"Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner's Journey Into Japanese Tattoo" Book Review
Written by Jill Mandelbaum
2008, 160 pages, Non-Fiction
Released on May 28th, 2008
I've mentioned before that I once worked at a tattoo shop. Surprisingly, my fondest memories of that time are not tied to the buzzing of the tattoo machine or the squeals coming from individuals who decided to pierce sensitive areas that should be kept away from needles at all times. Instead, my favorite recollections are from the time spent between clients, the moments where everyone in the shop became a family sitting in front of a television or listening to music and chewing the fat. Those idle hours were also spent talking about tattoo artists. If I was part of the conversation, the name Horiyoshi III would inevitably pop up. At the time, what we knew about Horiyoshi III came from tattoo magazine articles and rumor. He was a mythical figure that hid somewhere in Japan and created some of the most amazing works of art you could ever find on human skin. You had to wait for years to be tattooed by him and, if you complained or somehow messed up the protocol, he would kick you out of his studio and never work on you again.
The more I read, the more I learned. The myths fell away and the immense influence Horiyoshi III has had on the world of tattooing became clear. However, I always wanted more, a deeper look, a better source of direct information, a book written by someone who had an interest in the man that went beyond the fact that he puts ink under layers of skin. In Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner's Journey Into Japanese Tattoo, Jill "Horiyuki" Mandelbaum offers just that: a great look at the man whose name is known by ink and art lovers across the globe.
Studying Horiyoshi III is much more than just an insight into the artist's life and techniques. For starters, Mandelbaum was lucky to have a direct connection to the master: Takahiro Kitamura. Known as Horitaka, Kitamura is a student of Horiyoshi's and a man who knows just how deep tradition, love for art, and respect go in the world of Japanese tattooing. He opened the door and made a personal visit to Horiyoshi possible. After this, Mandelbaum's curiosity and eagerness to learn took over. The result is a narrative that simultaneously explains and celebrates an outstanding artist.
While this is a book about art and is thus packed with pictures, it also contains more writing than most photography books. It's obvious that the author did her research and knew what she was talking about. The prose is clear and the major concepts are explained in a way that enlightens readers new to subject and entertain those familiar with it. Despite Mandelbaum's success in bringing Horiyoshi to readers, what makes her writing great is the admiration and affection with which she writes about Horiyoshi, tattooing, and Japanese art and culture.
With almost 300 color photographs taken in the studios and home of Horiyoshi III, as well as markets, bars, shrines and temples in Japan, Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner's Journey Into Japanese Tattoo is a visual treat. Although the visuals are enough to make this a requisite tome on the shelves of tattoo and art lovers, it is Mandelbaum's tactful, enthusiastic exploration of the master tattooist and the way she mixes history and culture that make this a must-read as well as must-see.