In a private studio just outside of Irvine, Tokyo Hiro is living the dream. After more than two decades as a highly respected tattooer, Hiro’s primary focus nowdays is on design work. The veteran artist gets asked to design everything from band merch to the shin guards of soccer players, often working for some of the biggest names in both music and athletics. But a few times each week, Hiro draws up a design and pulls out his tattoo machines. It’s an art form he’ll never give up entirely, as it’s both his first love and the medium he’s built his name on.
Roughly 30 years ago, Hiro was a teenage baseball prospect in his native Japan, practicing with a professional team while still in high school. Unfortunately, he and his classmates had already begun hand-poking tattoos into one another, and his professional coaches weren’t about to hire an athlete with ink, which was then widely considered taboo in Japanese culture outside of the Yakuza.
Once baseball was no longer an option, Hiro decided to follow his other passion: American punk rock and metal. With only one American music television channel and no Internet back then, the teenage Hiro wasn’t caught up in the battle between the punks and metalheads of the 1980s. But he knew he wanted to be a part of everything from the Clash to Mötley Crüe.
“I saw a poster for [LA legend] Bob Roberts, and it said he tattooed all these different bands,” Hiro says. “After that, I told everyone I was leaving high school to move to LA and be a tattooer.”
For the rest of the decade, Hiro traveled back and forth between Japan and Los Angeles. While apprenticing under Roberts at Spotlight Tattoo, Hiro wasn’t just learning about tattooing — he was also picking up the English language and American culture he’d always loved so much.
“The first time I saw American tattooing, it was like something out of a movie to me,” Hiro says. “In Japan, no one used machines or sat in chairs with music playing. It was completely different for me, and I thought it was so cool.”
Although Hiro still has respect for Japanese tattooing and the hand-poked traditions of his native country, it was never the style that attracted him. Hiro developed an American traditional style similar to that of Roberts, which goes well with his love for American and British rock & roll.
From Motörhead to GBH, many of Hiro’s favorite bands began seeking out his work either on their skin or on T-shirt designs. His studio is covered in signed memorabilia and personal thank-you notes from bands such as Against Me! and Sick of It All, handfuls of custom skate decks, and gear from some of the top soccer players who have commissioned both tattoos and design pieces, including U.S. men’s national team star Tim Howard.
Known early in his career as “the Asian kid” the hard-nosed Roberts apprenticed, Hiro made a name for himself on both sides of the Pacific through the 1990s and 2000s. He’s known for his ability to nail any style of tattoo. While so many Americans travel to Japan to learn the ancient ways of irezumi, it was while working at a street shop in Jacksonville where Hiro came into his own and learned his most valuable lesson since leaving Roberts’ watchful scowl.
“I learned not to have an artistic ego,” Hiro says. “I would turn down tattoos I didn’t want to do, but then I’d see how much more money other guys were making. The best tattooers I knew were doing all kinds of tattoos, because it is the person getting the tattoo who pays your bills. I think that’s one of the big differences between here and Japan.”
Even if he’s only tattooing friends, family, and a handful of lucky clients these days, Hiro’s wide range of artistic talents might be the best thing to ever come out of Jacksonville.