Alex "Kofuu" Reinke Horikitsune

Artists - Studios - Issue 9

Alex "Kofuu" Reinke Horikitsune, the only apprentice of Horiyoshi III apart from his son Souryou Kazuyoshi and part of Horiyoshi III family, spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about the path in tattooing, the “Shu Ha Ri” learning system, the highly importance of the design and the “limits” of tradition. 

How were you first introduced to tattoo?

When I was twelve years old I started Martial Arts. As a kid, from a really young age I was constantly drawing. So when the Martial Arts came into the picture, I started drawing Asian themes and especially Japanese; like dragons and all sorts of stuff. When I was fourteen, we were on a trip with my family to San Francisco and by chance I walked into “Tattoo City” which is Ed Hardy's tattoo shop. Of course I had absolutely no idea about it. I bought Ed Hardy's yellow “Tattoo Time” and Sandi Fellman's “Japanese Tattoo” book and then I was drawing out of those books all the time. I was crazy for them. At that age, I had many older friends and when we returned to Germany after San Francisco, they asked me to design some tattoos for them because they liked my drawings and they couldn't draw themselves. So I drew some designs for them and they went and got them tattooed.

I kept drawing and drawing tattoos until I finished high-school and went for my A – levels. At that time I started tattooing. It was 1995 and I was twenty-one. I bought a starter kit and I began teaching myself; I am self-taught. Pretty hideous, but what can you do? Then I went straight to the army, where I was also tattooing. Afterwards I met Horiyoshi III in Bologna at a convention in 1997. A few months later, in 1998, I went to Japan to start my body-suit. There I saw and realized that I could make a decent living from tattooing. Back then things were different and therefore I took a huge risk; in many people's eyes it seemed “crazy” that I became a tattooist. It was socially “unacceptable” and perceived as “a step down” from my family; although they offered me the freedom to decide what I wanted to become. My dad is a surgeon and told me “you have to decide yourself about what you want to do for a living. When I am dead, you'll still have your job and I don't want to be responsible for you not being happy with your job”. He knew I was into tattooing, but he thought that tattoo was a phase. Like all kids go through phases. But this one stuck (laughs)!


What happened when you went to Japan to get tattooed by Horiyoshi III?

I was totally into Japan, as I've previously mentioned, since I was a kid. I was also used to serving from being in the army; therefore I believe that the combination of those two resulted in me knowing my way around Japan quite well and I think that Horiyoshi III was taken by it, and we got along very well. At the end of 1998 Horiyoshi III came to Germany for the Berlin Tattoo Convention; he wrote me a letter asking to whether we could meet there and I took some time off in order to meet him. All of a sudden, I was the “organizer” for everything, because I could communicate with Horiyoshi III. It turned out really great. We had a great time together and we became friends. 

How did your friendship “evolve” from this point onwards?

In the beginning of 1999 I went back to Japan to get tattooed again. I asked Horiyoshi III if he had a student, and he was like “no I don't take any students”. Then, there was the Tokyo Tattoo Convention towards at the end of the same year and he said “you have to come again to Japan”. That is when I met the old-timers and many of the friends I have today like Lucky Bastard (Horiko), Mick from Zurich, Filip Leu, Luke Atkinson, Chris Garver, Marcus Paecheco; all super-great guys. It was a really important convention for all of us.

A couple of months after the convention, Horiyoshi III came to Germany again and I joined him on a trip to London to buy antiques. And Horiyoshi III asked me there, in London, in a black cab on the way to some antique shop, if I was still interested in being part of the Horiyoshi Family...

Why do you think Horiyoshi III changed his mind and asked you to become his apprentice?

I think the Tokyo convention played a part; it was the first convention in Japan and that was when Horiyoshi III realized that he wanted to “open up”. His son was twelve at the time and I think that he also considered the possibility of having someone here who would potentially take care of his son when he's older. And overall expand a bit. Now I actually do take care of his son when he comes over. It worked out exactly as Horiyoshi III expected.


You appear to be the one and only Western apprentice that Horiyoshi ΙII has ever had. Is that correct?

Yes and his only other apprentice is his son. Moreover, back then I used to be the first and only Westerner ever to be officially in a Japanese Craftsmanship Family. Tattoo in Japan is considered to be a craft and tattooists are craftsmen; “shokunin”. I think now there are four other Westerners who are part of other Japanese Craftsmanship Families.

How did your apprenticeship with Horiyoshi III work practically?

I've been visiting Japan twice a year for the past sixteen years. I can stay up to three months each time because I have a visitor's visa. In the beginning I spent many months there, almost half a year in total. In time my responsibilities grew in Germany and I became busier with tattooing. Horiyoshi III suggested that I should work more back home to maintain myself. So it gradually got less in terms of how many months I stay in Japan when I go twice a year.


How many years does it take to “fulfil” the apprenticeship?

The apprenticeship is a lifetime commitment; it never really stops. Usually the “Shu Ha Ri” system is applied in all Japanese “shokunin” or other fields of work. The “Shu Ha Ri” system is basically a stretch of 3 x 10 years. The “Shu Ha Ri” system is perfect; ten years of copying the master, ten years of perfecting the style, and maybe discovering some things that you can do better – of course with the deepest respects - and ten years of breaking away and really creating “your own thing”.

So you're currently at the second stage of “Shu Ha Ri”?

I just passed seventeen years. I have thirteen more years until I am anywhere of “interest”. So if you want to come back in thirteen years, then you'll actually be talking to a real master (laughs)! Right now this is more or less a joke, at least in Japanese terms. It is quite reassuring because God knows what I would come up with in ten years from now.

Or where tattooing is going to be...


But what you're doing is “different”.

I'll probably always be around somehow somewhere. And I can only hope that tattooing will become a bit more like how it used to be... It was different; more mysterious. It was more like people who wanted to get something to commemorate; for instance a war if you were a soldier, a nautical trip if you were a sailor. This is talking from a western point of view, although tattoo has also changed a lot in Japan. The world is changing a lot and all the time and who am I to judge? Obviously we're all creators of our experiences here on this planet and we all create this whole experience together. So I might not agree with some of the stuff, but somehow it might be my fault as well. And of course I had and I still do benefit from that change. I have no idea how it's going to be in the future. I'll just have to adapt to the change and I'll be happy to do that. The Japanese are very good at it. In order to prevent themselves from getting super - surprised by changes that they can't control, they just change stuff around them very often; they call it “fresh start”.


You said that tattoo in the past was more mysterious. Where do you see tattoo now?

People are now getting tattooed for all sorts of reasons. The variety of people has changed. Age had dropped dramatically. It has lost character. It's a fashionable thing and there're a lot of fools out there. However, the seriousness is still there, because there are still people very serious about it and there are also some serious tattoo collectors.

What about learning how to tattoo and the notion of apprenticeship in our era?

I think the most dramatic change concerns how the new tattooers gain their knowledge in order to become tattooers. I think that has changed a lot through the internet. I have tried to apply here in the past an apprenticeship - a Japanese apprenticeship where you're serving your master - when someone wanted to learn it. Some people used to come and they claimed to be extremely dedicated and when they had learnt what they thought was enough to be able to stand on their own feet in tattooing, they just left. I'm pretty weary of that and I'm not a big fan to have students that much anymore. It's a lot of work and you invest so much in someone who doesn't stay, which is a shame.


How is Traditional Japanese tattooing being applied here in the West and in western people in particular?

Many people can appreciate the beauty of it. The timelessness of the iconography which has been around for ages and will still be. And it looks sort of “tailored” because it's very well thought through concerning the body shapes. There are all these rules of where to stop so you can continue without noticing. If you don't follow these rules, then you mess up and it will show where you stopped and where you continued. So you better stick to the rules.

The history of Japanese Traditional tattoos is very old. We are talking about hundred of years. So that's a very different story from western tattooing, which blossomed quite a while afterwards, from the 1850s onwards; more or less in the Meiji period of Japan. It is possible that James Cook brought the first tattooed people back to Britain and it was fashionable for instance to have a guy with a Maori facial tattoo as your butler.

Basically the “heavy” history gives it a certain “weight”. I always say that Traditional Japanese tattooing is tattooing for adults. Of course there's “adult” tattooing in the West; like Cholo tattooing for example. Very beautiful stuff. I really appreciate it. But Japanese tattoos, especially the artwork that has been produced during the Edo and Meiji period in Japan is extremely high quality. It's thought through to the smallest detail. The craftsmanship of it is amazing. So the tattoos these guys were doing back then compared to what was happening everywhere else in the world, were just extraordinary. And then of course Japan has, apart from the vast history, all these cultural stories, myths, funny and creepy stuff and they tattooed all that, because they were only tattooing things that were related to their culture.

Basically this is culture (ed. he is showing me the sleeve he's doing during our Q & A session). My own creative juices are of course in there, but they are limited by tradition. I can't make a washing machine on the head of this fox because it's so cool and the guy is repairing washing machines for a living and wants one there. That wasn't around back then! You're bound by a lot of rules and a lot of stories. All this is my take on what already exists. I am “copying” a fox from an art book and I am making it different, but it already existed. I'm not inventing a new one. 


Where does design stand in Traditional Japanese tattooing?  

The design is the most important and comes first. Because if the technique is bad, it will eventually improve over the years. So if you have a good design and you have a bad technique, it may look bad but after two – three years when you have improved - you can fix it. Whereas, if you have a bad design you have to cover it, not just fix it.

If you are unsure of your design skills, you can use an art book – an old one would be nice from an artist like Kyōsai for example, it's not cool to take a design from a tattoo book, cause this means that you copy somebody's tattoo – you open it, put trace paper on it, trace it up and then tattoo it and it would look good. You should honour the customer and your craft by doing the right stuff and then with the years you will learn how to draw things yourself.    

Nowadays we're facing the biggest problem with young people. Everybody wants to be there now! Nobody seems to appreciate the path anymore. You can't be there now. They ask me “how did you do that”? Well, seventeen years of work! “I don't have time tomorrow my client is coming in the morning”. The answer is that you won't be able to pull it off in twenty-four hours. It's impossible. But the thing is that now there are some people out there that are so talented that they can kind of pull it of after a year or two. Even if some of the stuff looks authentic, it's soulless. Some people can't see it, but I can see it. It's probably due to the lack of time and experience of the tattooist. The place from which they have created their art, is not the right one, yet. You should do what your skills allow you to. Unfortunately some people are deluded. Like I said, I have thirteen more years to get anywhere. I don't think I' m anywhere yet.


As far as Irezumi tattoos are concerned, why do they start and finish at those specific spots on the body?

Basically this has to do with Japanese clothing. Irezumi sticks to the shapes of Japanese traditional clothing; kimonos etc. They all end at a certain wrist and leg length, so the Irezumi finishes a few centimetres above. You aren't supposed to see the tattoo. In Japan you get tattooed to become part of a group. Here you get tattooed to become an individual; to underline your individuality. Individuality counts nothing in Japan. The way Westerners see Japanese tattoos is completely misinterpreted. It is artwork that is hidden and tucked away for a group of friends to appreciate each other. Then there might be one sole event per year when they take of their clothes. There is the Yakuza and mafia connection to that now, because tattooing was forbidden in Japan from the 1900s to 1948.   


Why were tattoos forbidden in Japan during the Meiji period and until 1948?

The Meiji Restoration opened the country to the West for the very first time around 1880. Imagine that until then Samurais were walking down the streets with swords and long hair! So they forbade them wearing swords and Samurais had to wear suits and cut off their hair. And of course if you lose your hair, which was thousands of years prior to 1880, you have to kill yourself, because someone has taken your hair and you weren't careful enough to defend yourself and therefore you lost your honour. The Meiji Restoration wanted Japanese people to look like Westerners and expected everybody to be cool with that. So they killed everybody. There were huge wars going on back then. They also forbade all sorts of traditional customs and things in Japan that they thought weren't “fashionable”, including tattoo; which they probably considered to be “barbaric”.

Then in 1914 the First World War started and everything was nationalistic again and all sorts of traditions were important again; tattooing was still forbidden therefore only “illegals” were getting them. Before the Meiji Restoration all sorts of people were getting tattooed in Japan. Some Royals also like King George V, the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Frederick IX King of Denmark got tattooed in Japan. When America took over Japan in 1948 they lifted the ban on tattooing.

Why is it then that we still don't really “see” tattoos in Japan?

Because for fifty years, tattoos were “over” for the Japanese. And then of course not many were interested in getting tattooed because it was a sign of the Yakuza. Now there are many Japanese people getting tattooed. Not as many as here, but it has changed a lot. You just don't see them down on the streets.


When did you start the Kofuu – Senju Publications and how did that come up?

It happened in 2009. I didn’t really decide on it... Horiyoshi III asked me if I was interested in publishing some of his books. And all of a sudden I publish books. I didn’ t plan this to be honest.

What is the concept behind these publications?

The concept is to make very limited books with really high quality. Moreover, me and Matti Senju Sedholm Horimatsu are both family men and tattooists, so the book project is our side project and we don't have the funds to do anything “bigger” than that. It's fun and we really enjoy it, but it is quite a lot of work. We travel wherever it has to be, we take the photos, we write the text – some other people write too - we do the editing, and Matti puts the book together with a program he knows how to use.

How many books have you published so far?

There are four books out and we are currently working on five more. All Japanese tattoo related. The first one, “Osen II”, will be out in February 2014.





*Alex "Kofuu" Reinke Horikitsune will be attending and tattooing at the 1st Cyprus International Tattoo Convention that is going to take place at Limassol the 6th, 7th & 8th of June 2014.

*The books that Alex "Kofuu" Reinke Horikitsune and Matti Senju Sedholm Horimatsu publish through "Kofuu - Senju Publications" can be found here:

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.


Alex "Kofuu" Reinke tattooing Tas Danazoglou / photo from Horikitsune's instagram.  


Alex "Kofuu" Reinke tattooing Forrest / photo from Horikitsune's instagram.  


Alex "Kofuu" Reinke and Horiyoshi III / photo from Horikitsune's instagram.  

























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