While plenty of tattooers struggle to find a solid unique style using a machine, some of the most advanced artists in the world are focused on tattooing techniques that predated modern coil and rotary tattoo thingamajigs – or even electricity, for that matter. Hand-tapped styles like Japanese tebori and the Polynesian tatau are growing increasingly rare as more and more tattooers choose to ink in high-tech manners. Rather than spending decades mastering the art of creating a permanent design effectively using little but a fancy stick and some ink, artists and clients alike want the instant gratification of a perfectly tuned machine.
But Horishige comes from a different culture and a different time – one where the title of “tattoo master” still means something.
For that reason alone, the Japanese tattoo master finds himself booked solid just about every time he makes his semi-annual trips to America. This time around, the artist – born Toshinori Mogi – filled conventions and guest spots in Hawaii, New York, Tennessee and San Francisco before finally making his way down to Signal Hill for a few days.
“In my opinion, a good tebori tattoo gives less damage to the skin and puts a lot of ink inside the skin,” Horishige says. “The colors last longer and are much brighter. The machine is a needle going in and out of skin a lot of times, so some ink can come out with that. Tebori is really slow but each time the needle sends the color to the skin exactly.”
There aren’t enough studies to validate Horishige's clam that tebori tattoos hold color better than those created with machines. But being repeatedly stabbed by hand means the receiver of the tattoo feels every individual poke rather than the annoying grinding pain of a standard tattoo machine. Whether this is a more or less tolerable feeling likely depends on the client, but given that it feels like an entirely different experience, Horishige is likely right in that it’s a different kind of trauma for your skin and body to go through.
Of course, if anyone were to know about the differences and similarities between electric tattooing and tebori, it’d be Horishige. Roughly 27 years ago, the artist began training under legendary tebori master Horitoku, and he’s never looked back. For over two-and-a-half decades, the current owner of 7th Tattoo Studio has been traveling the world to ink clients with both machines and individual tebori needles. For most pieces, Horishige lines the tattoo with a standard coil machine and then shades it using the tebori method, but he’ll also do some entirely with machines or all tebori depending on what the design calls for. As long as the tattoo master can continue to see the world and place his artwork on people across the globe, he’s fairly flexible on the specifics.
“I don’t think I’m a good enough tattooer to travel as much as I do,” Horishige says. “I try to be a nice guy and try to speak English a lot. So maybe that’s why I can travel a lot. I love to tattoo and have a lot of respect for good tattooers, and now there are a lot of really good tattooers in America and in Europe and Japan too. I like to travel so I can check them out and learn from them.
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Much like America, Horishige’s seen tattooing’s popularity grow in much of the rest of the world as well. For the first several years of his career, many of Horishige’s most loyal clients were gangsters and other members of questionable subcultures. It never bothered the artist, but he doesn’t mind having a greater variety among his clientele now.
“When I started tattooing, my clients were almost all Yakuza people or construction company workers,” Horishige says. “Now, it’s pretty much the same as here. It’s almost all normal people getting tattooed. It’s good for everyone now.”
For now, Horishige’s American fans will have to be satisfied with looking through his private Instagram or flying over the Pacific to get some work done. He hopes to return to SoCal early next year, but it’ll ultimately come down to when the tattoo master can fit it into his schedule and what his future visa situation ends up looking like. Hey, there are worse reasons to fly to Japan.