The Japanese as a culture has long been noted for its appreciation of beauty, but that does not necessarily extend to the art of tattoo.
While tattoo is considered an art form almost everywhere around the globe, it is associated with organized crime by the Japanese and is illegal in many places in Japan. However, Japanese tattoo traces its origins directly to woodblock prints that were first seen in the country in the eighth century and that lineage is part of the story of the exhibit, “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World,” at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles through Sept. 14.
The show looks at Japanese tattooing and its ties to ukiuyo-e prints, as well as the practices and relationships of Japanese tattooing in the United States and Japan today. Visitors will see work by artists such as Horitaka, Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii and Yokohama Horiken.
“These are artists who completely devote their lifetime to this craft, which our title is from, gaman. Perseverance is the closest definition of the word gaman, which is the idea of you constantly push and you constantly work and you constantly fight,” said Kip Fulbeck, the designer and photographer of “Perseverance.”
Fulbeck, a professor of art at UC Santa Barbara and a portrait photographer, also is the creator of The Hapa Project, a multiracial identity project that includes a book, photo exhibits, community presentations and an online community. He grew up in Covina and has tattoos by Japanese tattoo artists Horitaka, Horitomo and Horiyoshi III.
Greg Kimura, chief executive of the museum, asked Fulbeck to explore tattoo as an art form for a solo exhibition. Fulbeck was happy to design and shoot the show, but suggested Takahiro Horitaka Kitamura help with its curation.
Kitamura is an author, a tattoo artist and the owner of State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose. He realized that a show on tattoos was a risk at the Japanese museum, which has had exhibits on internment, war and similar issues in the past. And then there is the negative attitude toward tattoo.
“The older generation of Japanese Americans and most Japanese hate tattoos and it’s because they were raised with the notion that it’s only a Mafia thing; it’s a stereotype.” Kitamura said. “But this is the American experience and Japanese Americans are a part of America.
“Even with this show, we branched out a lot. We have people from every walk of life, every race, ethnicity and culture, just to show this common interest in Japanese tattooing.”
“Perseverance” features photographs, artifacts, such as hand and machine tools, woodblock prints and silk kites emblazoned with photographs of tattoo designs. It took Fulbeck and Kitamura two years to bring the show to fruition.
Kitamura decided to focus on work by current artists. He wanted to show their wide range of styles, from traditional to edgy, and how they all trace back to the masters of the art form.
“While I didn’t call any of the old masters, they are all represented through their lineages,” Kitamura said.
For “Perseverance,” Fulbeck had to become a documentarian, capturing the tattoos as accurately as possible. For this, he employed the use of his Phase One camera, which is bulky, but technically highly advanced.
“The traditional way of shooting a tattoo is to have the model or client stand with their back to you and to either wear nothing or a fundoshi, which is a wrap (undergarment),” Fulbeck said. “That was really stressful to me because I couldn’t hide behind my photography skills, I couldn’t hide behind my composition or aesthetic, my relationship with the client or the lighting. Everything had to be technically accurate.”
Kitamura pushed for clean, simple images of the tattoos, but Fulbeck knew that the majority of people visiting the exhibit would not be versed in the art and legacy of Japanese tattooing, so dozens of photographs only of tattoos and serious models could be overwhelming.
“We had to have some candids in there,” Fulbeck said. “We had to have some personality. We had to have some close-ups of just parts of the tattoos that give the newer viewer a bit of breathing room, a bit of interest that isn’t a visual assault.”
For guidance, Fulbeck looked to the tattoo artists’ work. The pieces are not overworked and have depth and space, just like their woodblock counterparts, he said. So Fulbeck applied the same practices to his photographs, as well as to the exhibit’s overall design.
He is pleased with the result because when visitors enter the gallery, they tend to lower their voices, as if they are in a sacred space.
“I like the wow factor,” Fulbeck said. “Tattooing is everywhere in L.A. and most of it is pretty bad. This work is at a completely different level than what you typically see. We’ve set a very high standard.”
Kitamura especially likes the first photo on the left of the entrance of the exhibit. It features a client of Yedis.
“He looks like he came out of a ’70s Yakuza (mafia) movie and it’s amazing because they don’t dress like that any more,” Kitamura said. “He’s got the Rolex and the pompadour and it’s such a great look.”
“We have some clients that we photographed that are Yakuza, we also have clients that are police officers and school teachers and lawyers. It’s all walks of life. That’s what I want people to see, that it’s not all one thing. Tattoo is universal now.”
PERSEVERANCE: JAPANESE TATTOO TRADITION IN A MODERN WORLD
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday-Sunday and noon-8 p.m. Thursday through Sept. 14.
Where: Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles.
Tickets: $9, with discounts for seniors and students. Free admission noon-8 p.m. on May 15 and other third Thursdays of the month, and free admission 5-8 p.m. every Thursday.
Information: 213-625-0414; www.janm.org.
The following events will be held in conjunction with “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World:”
Workshop: “Traditions and Craft in Japanese Moku-hanga,” create woodblock prints with master printer Paul Mullowney and learn the history of ukiyo-e prints, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. May 31, $60, includes supplies and gallery admission, registration required.
Talk: Tour of “Perseverance” with photographer Kip Fulbeck and curator Takahiro Kitamura, 11:30 a.m. June 21, free with admission, but advance registration required. Repeated 11:30 a.m. Aug. 2.
Film lecture: Artist Junii discusses the tattoos in “Bakuchi-uchi: Ippiki Ryu (The Dragon Tattoo)” and shows clips from the movie, 2 p.m. Aug. 2. Free with gallery admission; advance registration required.
Q&A discussion: “Perseverance” artist and contributors Kip Fulbeck, Takahiro Horitaka Kitamura, Chris Horishiki Brand, Chaz Bojorquez and Brian Kaneko will hold an open conversation about their work and tattoos, 2 p.m. Aug. 23. $15, includes gallery admission; advance registration required.
Information: 213-625-0414; www.janm.org.
Follow Michelle Mills on Twitter: @mickieszoo