Hidden away in the backroom of a modest apartment in this central Japanese city, one of Japan’s last remaining hand-tattoo masters is preparing his tools. Over the last four decades Oguri Kazuo has tattooed notable geisha and countless yakuza, members of Japan’s notorious mafia. Today, the 79-year-old artist, known professionally as Horihide (derived from “hori,” meaning “to carve”), is working on a client who is a little more subdued.
Motoyama Tetsuro has spent hundreds of dollars, traveled thousands of miles and waited more than three decades for a session with Horihide. The Japanese-born American software manager wanted the master’s ink in his skin — a living legacy for a dying art. With old masters passing away and young apprentices lacking the patience to learn the painstaking craft of tebori (hand tattooing), many followers believe its days are numbered.
Horihide became an apprentice at age 19 and spent five years learning the craft. “It was very strict. In the morning you have to get up at 5 o’clock and clean the house. If you didn’t do it right, you could be beaten,” recalls the artist, as he sits cross-legged on the floor, carefully filling in the yellow hues of a tiger on Motoyama’s other shoulder. “But nowadays young people can’t do that. Some people who want to be students ask me, ‘How much can you give me as a salary?'” He laughs, shaking his head. “So things have changed.”