Shige is widely regarded as one of the best tattoo artists in the world, with his pioneering Japanese style winning multiple awards and gracing tattoo magazines across the globe. His work, deeply influenced by Japanese art and symbolism, is a unique take on a traditional and time-honoured style and his magnificently detailed bodysuits are instantly recognisable. Having spent time honing his craft with Filip Leu in Lausanne during his formative years, Shige emerged as one of the foremost tattoo artists in the industry, and works today from his private studio in Yokohoma. This week, we chat to Shige to discuss his roots, influences, and the story behind his latest poster design for The London Tattoo Convention…
Let's start at the beginning of your journey; what inspired you to start tattooing and how did you learn your craft?
My mother, who painted aquarelles herself, wanted to encourage me to paint. But my interest as a child was more focused on fishing. I was never allowed to watch TV, so I spent a lot of time putting my nose into books on fish! When I started tattooing around 1995, I tattooed in a corner of the office of the Harley Davidson motorcycle shop where I lived and worked. I had seen tattoos in imported tattoo magazines and on bikers and was particularly fascinated by colourful American designs. I mail-ordered equipment from overseas and simply started...
In 1998 I met Chisato, who is now my wife. With her support, I decided to open a private studio and tattoo professionally. It was a radical decision; all my hobbies and pastimes flew out the window. For the past 20 years, every day I was only thinking about one thing: tattoo!
Can you elaborate on the time you spent with Filip Leu in Lausanne? How did this this experience shape your tattoo career?
The time I spent in Lausanne was a life-altering experience. It's not too much to say that my tattoo career truly originated there. I believe that the best way to learn from a respected artist is not only to watch or to listen but to actually get tattooed by them. I started to get tattooed at the now-defunct old apartment of Filip and completed all the line works and black shading on my entire body.
I had an unforgettable time there through having creative activity constantly such as talking about tattooing and painting passionately, playing guitar together, and painting day in, day out.
During this time, we also went to some conventions together where we shared the booth and had a great opportunity to meet people. Each and every encounter has a huge effect on your life. To have met Miki Vialetto is a good example for me.
I am grateful that he opened up, gave me the opportunity to meet people and inspired me through inviting me to his conventions in Milan and London.
My journey to pursue my own tattoo career started from those three months in Lausanne.
Outside of tattooing, what influences your work? It's obvious you have a broad knowledge of Japanese culture – are there any particular artists or art movements that inspire you?
The strongest influence is Japanese art. It means not only paintings or wood block prints (Ukiyo-e) give me ideas but also crafts, ornaments, and sculptures. I am particularly interested in art works from the Shinto religion and Buddhism and their history, because they are the essence of Japanese culture and you can't truly draw what you want without understanding them. There are an enormous number of artists who gave me inspiration such as Kuniyoshi, Kyousai, Hougai... I often use tomes as references more than books of paintings usually.
There has been an ongoing battle over the legalities of tattooing in Japan; can you describe the current tattoo scene in the country? How do you think Japanese tattooing will progress moving forwards?
The history of Japanese traditional tattoo is extremely long and rich unlike any other in the world, however I have to say that the current system of the tattoo industry in Japan is delayed in comparison with Western countries and other Asian countries. It will take a long time and lot of work in Japan to make the country recognise that tattooing has to be legalised as an occupation.
This trial is a private case but it is also the trial for the entire Japanese tattoo industry to win a new framework to recognise that tattooing is not an illegal medical procedure but one of the occupations to innovate art.
Personally, I think it is good opportunity to think again about the spirit, determination and behaviour as a tattoo artist and tattooed person. All importance is there.
As far as I remember, tattooing was banned twice in the past in Japanese history. Our predecessors' effort and tradition which was built up and protected by tattoo lovers will certainly continue in an unbroken line. This is also part of Japanese culture.
I myself pursue tattooing with pride and keep this wonderful Japanese tradition to pass down the generations as a cog in the wheel.
You recently designed our latest poster. Could you explain to readers the concept behind the piece and the process of creating it?
I have been participating at the London Tattoo Convention for 13 years, and this is the second time for me to design the poster.
This time, I decided to paint ‘Dakini’, which originates in Hinduism. Dakini figures appear in Hinduism as a female demon who feeds on human flesh, but in the history of Buddhism in India, she entered the priesthood by being taught by midterm Vajrayana and she became a good goddess to protect people.
Buddhism was brought over to Japan in the 5th to 6th century, and provided the structure for Prince Shōtoku; after then it synchronised with the ancient Japanese indigenous Inari belief of Shinto (kitsune iconography) and became a unique Buddhist image in Japan to be worshipped.
During the age of the provincial wars (1467-1615 A.D.), feudal warlords around the country enshrined her to protect the castles with the kitsune iconography of Shinto and prayed for victory, accomplishment, success and advancement.
The concept of the poster is "success and development".
I drew this with a wish for the success of the London Tattoo Convention and for the development of the tattoo industry with the whole world in mind.
Lastly, how can customers book in with you at the London Tattoo Convention? If you are already booked, could you share a little about what you might be working on?
I am already fully booked at the London Tattoo Convention and new tattoo work will come into the world. I have an interesting project coming up as a part of the development for the tattoo world, and I hope I can show you at the convention. Looking forward to see you there!
(Translation by Mick and Sana Sakura, Interview by Jasmine Rollason)
Catch Shige at The International London Tattoo Convention this September 22-23-24th. Advance Tickets are now available to purchase; get yours now!