The amazing Gakkin gave an exclusive interview to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine. The brilliant Japanese tattoo artist has been one of the top names of the international tattoo scene while he remains modest. Based now in Amsterdam, he spoke about his first steps, his freehand tattoo style, his influences, his collaboration with Nissaco, the reasons why he left from Japan, as well as how tattoo is perceived in Japanese society nowadays.

Interview: Ino Mei.

When did you start tattooing and how did you get into it? 

My first experience with tattooing was when I was seventeen. It was on my friend, and I did it at home after school. I didn't think though at the time that I wanted to be a professional tattoo artist.

Did you apprentice and for how many years? 

I don't remember how long it was, because I was working with my mentor for many years. Over ten years. It took six months for me to get my first client.

Did you do a traditional Japanese apprenticeship?

Yes, it was very strict; no holidays at all, seven days a week, working fifteen hours per day and drawing at least five hours every day. I don't think I can do that again…

Your freehand tattoo style is definitely unique. How would you describe it?

I find freehand as the easiest way for me to make my clients’ body beautiful. The body is not flat; it is always round. The tattoos have to look good from all angles and views when people want large pieces. So I chose the way to draw directly to the body. However, recently I have used stencil when I did some detailed works!

How has your tattoo style progressed throughout the years?

I used to like really detailed work but in the last few years, I have focused on making it more simple, and choose some specific motif to work on. For example, I'm not interested in human motifs like Geishas, Samurais etc....

You do many large scale tattoos, as well as full bodies. Why do you think people get heavily tattooed? 

Everyone wants to change, it's like a transformation. I am not the tattoo artist who can tattoo very good small pieces, but I can change my clients’ bodies, like you've never seen before. I currently focus on creating nice shapes based on one’s body.

Do you tattoo more men or women?

I estimate that ninety percent is men. Not so many female clients recently.

Why do you think the women are so few compare to men?

Maybe it looks a bit heavy for ladies..? I don't know!

How are the European customers compared to the Japanese ones?

I don't think there are so many differences between European and Asian customers. Most of my clients are very nice and open-minded to me. When it comes to tattooing, the only difference is the skin tone; some skins are whiter and others have a darker skin tone.

Apart from the obvious Japanese references, what other influences do you have?

Mostly I like nature. I see water, wind, rain, sky, plants, everything around me. Those are my main inspirations now. Traveling too!

Which tattoo artists have been an influence to you? 

Gotch, Guy Le Tatooer, and Nissaco. I also like Zumiism, Jeroen Franken, Hanumantra, Gordoletters, Noko (ed. his eleven-year-old daughter), and many more! There are too many good artists, so it's hard to pick.

Is talent or technique that comes with experience more important when it comes to tattooing?   

I think we need both.

How did your collaboration with Nissaco come up? 

I have met Nissaco over twenty years ago. He was my client at the beginning. After he started at our tattoo shop as apprentice. We have spent a lot of time together in the same shop; working, drawing, tattooing, cleaning, taking care of our bosses and of course drinking. So we became very good friends. We have done a few collaborative works at some tattoo conventions; mostly large scale pieces. We are still working on another big project together, and I can't wait to show you when it is completed!

Apart from tattooing, are you engaged with other forms of art?

Actually not really. I also like painting, so sometimes I paint at home, but tattooing is much more exciting for me.

Which Japanese painters or artists would you recommend to people who love Japanese iconography to look into?

My favourite painters from Japan are Hasui Kawase, Ohara Koson, Jakuchu Ito, Imao Keinen, Fuyuko Matsui, and Suehiro Maruo.

Why did you leave Japan in 2016?

I had thought about moving after 2011, after Fukushima happened. I felt like Japan was not safe for my family. I had the option to move to the UK and the U.S.A., but I chose Amsterdam to do my private studio.

Why did you choose Holland as your base?

I just love the city of Amsterdam; not too big, and not too small. People are open-minded and there is also a lot of green. I think Amsterdam is one of the best cities in Europe for an English speaker.

How is tattoo perceived in Japan nowadays? Why do you think it remains so taboo…?

I really don't know how the situation is in Japan now. A few years ago, I saw the following news: "The District Court in Osaka ruled that a tattooer broke the law by tattooing without a medical license." What??? This is completely stupid. It was a big surprise. In other countries, tattooers have worked with local governments and doctors to establish guidelines and regulations. Of course I have a tattoo license in the Netherlands. So tattooing is never illegal. But if I work in Japan, I will be considered a criminal, because I don't have a doctor’s license. Who is going to become a tattoo artist, after graduating medical school…? I don't understand why the Japanese kill their own tattoo culture themselves...

I don't mind if Japanese people don't like tattoos, because that's their choice. They don't have to like them. But at least they should accept the fact that in Japan there are people who love tattoos.

Is your daughter your only apprentice? 

Yes, she is my only apprentice. So far she has done some tattoos as practice, but unfortunately we won't be taking any clients until she becomes eighteen years old. So until then, she will be tattooing only on silicone and drawing every day.  

What does "Gakkin" mean?

It means nothing. It’s just a nickname since I was a kid.

How do you see the future of tattoo during - after COVID-19?

I have no idea what will happen. No one knows. I hope everything will be ok soon.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Gakkin.