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Bushido: Legacies Of The Japanese Tattoo

Reviewing: Schiffer Takahiro Kitamura  |  Rating:
Chris Aahz By Chris Aahz on
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Image for Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo

Takahiro and Katie Kitamura have created a must-have work work on Japanese tattooing. With over 200 new photos of work by Horiyoshi III and text covering every aspect of Japanese tattoo history, this book is a must have for anyone interested in tattoo culture.

The Illustrations

The heart of any work on tattooing is the illustrations and the reader will not be disappointed here. Bushido is filled with more than 200 photographs masterfully taken by Jai Tanju. The photographs not only give an excellent look at the work of Horiyoshi III, but an amazing overview of Japanese tattoo art in general and the ukiyo-e that much of it is derived from.

Since Japanese tattoos are traditionally full-body art, the bulk of the photographs are closeups of various portions of the entire work. My favorites are the full-back piece on Syuichi Kawagoe and the S-curve of butterflies on Rie Shimizu. The demonic face on Mr. Kawagoe's back, extending from the tops of the shoulders to the buttocks, shows just how much can be done with black shading by a true master. While Ms. Shimizu's sprinkling of colorful butterflies drift from her left buttock to her right shoulder blade defining the concept of less is more.

In addition to the photographs there are five original, previously unpublished, sketched by Horyoshi III in the style of those in from his acclaimed work 100 Demons Of Horiyoshi III. These five illustrations alone are worth the $29.95 the book costs.

The Text

Takahiro Kitamura was born in Japan and raised in the United States. Although he first 'discovered' tattoos while attending American high school, his passion bloomed as he researched both his own heritage and that of tattooing. His discovery is our reward as this work successfully compares the culture of Japanese tattooing to the Samurai culture of ancient Japan as depicted in Eiji Yoshikawa's Mushashi.

The first chapter details the history of the Japanese tattoo. Beginning with ukiyo-e, the Japanese art of wood block printing, Mr. Kitamura follows the evolution of the Samurai in art from the mid-15th century to today. He explores the reasons that tattooing has survived severe oppression by the Japanese government and what it meant, and means, to the people dedicated enough to tattoo nearly their entire body.

In the remaining four chapters, Mr. Kitamura takes us along on his journey first to meet Horiyoshi III and then to become his student. The relationship between the tattoo master and client, which often becomes a lifelong bond, is explored as is that of the master and apprentice. The final chapter explores the differences between traditional Japanese tattoo culture, American tattoo culture, and the hybrids that are being developed on both sides of the Pacific. The first person insights here cannot be found elsewhere.

My only problem with the book is that it could use a better editor. While not rife with typos, there are to many for my tastes as well as a few structural issues that an editor could have dealt with better.

Personal Experiences

Since reading Bushido I have had the opportunity to meet with Horitaka (the name Mr. Kitamura tattoos under) as it turns out he is from my own hometown. I am honored to be having him do a piece covering my left arm. In person he is both friendly and professional. His love of and respect for Japanese tattoo culture is evident, as is his knowledge of the subject.