Monday, July 8, 2013


This is one I've been working on the last year at a fairly regular pace and don't think I've posted here before, so I'll just skip some of the progress shots and reports and get to it...
It's one of those unique, wonderful, and surprisingly more common situations where a client with no tattoos comes in that has done a fair amount of research on their own and decided to do a very large scale cohesive Japanese style piece for their first ever tattoo.
When we first spoke at our initial consultation, all he brought in was a printout of this amazing and well known image from Kuniyoshi, and told me that's what he wanted, and it was going to be a backpiece...

...pretty much a dream scenario as a tattooer.  He'd done his homework, brought in a single amazing piece of reference, understood it's meaning and connected with it on a personal and aesthetic level.  He told me that's exactly what he wanted, but I was free to tweak it if I was so inclined.  Doesn't get any better than that.
As I looked into other images of Oniwakamaru tattoos (the childhood name of the famous warrior monk Benkei, who's history and exploits I won't even get into here, but you should really click that link and get a sense of why he is such a famous and respected warrior) it became fairly clear that this Kuniyoshi image was by far the most used reference point (and for very good reason).  There are several backpieces of this exact composition, and my idea was to base it off of this print, but do it slightly different and change the dynamic a bit.  In the original, the giant carp is curled downwards, swirling under Benkei, who is upright lunging down with a dagger from above, positioned in the opposite direction.  The interaction of the subjects has a very yin yang type balance to it...together they form this very flowing perfect circle of action.  
My idea was to try and streamline the interaction...have everything rushing down in one direction, trying to add some velocity and movement to the composition.  I tweaked the fish so instead of swimming back underneath him,  it is powering downwards, head up, and Benkei's legs are firmly planted around him as if he's riding him down the river.  And the dagger instead of being perched high about to strike, is in line with the downwards diagonal flow kind of trying to emphasize that forwards motion and show some control on his he can kill him whenever he feels like it.  Not that my take is in anyway better or more interesting than the original, it's just my attempt to put a slight tweak and new direction on a classic image.
As far as the tattooing...
The first session (shown in the first photo above) was his first tattoo experience ever, and he sat for I believe a four or five hour outline...quite a welcome the world of being tattooed.  He did great and was/is highly motivated to keep it going and push forwards.  The initial piece was finished in less than a year, and as soon as it was, he wanted to start the back ground.
Over the last few weeks we've been drawing on the frame around the main piece with the goal of going onto the arms once it's done.  We started under one armpit and are going down that side, across the butt and up the other side (and not too far down the thighs for now as he's planning on more images and going down the legs eventually)...

The last session, we outlined up the rest of his left side and across the top of the shoulders and even got to some shading.

Even though we'll be going onto the arms we've decided to cap off the background around the shoulders like that so that it can be a stand alone traditional looking piece until we dip down and start the sleeves.  And in hopes it will look complete as a backpiece and ready to be photographed for a very special museum show on Japanese tattooing (which I was incredibly honored to be invited to be a part of) that will be coming up pretty soon and I will be providing more info on when I get some free time...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Karashishi and Peonies (#2)

Another really fun piece I've been working on and am getting very near to completing...
I've been absent from updates for the last year, so we'll just skip ahead to where we are now.  This has been done over the course of a few 2 to 2 1/2 day in a row sessions, as he's traveling quite a ways to come get tattooed and we're doing our best to maximize the time together (and it certainly helps that he sits like a rock and is able to endure that many hours in a short amount of time...especially with a style of tattoo like this that is so thick and dense).
We actually did his other arm about a year ago with a similar schedule...four trips total I think.  It was also a karashishi (or foo dog as it's more commonly called) and peonies that you can see here.  I was really into it, as it was his first ever tattoo and he chose to go with a large traditional themed piece (as well as just being very into the subject manner).  It's slightly more common these days, but still fairly rare that a first time client with no tattoos puts a bunch of research and though into images and artist selection, and commits to starting their tattoo life with a very involved piece and even having thoughts of large cohesive coverage in the future.
As we were winding up his first arm, he mentioned wanting to get going on the next one.  I was happy that he was ready to keep going, and super into his idea of keeping the theme together with another shishi and more peonies.  
Firstly there's the uniform look.  I really admire the restraint of not wanting to do another animal or motif on the other side in favor of the pair.  Shishi are often seen in pairs, mostly as statues or architectural elements guarding the entrance to Shinto shrines.  The idea was to try and do a visually balanced set as sleeves.  On the first arm the shishi is blue (cooler color), facing upwards, and has its mouth open (more aggressive looking).  On this new arm, it's tan (warmer color), facing downwards, and has its mouth closed (calmer looking).  Sort of a yin yang kind of thing, and they're making eye contact with each other when the arms are lined up together.  I also tried to get some of the background elements to match up a little (without being overly deliberate) when the arms are together, so it also has a feeling of one large tattoo split between two arms.  It's been a great reminder to me that when laying out a tattoo to think of the body as a whole, not just these separate pieces that won't go together if the client decides to start connecting everything (which so many inevitably do, and wished they had planned further ahead).
The other reason I was so excited to start this new side is that the design and feeling of the first was still so fresh in my head.  It's very cool and unique to do a set of sleeves with a matching theme one right after the other.  Myself and the tattooer friends I do have are constantly striving to improve and evolve, so what I do in a year or two from now will look similar to, but hopefully slightly different than what I'm doing now.  I'm often looking at past work and thinking about what I could do to improve it or what I might have changed.  Getting to do both these pieces at the same time gives them the strongest chance for aesthetic uniformity, and I'm hoping lays a good foundation for the backpiece he wants to start next...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fudo Myo-o

Well I think I might finally be ready to get back to this blog. It's been a very non stop last year with a new baby, moving to a temporary space for six months then setting up the brand new studio (which I couldn't be happier with...), and travel and reoccurring hand and back issues and basically just trying to keep up with life...
I've definitely still been maintaining a full tattoo schedule through it all and getting to focus on some really fun and interesting new projects.  Near the top of the list is this new backpiece of Mr. Fudo Myo-o.  This has definitely been the heaviest piece I've done in a long time.  Fudo has certainly been a popular Japanese tattoo motif for a long time (especially for a full back) and the more I started my preparations for the piece, and the more of a connection and understanding I formed around him, the more I can see why.  And as a side note I have to say...I really do admire and appreciate it when a client wanting a large "traditional" style Japanese piece goes with one of the "classics".  I think that a a lot of times people can have a desire to try and modernize some of these traditional themes, either by throwing several of them together to form more of a collage, or some how tweaking out or adding their own spin on it to make it more literally symbolic of their personal life.  Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with this at all, just realizing more and more that I'm straying away from wanting to blend themes and genres.  I think it's better to approach the image selection in a slightly more abstract way, understanding that no one picture can sum up your whole being.  It generally serves to water down the overall impact and strength of the tattoo.  I think this is truest of a backpiece, which has the most visual impact of any tattoo on the body.
I've always hoped to do a Fudo backpiece, and it's been a  fun, but fairly intense process getting it all together.  Firstly, he's a Buddhist icon, a protector deity in esoteric Japanese Buddhism, which lends a pretty serious air to it right up front.  Neither the recipient nor myself is a practicing Buddhist, so on one level I am fairly sensitive to wanting to do the image justice (not to mention in it's on a fellow tattooer).  I do believe though that it is possible to tap into the energy of the image and deity itself during the drawing and tattooing...and being respectful to its origins and importance to a lot of people, it's entirely appropriate to wear this kind of image as a Westerner, as it is a visual metaphor of some core human values that many of us strive for.  There is a very long and rich history of the origins of Fudo Myo-o iconography that I won't even bother getting into here, but I'd highly recommend checking out the book Immoveable by Horitomo.  It is by far the most comprehensive book on Fudo in English you can find (not to mentioned it's packed with beautiful art work by Horitomo).  Or check out for quite a good deal more information.
Basically deity images and symbols are a focal point of esoteric Buddhism, and there can be many rules and guidelines as to what needs to be included in the design (everything from number of knots in the hair, to which way the teeth are facing and many many more, each with a specific symbolic reason)...that, as well as just trying to make it a good drawing that will work well on this specific body and there's plenty to wrap your head around.  
Fudo is a particularly interesting image as he is total balance of ferocity and compassion (again, I highly recommend doing some more reading on the subject).  One thing I've really been realizing that I'm trying to achieve in my own tattooing is a balance between power and subtlety.  Something that has immediate visual impact and strong composition, but isn't too heavy handed and has a bit of finesse and detail as well.I feel like this piece is aesthetically and symbolically a real opportunity to try and find this balance and I'm really honored to be able to try my hand at this powerful ancient image...
P.S.  The above photos are the first three sessions in order.  
1.  Outline the main figure minus the rope in his left hand (just didn't look right in the stencil).
2.  Draw on flames and begin to outline them as well as new and improved rope hand.
3.  Finish drawing and outlining the flames on the right side and line in the pattern (8 pointed wheel) on the lower robes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


It seems like a long time now that I've been able to update this blog.  I'm starting to realize that I'm missing it, and it was becoming a pretty great tool for some self reflection and critique on how I work.  I'm not a real embracer of technology, nor have I ever been the journal keeping type, but something about being able to combine the images with my rambling thoughts totally works for me. 
 Newborn son, moving the tattoo studio to a temporary location while my building gets remodeled (more on that another time), guest artist and friend Horimasa staying with me and working for 5 weeks, in addition to the usual day to day non stopness has really eaten up any free time I used to have.
All's well though, and I've been constantly on my toes starting and continuing some really fun projects. Hoping to catalog some recent pictures and get them up soon...
One thing that is happening this week is that my helper (I need all I can get) and I are finally ready to schedule 2013.  Thanks so much to those on the wait list for their patience and understanding.  With on going work and new projects waiting in the wings, it looks like a decent chunk of the year will be spoken for, but if anyone is interested in time for the coming year please feel free to email any ideas to truenaturetattoo@gmail and we'll see what we can do.  Doing the booking a year at a time is a bit overwhelming, but seems to be the best system for me.
The new studio should be done around mid December, so we will be starting out the new year fresh in a brand new space that we're very excited about.  Same building, but they're in the process of ripping of the roof and making a cool upstairs loft work space (that will have a huge deck overlooking the forest). We'll have a little more square footage and a cooler lay out.  There will be four dormers in all, so each of us will have our own nook with some cool angled ceilings and views.  My landlord and I have a really good relationship, and he's been letting me have a say in the layout, where fixtures and such go, and I pick the paint and flooring etc...
I really love the idea of being a building from 1905 with brand new everything.  Old time soul with all the modern amenities...

Thursday, August 9, 2012


So here's another from a while ago, but at least I'm finally starting to work through some of these older photos.
This flower is on the sleeve I started recently that has a big hannya and shake up top.  The bottom has since been outlined with a skull, another snake and a bunch more peonies (photos soonish...)
The idea for this arm is to just have almost all peonies as background (with the snake bodies intertwining between everything).  Kind of like everything is nestled in a peony bush.  There are only going to be a couple that are done in this style (with the white tips on the petals) and the rest that are more underneath and in the background will be darker shades.  It's an idea I've always wanted to try and this is the perfect piece and client to do it.  We've worked a bunch together before on a very solid whole leg piece and a few other odds and ends.  
This arm was another perfect storm situation where he knew exactly what elements he wanted and the basic layout, and let me run with it from there.  These are the types of pieces and people that really keep me highly motivated and wanting to push myself and set my expectations of myself much higher.
I was sort of hoping to outline the whole arm before starting any color, but time has been scarce lately for serious drawing sessions.  New baby, shop moving soon (more info on that soon too), and the day to day business of life with a very full tattoo schedule means that some things just have to wait.  I'm not really comfortable rushing artwork, and especially for an involved cool piece on a very dedicated client.  Yet somehow all things seem to be working out how they should and life is good...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dragon Back

So these photos are actually from a while ago, but I'm just starting to work through a back log of pictures from the past couple months.  
We've done a couple of sessions since this, but I like looking back at every step and trying to figure out for myself what I'm putting into making these things.
This session was drawing on and outlining the right buttock and down the thigh.  I had it sort of mapped out on paper and it ended up working out in real life (sometimes before starting a big piece I'll take a picture of the person's blank back, blow it up to an 11X17" piece of paper and sketch out a large thumbnail for the piece.  I either then blow that sketch up to the traced out actual area and refine it, or use it as template to draw stuff on.  Sometimes I really prefer this method as I find drawing a larger piece actual size from the get go you end up trying to put in too much detail and watering down the over all impact of the image.  Drawing it smaller and blowing it up later almost prohibits you from fussing over the details too much as you don't really have enough room.)
Since this session we've filled in the whole lower left side with background and are moving over the middle and starting to fill the stuff from this time.  More regular updates soon I hope...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Paternity Leave

Wow.  Just realized how long it's been since I've updated anything on here.  Past few weeks have been a whirlwind as my my new son was born on June 11th!  I've already got an amazing 7 year old daughter, and now the family unit is all balanced out with this great new little dude.  Couldn't be happier with how it all worked out and we're all feeling super blessed and looking forward to the next phase for our little crew.  Here's my scene these days:

That's Sparrow in the background.  My wife came up with her name early on in pregnancy and we both instantly knew that was the one.  This time around it took a while to really wrap our heads around a name.  For several months I was having this feeling like the one I was looking for was right in front of me and I just couldn't see it.  Then thankfully one day it finally came...Enso.  Not sure if it's really been used as a name before (I'm sure there's plenty on Enzo name confusion in his future) or if it makes a ton of sense, but we really dig it and I think it's going to work perfect for him.
An Enso is a Zen brush stroke of a circle:

I've always been very attracted to and interested in Zen Calligraphy and shodo in general (stylized Japanese calligraphy).  I don't know a ton about it on an academic level, but I've always really connected with it pretty strongly on a visual level, and enjoy trying it in my own way.  I've spent many late nights just drawing simple pictures/shapes/and words with brushes or brush pens and getting really lost in it for hours.  It can be super meditative and the flow of your hand can really help tap into a good stream of consciousness that ends up on the paper.  Really more about the process than the result for me (nice break from the pressures of tattooing where the result has much more importance).
An Enso is sort of an embodiment of this mental space...a quality I strive for and value.
Here's a description lifted from Wikipedia:
Ensō (円相) is a Japanese word meaning "circle" and a concept strongly associated with Zen. Ensō is one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy even though it is a symbol and not a character. It symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void; it can also symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. As an "expression of the moment" it is often considered a form of minimalist expressionist art.
In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. Zen Buddhists "believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of Spiritual Practice."[1]
Some artists paint ensō with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence (see also the idea of broken symmetry). The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei (不均斉), the denial of perfection.
The ensō is also a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism, and is often used by Zen masters as a form of signature in their religious artwork.

Sorry for the ramble.  Point being basically alls well with the little guy and family, but there's been no real time to keep up on everything other thing (like this blog).  With the way the schedule's been the past few years, this whole time was already booked before my wife even got pregnant, so there's been a lot of shuffling and adjusting of the appointment book.  Thanks to all for their understanding with missed or changed appointments, my helper Darci who sorts it all out for me all the time, and most of all my wife for putting up with how much I work and how much it takes of me to make it happen. 
Hopefully in the next week or so I'll be able to sift through the tattoo photos of the past couple months and get them updated.  Getting close on some super cool ones, and been starting some new stuff I'm really excited about...