• A photo from Perserverance, Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. (Kip Fulbeck)Source: Kip Fulbeck
A new exhibition shines a spotlight on Japanese tattoo and its often overlooked status as a genuine art form which dates back hundreds of years.
Alyssa Braithwaite

8 Sep 2016 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2016 - 12:36 PM

Tattoos have never been more mainstream or popular. But while tattoo fashion and trends come and go, one style has a history going back hundreds of years. 

Traditional Japanese tattoo has its roots in classic ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the mid 1700s, which were a mass-produced popular art form.

Both woodblock carvers and tattoo artists are known in Japan as 'horishi', meaning 'professional carver'.

The word 'hori' comes from the verb 'horu', meaning 'to carve', and is commonly found in traditional Japanese tattoo names as a marker of the artists' profession.

Sydney-based Canadian tattoo artist, Kian Forreal, is the only Western-born tattoo artist in Australia to have received a tattoo title from a Japanese master: Horisumi.

With 23 years experience behind him, Horisumi has always been attracted to traditional Japanese tattoos, and there is a one-year waiting list at his Sydney studio to be tattooed by him.

"Japanese tattoo has got a rich cultural history - it's powerful, it's strong, it's classic and timeless," Horisumi tells SBS.

"The actual art itself is all based on 17th and 18th century block prints. You can look at a Japanese tattoo done 50 years ago or last week and it still has the same relevance and power. It's not dated."

A new exhibition by the Japan Foundation in Sydney called Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, celebrates the art of Japanese tattoo and its ability to continue to thrive and evolve across centuries and borders.

Curated by Japanese-American tattoo artist Takahiro (Ryudaibori) Kitamura, and photographed by artist and photographer Kip Fulbeck, the exhibition focusses on tattoo works by seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists: Horishiki, Horitomo, Junii, Miyazo, Ryudaibori (formerly Horitaka), Shige and Yokohama Horiken.

Japanese tattoo is distinctive for its dense and extensive coverage of the body, as dictated by its traditional forms.

The exhibition title 'Perseverence' is the closest English translation of the word 'gaman', meaning 'to withstand' or 'to endure', and 'gaman' is central to the world of Japanese tattoo.

Horisumi says, stylistically, there are certain rules that need to be followed with Japanese tattoo.

"There is form and you have to follow rules in terms of seasonal elements, terrestrial elements, what animals go with what flowers, and what flowers go with water or clouds," he explains.

"You can't put certain flowers together because they wouldn't normally appear in nature together - that kind of stuff is very important in the Japanese style.

"So there is a structure that you have to work within to have everything correct, but there's a lot of artistic freedom in how you execute that." 

Horisumi says 80 per cent of his customers are male, and 20 per cent are female, and they want to invest in a nice piece of art for themselves.

He says a good Japanese tattoo takes time and care to produce.

"Say you go for a meal and you want real, good proper cooking, there's a lot of preparation and making stuff from hand and scratch, sourcing ingredients. It takes time and money," he says.

"It's the same with traditional Japanese tattooing - there's a lot of heavy black and it takes time. I mean it comes together beautifully, but it's not quick."

Perseverence: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World runs from September 28 - November 12 at The Japan Foundation Gallery in Sydney. 

Want a side of travel with your tattoos? Watch Booze, Food and Tattoos on SBS On Demand: