal forces, and a sense of forces right here that people need/want/don’t want to be in touch with.
Get to the truth through the falls. Have respect for what you’re doing, the subject matter, the invisible forces—the sense of something really important going on here. It might transform you—who knows? It’s not just a story and not just a picture—it’s something that’s happening in eternity.
These things keep opening up more and more there, like Don said. Those of you who are artists have probably felt that. In no other art world have I felt [this] than in Japanese culture. To the degree I can let the story go—let it be larger than life—is the degree I can become larger myself.
I’ve been reading the HP [Lovecraft] books—very Faustian about having power. It’s all about fear and self-preservation. Japanese is not based on that construct. It’s the role of art in Japanese tradition to suggest not that it’s impossible but the compelling reality of the skill in your drawings that makes whatever it is come alive in your art. The essence of life is right there. It’s at the heart of what it is to be a human being. We don’t know what it is yet, but we’re just going to keep on truckin’!
On the last night of the show, the gallery room that exhibits Edo period works is dark and quiet. People walk through, staring in awe at the woodcut prints of the 17th to 19th century “Danshichi Kurobei: Heroes, Actors and Warriors,” and speaking in hushed whispers.
“They really tell a story-”
“What is this on? Rice Paper?”
“Wow! This is from 1867!”
A blonde woman in her 40s says, “It’s made me want to get a tattoo and I’ve never been into tattoos!” Her companion laughs. Nearby two tattoo guys talk about a Treviño print.
“I really like this because it’s super similar to the Horiyoshi III designs,” says the first guy.
“Oh, you mean like those?” The second guy walks over to the black and white prints on the adjacent wall.
Rebecca Salter, a conference speaker and Professor of Art from London’s Camberwell College of Arts, is busy signing a print for a young fan. Don Ed Hardy and Chris Trevino are at another table signing posters. The air is electric.
I walk outside. Three gray-haired men are talking by the host bar.
“You’re kinda old for pimples, aren’t ya?” says one. “Did ya go to the doctor?”
“Roger and I are gonna get flies tattooed on the end of our dicks,” says another. “Wanna watch?”
The exhibition “Wood Skin Ink: The Japanese Aesthetic in Modern Tattooing” will show at the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center through Sept. 25. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. For more info, visit www.huinoeau.com or call 808-572-6560 ext. 34. MTW