From the Yakuza to Aussie: The beauty of wabori, Japanese traditional tattooing

3 Dec 2020



This is Horihiro, a tattoo artist from Osaka.


Horihiro specialises in wabori, traditional Japanese designs, and is particularly well known as a Kansai (Western region of Japan) tattooing master. He trained under a Horimitsu tattoo master, learning a technique which originated in the Edo period and is the oldest form of tattooing in Japan's west. Not only has the technique remained the same, the tools and inks used have also remained unchanged throughout the years.





The needle used is attached to a long wooden handle which is made from either black persimmon tree or ebony, specially hand-shaped to suit the way he jabs. The black and coloured inks are sourced from a speciality store with a 500 year history. All pigments are made using natural materials, therefore do not harm the skin in any way. The ink stone which Horihiro also uses is inexpensive however, as a result of many experiments he found that this compact, rough grain stone suits his style best.


It might seem like very simple work, but there is a huge difference between the skilled and unskilled tattooists. “Many call themselves tebori (hand tattooing) tattooist just because they tattoo by hand. You can't call it tebori. They lack skill and can't do the job well.” Horihiro explains when the lesser skilled tattooists jab the skin, the intended colour doesn’t appear. They jab the same part of skin over and over again and it bleeds. It takes longer and the colours fade quickly, resulting in a ‘dirty’ tattoo.


Matt visits Horihiro to get a dragon tattoo on his arm. “Compared to a machine, there is less pain. The colour’s also much more vibrant”, he says.


“The tattoos I draw remain vibrant even after 10 or 20 years. To do so, the needle tip has to become a part of your body”, says Horihiro.


The needle jabs into the skin rhythmically, about 3-4 times per one second. It makes a light clicking sound. “This is the sound of skin. Jab, raise, then remove,” he says. He makes a small triangle a few millimetres beneath the outer layer of skin. That is where the ink is injected.



Out of a group of ten people who undertake ten years of training, only one may become a true wabori tattooist. It's a serious workman's world that continuously tests one’s effort and talent rigorously.


Horihiro, who had unwavering confidence in his technique, first started tattooing 31 years ago. When he was 27 years old, he went to watch a friend get a tattoo done.


“I thought the tattooist was hopeless, and that I could do a better job.”


He was then introduced to the Master, Horimitsu and entered his clan as an apprentice. As soon as he started, he began to realise the complexity of the art. Ever since then, regardless of whether he was awake or asleep, Horihiro only thought about tattooing. No matter what he looked at or what he did, he always wondered “can I use this in my tattooing?”


2 – 3 years of training passed and his master acknowledged his ability to make it to the top. Horihiro surpassed other tattooists who entered at the same time he did. In spite of this, he battled a nervous breakdown and realised that he had to improve his technique. Horihiro couldn’t catch up with the art inside his head. Horihiro kept putting all of his efforts into tattooing. He also had the talent to understand the balance between colour and form.


“When the customer first tells me what kind of design they want, I can create it instantly. When I see a colour, I instantly know how to mix it.”


At the peak of his career, he travelled all over Japan to decorate skins of Yakuza who specially chose him. In total, it amounted to thousands of wabori and when tattoos were included, tens of thousands of them. Many Yakuza bosses have also been tattooed by Horihiro.


However, for a few years now, wabori jobs have been steadily decreasing. The Anti-Bouryokudan (another name for Yakuza) Law was revised in 2008. With that, authorities began to crack down on the yakuza’s activities and all the businesses that deal with them causing Horihiro’s business to suffer too.


Due to the influence of tattooing culture overseas, the number of young people getting tattoos has increased. However, even with this, the numbers aren’t enough to replace the previous Yakuza customers.


“Right now, for our kind of industry, Japan is no good.”


Horihiro is lost. He’s unsure about where to go from here. “Tattooing is something that I will do until I die. I’m pursuing pure wabori. The style won’t change,” he says. After thirty years of being fed, Horihiro feels that from now on he has to give back what he’s learned.


“It's my duty to leave the tradition of wabori to the next generation”.


But how? To whom? Maybe in Melbourne? If there’s somebody who really wants to learn it, it doesn’t matter where they come from or what their nationality is. “Sometimes when I’m tattooing I feel sad, thinking about how it’s a dying tradition. I have several apprentices back in Japan but they are not talented enough to learn my technique.”





In the West, machine tattooing has been main stream for long time. Yet in spite of this, Horihiro’s art is universally acknowledged and appreciated. His work was in high demand at an event in Germany 10 years ago. There were even rumours of Horihiro opening a tattoo parlour in New York.


“People overseas understand my art, but not in Japan. It's quite sad.”


“Right now, machine performance is improving. Hand tattooing has its limitations in terms of detail and accuracy. However, it is like comparing photographs and paintings. It is very difficult to say which is better.”


This time marks Horihito’s third visit to Melbourne.


In Melbourne, he treats tattooing as a hobby, tattooing exclusively to clients introduced to him by his friends. Despite that, there is a long list of people who want to decorate their bodies with wabori – this 150 year old Japanese art.


“The people in Melbourne are great. Really kind. Kind of like how Japan used to be like, lots of busybodies. Now in Japan, if someone falls over they just ignore it, but over here two or three people would come and help them.”



Horihiro will return to Japan in mid-December. However, he will return to Melbourne in May next year in which he plans to accept public clients.


Through travelling, Horihiro can see many new things. He says that he enjoys travelling as he can sharpen his senses. “In this job, having a discerning eye is the most important thing.”


What part of Melbourne’s landscape does Horihiro like?

“It’s always the same no matter where I go. I love the sky.”


Story: Noriko Tabei
Photos: Masatoshi Sato
Translation: Meagan Sneddon



Horihiro, Japanese Traditional Tattooist


Be first to comment