Custom Tattoo machines

December 7th, 2010 in Tattoo — Tags:

Tattoo machines built by myself from parts consisting of custom Patina Binders, Paulo Fernando Frames, Custom coils wrapped in Vietnamese Bills, with foreign chemical worn coins for rear spring washer. Check out the details in the pictures.

Essay on Tattooing

December 3rd, 2010 in Japanese,Tattoo

Tattoos are viewed differently where ever you go. Some places they are loved and adored as pieces of art – some view them as tradition and have deep cultural roots. Then there are those who cannot tolerate them.

History of Tattoos

I won’t go in depth about why people cannot tolerate them, it’s evident and undeniable (Even Otzi, a 5,300 year old mummy from the Copper age has tattoos throughout his body) that every native culture and peoples have developed their own form of tattooing and tattoo art. Although along with these beautiful peoples, traditions, and cultures they have all been lost. The spread of Western ideals such as Christianity and early European attitude of it being a barbaric practice – although this attitude of barbarism didn’t just apply to tattooing, but also of these natives’ other practices, religions, and lifestyles.

Face tattoos of the Maori people

Today’s tattooing may not represent the cultural and traditions of our native heritage but there are still many artists and collectors (of tattoos) that honor these endangered traditions of our ancestors that have been eroded or destroyed by Western and Religious fanaticism. This is my mindset when it comes to Tattooing. The style I choose as my favorite is the traditional Japanese tattoos of the Edo Period.

Tattoos and Ukiyo-e in the Edo Period

Tattooing during the Edo period (1600-1868 AD) in Japan represented many things. With tattooing came hours and hours of pain, for those who could endure these hours of pain showed strength – and only those of wealth were able to afford these full body tattoos. So in this period tattoos represented strength and wealth – it was a status symbol shared only by few. The style of prints during this time was Ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world” – woodblock printing allowed artwork to be easily distributed to even the common people. These prints and motifs had a huge influence in Japanese tattooing, the artist that drew these prints did not print them but instead took them to someone who specialized in making these drawings into woodblocks to be printed. These same people who engraved these woodblocks became some of the first tattoo artists, they would take the prints and engrave them – only this time on skin.

I want to bring tattooing back to it’s roots – being a beautiful piece of our heritage and culture. I specialize in Japanese motifs and hope to bring as much influence to Japanese Tattooing as the first woodblock artists did.

The non-permanence of Tattoo Art

April 27th, 2010 in Tattoo

When we think of tattoos we think of their permanence, as art tattoos are fragile and once the ink is inserted under the skin by the artist the life span of the tattoo is only as long as the person who wears it.

Faded tattoo

In comparison to other forms of art like sculptures, oil paintings, etc. which can last hundreds of years (although sculptures erode and paintings crack from age and the elements they can be preserved and restored.

Sailor Jerry
Sailor Collins Jerry

With the popularization of traditional Americana and Japanese styles from artists like Ed Hardy, Sailor Jerry, Horiyoshi III, and Filip Leu it has become easier now than ever to find traditional designs but this leads to the skewing of these designs and their meanings (Non-sailors wearing nautical tattoos like swallows, knots, and anchors).

Sailor Jerry Flash

Tattooing has always been an elite club, it was not till the last couple decades we saw tattooing becoming legalized where it once wasn’t – with mass appeal came the eroding of traditional values of the tattoos, creating trends and fads. Some see this as a good thing (More money into the industry) but as far as values and meaning of the art created it hurts tattooing. This post is not intended to tell the masses not to get tattooed but to raise awareness to its customs.

On the bulletin board… Wild Cat Flash!

April 26th, 2010 in Flash,Japanese,Tattoo

A traditional Japanese and American style piece of flash line work. Features a “Wild Cat” Tiger.

Review of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: The Life and Times of Norman Keith Collins

June 25th, 2009 in Tattoo

I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry “My work speaks for itself” at Tribeca Cinema (An amazing venue itself), a documentary of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins’ life and pioneer in traditional American tattooing.

The film is mainly about Sailor Jerry’s life, how he was influenced, the few people who influenced him, and those he influenced (Don Ed Hardy was one of his proteges, and Hardy was also in the film). This opens a wide spectrum of people, mainly tattoo artists who speak about their memories and times with Sailor Jerry. He was crude, cocky, and bold – and his attitude was reflected in his work. He regarded tattoos as the ultimate rebellion against “the Squares”.

“Aloha Monkey” Design by Sailor Jerry

The film speaks of his time in the Navy where he traveled abroad and his interest in traditional Japanese tattooing. From this he incorporates the traditional Japanese elements into American styles, and revolutionizing tattooing. The best way to describe Sailor Jerry is that he’s like Forest Gump, he goes through huge historical movements and is involved in them, including both World Wars. This is where his importance comes in, not just as a pioneering in traditional tattooing but in history. Sailor jerry would tattoo all the sailors coming in during World War II, the movie points out the fact that these sailors had 48 hours to get a prostitute, drink, get tattooed then shipped off to die somewhere in the Pacific (“Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed.” – Sailor Jerry).

Not much is written about Sailor Jerry’s life, he corresponded mainly through letters, he was against speaking in public about tattooing, and doing interviews. So how this movie plays out his life is through old tattooing buddies, those he mentored, and friends – As you can guess, most early tattooist had very “colorful” and sharp attitudes and senses of humor which made the meat of the film, and made it the most enjoyable. Just imagine crazy old time tattoo artists retelling stories of an even crazier buddy, and you’ll get the sense of amusement I got from this film. Norman Keith Collins was an elusive person, and this film contains a lot of significant details of both him and tattooing.

Despite Sailor Jerry’s rough sailor attitude and old school rough tattoo artists, this film was edited beautifully. The DVD comes out this fall (2009). Visit the movie’s official site:


Origins of Japanese Tattoo artists

April 24th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

I’ve written much about tattoos and popular motifs in Traditional Japanese tattooing, although I’ve never discussed the people responsible for these works of art. The beginning of Japanese tattooists developed from the practice of punitive tattooing, where bands (around the arms or legs) or characters were tattooed as punishment.

Punitive tattoos

This was called Irezumi or “The insertion of ink”, this term has negative connotations because of it’s use as punishment and on criminals. Although these Irezumi tattooist were inserting ink into the skin, they were not tattoo artists.


To understand how the first tattoo artists came to be we must understand how Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating world, woodblock prints, see my post on “Rules of the Japanese tattoo” for more insight) prints were done. There were many craftsmen involved in the process of creating Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but the main ones that were involved were the artist who did the drawing and woodblock carver who took the artist’s design and carved it into the woodblock. The artist would get much of the royalties from the prints sold, combined with the people of the Edo period looking for individuals to tattoo popular woodblock designs (see: Water Margin’s Popularity in Japanese tattooing) they turned to craftsmen already familiar with the designs and with manual skills. This allowed an opening for these woodblock carvers to become the Edo period’s first tattoo artists.

Traditional Japanese tattooing tools

Opposed to the word “Irezumi” to describe decoritive tattooing the Carvers called tattoos “Horimono” meaning “carved object”, and the prefix “Hori” which is adopted by Traditional Tattoo artists into their names means “To carve”.

Water Margin and it’s impact on Japanese Tattooing

February 26th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

The story “Water Margin” or sometimes referred to as ”The Outlaws of the Marsh”  or in Japan as the “Suikoden” (The latter which spun off to many TV series, films, and a line of video games.) is a story I’ve mentioned before on my blog. It is without a doubt one of my favorite epic novels, epic because it is usually seen in 4 volumes and consists of about ~2500 pages. It was written in China around the 16th century.

The story was about brotherhood, chivalry, honor, and virtue – despite it being a story of 108 bandits (That lead an army of bandits) these men (and women), although many of them not the stereotypical “good guy” as we see today in action movies or in westernized novels, they have killed, stole, and beaten but why they are seen as heroes is because they were driven to become bandits by corrupt officials that surrounded the Emperor (We see the same theme in another Chinese Epic, Three Kingdoms). Despite the Liangshan Marsh bandits’ (The Liang Mountain is where the bandit’s hideout stood) fights against the Imperial army, the bandits were loyal to the Emperor because they still believed that the Emperor was appointed by god and they wanted to be pardoned in order to serve the emperor (Loyalty and honor to the Emperor).

So why is the Chinese story of the Liangshan Marsh bandits so important to Japanese tattooing? When the story was brought over to Japan it was immensely popular and many were inspired by it’s characters who showed such virtues such as honor, loyalty, and brotherhood. The story starts off with one of the most well known Characters, Shi-Jin, or “Nine Dragons Shi-Jin”, called by this name for the nine dragons he had tattooed all over his body. His father was a wealthy farmer and when a military instructor (who was on the run from the officials after they had framed him) was seeking food and shelter at the estate where Shi-Jin lived. On the day of him leaving, the instructor saw Shi-Jin with his clothes tied down to his waist and body of dragon tattoos training with a staff, telling the young man that his technique was flawed and that the old instructor could beat him in a match. They fought, the instructor easily overtook Shi-Jin in strength and technique – this was the beginning of Shi-Jin’s story. Shi-Jin goes off and fights bandits who were harassing the villages around his – he gains fame throughout the land and becomes a popular character instantly.

Popularity with characters like Shi-Jin from Water Margin is what helped stir the tattoo craze in Japan, after reading the story many young men had the desire to cover their bodies in elaborate tattoos such as the ones Shi-Jin and Yang-Qin (The Prodigy, who was “porcelain” skin was tattooed).

Sagacious Lu, from Water Margin. Known as “The Flowery monk” for his Flower tattoos

Why were so many bandits covered with tattoos? When a punishment was issued and one was to be exiled the town/village where the criminal was exiled to was tattooed on them. In order to cover these “criminal tattoos” the criminals would then get larger and more elaborate japanese tattoo designs to cover them. Going from being inspired by the Bandits of the story and obtaining body suits just like the ones the Outlaws had, with the release of Kuniyoshi’s “Heroes of the Suikoden” a series of prints that illustrated much of “Water Margin”.

Kuniyoshi print of Yan-Qin “The Prodigy”

With Kuniyoshi’s series of the “Heroes of the Suikoden” came not only copying the tattoos the outlaws of the Marsh wore but also tattoo designs of these heroes themselves. Even today getting a Nine Dragons Shi-Jin or print from Kuniyoshi’s series tattooed is often seen. It is amazing how a story such as this can impact people, and how the virtues of those bandits are still honored today.

Snake + Lotus flowers Tattoo pt. 1

January 20th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

I decided it was time for a new tattoo. My choice was the snake. Snakes in the west are usually deemed as evil and cunning. But in the East the snake represents rebirth and the cycle of life because of it’s shedding skin. The lotus was chosen because of it’s background in Buddhism, it’s representation of all elements.

Borrowing from Hinduism, in Buddhist symbolism the lotus again represents purity of the body, speech, and mind as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. It is also to be noted that most Buddhist, Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, amongst other Asian deities are often are depicted as seated on a lotus flower. According to legend, Gautama Buddha was born with the ability to walk and everywhere he stepped, lotus flowers bloomed.

The rules of the Japanese tattoo

December 8th, 2008 in Japanese,Tattoo

Now for those who are not familiar with Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the floating world) art work – the work from this era is the most popular for Traditional Japanese tattoo artists. These include popular motifs that are often echoed throughout the genre, popular tattoo designs such as Koi fish, Cherry Blossoms, Dragons, and maple leaves.

Kuniyoshi’s print of Nine-Dragons Shi-Jin

from the story Outlaws of the Marsh

I’ve spoken about the historical, cultural, and traditional significant of tattoos in my essay about tattoos because it is so deeply rooted in belief there are many rules of tattoo motifs. In Thailand, Buddhist monks tattoo prayers and images called Sak-Yant. The spirituality and belief behind these tattoos are so powerful that when animals are tattooed on people they are believed to have that animal’s spirit within them. Once tattooed with a Sak-Yant yantra, people believe that they cannot be harmed and gain protection through them – although for these yantras to work, the wearer must follow Buddhist code such as not speaking ill of your mother or father, no alcohol/drugs, and the list goes on with rules that probably would seem silly to us, but have cultural significance there (Such as not walking under houses – which in those areas are often on stilts, and having such immense power of the Yants it is deemed dangerous for the house).

A Sak-yant tattoo in Khmer Script.

Now the lifestyle rules to wear a Sak-Yant tattoo is nothing compared to the rules of a Traditional Japanese Tattoo. I was recently asked by Justin D…

“I know there are certain rules about certain plants not being able to be paired with certain animals. Can a chrysanthemum be paired with a dragon? This is a personal tattoo question. Looking to continue a 3/4 sleeve with and existing dragon to a full sleeve, and thought the chrysanthemum would be badass. My tattoo artist says he hasn’t seen any chrysanthemum paired with dragons but is not certain.”

In response to Justin D – Well the rule isn’t a hard-line rule. It’s not so much that the flowers are paired with certain animals and others not. It’s that the flowers represent the seasons.

Cherry Blossoms + Peonies = Spring/Summer
Chrysanthemums + Maple leaves = Fall/Winter

So think of the flowers representing the seasons. Koi fish only swim upstream during the fall, so you can pair them with Chrysanthemums + maple leaves (Koi fish spawn during the Fall, so Koi fish with Maple leaves are also common motifs). So rules like this applies – You have to think what animals do not come out or do certain tasks they perform at that time of the year that is coordinated by the flower you choose.

The myth behind Koi fish is that when they swim upstream and make it to the top they transform into Dragons. So since the dragon is not a real animal (As far as I’m aware of) it’s hard to link it’s behavior to seasons (We don’t know if Dragons come out in the winter or summer) but we can link Dragons to Koi fish, since the Koi transforms into the Dragon. So knowing that Koi fish swim upstream during the Fall and often paired with Maple leaves the Dragon is usually paired with the spring/summer flowers. Although because there are no rules saying dragons are not out during winters – Thus being able to be paired with Maples or Chrysanthemums.

Picture of Dragon paired with maple leaves

signifying the fall.

Other traditional Japanese rules in tattooing is the clouds and waves rule. Often Traditional Japanese tattooing means a full body suit – with central images linked by backgrounds of waves and clouds. The rule is that above the waist clouds should be used, this signifies the sky – while below the waist waves should be used, signifying the ocean. This rule is often overlooked, and quite easily. Imagine wanting a Koi fish on your arm (Above the waist) although most often they are done with waves behind them – this motif would be incorrect (It isn’t unusual to see Kois with cloud backgrounds).

Full body tattoo by Horiyoshi III

Above the waist w/ cloud background

Another rule I came across is tattooing deities and Buddhas. These important icons often are on shrines that are high up, this is because these icons are “above” us. It is disrespectful to tattoo a Buddha below the waist, they must always be tattooed above the waist.

These images may look beautiful and pretty, behind them is a complexity of knowledge, rules, superstitions, and motifs that need to be followed.

New tattoo machines welcomed to the family

December 6th, 2008 in Tattoo

Check out this set of machines I just recently purchased from Da Van, builder from Chicago, he makes some sexy looking machines.

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(c) 2016 James Then