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Interview

Japanese Tattoo Masters Speak Up on the Complicated Relationship Between Art and Politics

We sat down with Nisacco and Gakkin, two of Japan's most celebrated blackwork tattoo artists today.

by Sharon Shum
13 December 2018, 1:00pm

Photo by Erika Agravante

As tattooing becomes increasingly regarded as a modern art form in its own right, Nissaco and Gakkin stand out as Japanese artists who have earned their place as masters of the blackwork style. Despite perennial stigma against tattoos being a signifier of gang membership, and strict regulations that limit the legal practice of tattooing in Japan, these two artists have successfully developed signature styles that are recognized by enthusiasts worldwide.

Nissaco is known for multifarious compositions, comprising trippy geometric patterns, spirograph swirls and refined line work. Having been the happy recipient of a full sleeve from the artist over three consecutive days, I can attest to his skillful technique and uncompromising attitude as he alternates between needles and perfects every line, ensuring that the ink is driven evenly into the skin, and heals as pure black as it was when fresh.

Gakkin is highly respected for his freehand style. He forgoes stencils to design first and foremost for the human form, and employs the flow and brushstrokes of traditional Japanese painting to depict motifs from nature — clouds, rocks, waves, flowers and creatures, producing works that are dynamic and spontaneous.

While both artists are heavily influenced by Japanese iconography, they imbue their work with an unmistakable levity and playfulness. Nissaco is based in Osaka, and Gakkin moved to Amsterdam with his family in 2016, but the two see each other for months at a time each year to engage in collaborative tattoo projects. I spoke to them at Singapore's first all-encompassing street culture convention Culture Cartel to learn more about their attitudes to tattooing, and their growth from "bad boys" to family men.

VICE: Do you remember what it was like when you first met 18 years ago?
Nissaco: I went to get a tattoo at a shop my friend recommended, and Gakkin was doing his apprenticeship there at the time.

In the two decades that you’ve been in this line of work, what have attitudes towards tattooing in Japan been?
Nissaco: It used to be really bad in the past with a lot of discrimination. It went well for awhile and people saw it in a more favorable light, but in the last five years there was a shift in sentiment and tattooing was recognized as a bad thing again. But from this year it seems as though perceptions are changing again… Just like waves.

Do you think that’s something more to do with the government or people’s mindset?
Gakkin: Society is being controlled by the government, so when the government declares something good or bad, they tend to follow. Japanese society doesn’t really have their own opinion.

Isn’t that changing a bit with everyone on social media?
Gakkin: Honestly in Japan, the adoption is slow and it’s not changing much.

Do you remember the first tattoo you did?
Nissaco: When I was 23, I tattooed a guy’s shoulder. He wanted his girlfriend’s name on it.

Gakkin: I was 18 and still in high school, I tattooed my friend at home.


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So what do both of you see tattooing as today?
Gakkin: I consider myself a craftsman. It’s not the same as just painting or drawing. Tattooing is a tool to express my style and ultimately myself.

Nissaco: I can’t really express it in words. It’s similar to what Gakkin said, but the way I tattoo is just the way I create, so I like to have fun and experiment with it.

What inspired you to start tattooing at that age, especially since there weren’t really that many people doing it openly then?
Nissaco: Young boys always want to do bad things, and tattooing was one of them. So that’s how I started.

Gakkin: Yeah me too. I didn’t dream of becoming a tattooer as a kid, but as a teenager I wanted to be rebellious and started idolizing that ‘bad boy’ image, and tattoos were part of it.

So you’ve been tattooing over the past 20 years and you’ve got to a point now where you’ve become pretty damn good at what you do. How do you keep challenging yourself to improve and get better?
Gakkin: Everyday I have different customers, others might not see the difference but in terms of techniques and styles, I try to channel something new every day through these people. I don’t like to stay on a routine.

Nissaco: I think I’ve definitely refined my own techniques, but I stay humble and remain inspired every day by new works and developments.

What works have you seen recently, maybe by other artists, or even out of the field of tattooing that have inspired you?
Nissaco: I don’t want to end up imitating, so I really try not to look at other tattoo artists’ work. I always get inspired by old art books from Japanese history.

Gakkin: Yeah I also want to stay as original as possible so I try not to look to other tattooers, but of course I work with Nissaco so I learn some new techniques and ways of thinking through him.

If both of you had to sum each other in a word or phrase, what would that be?
Nissaco: As an artist I respect Gakkin a lot, but if it’s one thing to describe him… let’s just say he cannot drink.

Gakkin: Well, he can’t smoke. [Both laugh]

So besides smoking and drinking, what do you enjoy doing when you’re not tattooing?
Gakkin: The time I spend with my family is very relaxing - even if we’re not doing anything in particular, just walking in the park, I treasure that and make time for them as much as possible.

Nissaco: I’m the same. I don’t really have any particular hobby or pastime and after work I just go straight home. The best thing is to be with family.

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Nisacco and Gakkin tattooing side by side at Culture Cartel 2018. Photo by Erika Agravante

Well if you don’t have a hobby, what about tattooing? Is it really all work?
Gakkin: Before I just considered it a job but now I’m more relaxed and I genuinely enjoy doing it, so it’s both.

Nissaco: Up until four years ago I was working in a walk-in shop where I had a boss and colleagues so I felt more pressure like it was my job. But since I started working in my own studio I have more freedom to create and make decisions, so it’s definitely more like a hobby.

When you look at a tattoo, what do you notice first?
Gakkin: Originality, and if there are any ideas that the tattoo artist is challenging.

Nissaco: I don’t only look at tattoos as drawings - I think it’s more important how the artist works with the shape of the body and its parts. What catches my eye is also the coloring and cleanness of the lines.

Is there a favorite tattoo that you have on you own body?
Gakkin: I have five or six tattoos by my daughter [Noko is 9 years old and apprenticing under her father] and all of them are my favorites.

Nissaco: Around the time we just met and Gakkin had his debut as a professional tattoo artist, he tattooed my left arm, and that was very memorable for me.

With more young people today exposed to tattoos, what do you think is the future of tattooing?
Gakkin: It will be increasingly popular everywhere, but I’m unsure about Japan.

Nissaco: As I’m based in Japan, I was pretty surprised by how accepted and widespread it is when I went overseas. But I think for us it is destined to remain as a significant part of underground culture.

This interview was translated from Japanese and has been edited for clarity.

Live Translator: Misa Miyagawa