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New Show Explores Ancient Art Form

Bradley Miller is getting a snake tattoo at Tattoo Paradise, a busy tattoo and body piercing shop in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

“Before, I had skulls and simpler, not-as-detailed tattoos, so I wanted to get a tattoo that had more detail and more finesse and more pop,” said the Virginia resident who works as a bouncer at a bar next to the shop.

Miller is among a growing number of young Americans getting tattoos. In fact, one in five adults in the U.S. (21%) now has at least one tattoo, which is an increase from previous years.

Some walk into tattoo shops like the one in Washington, and choose simple words, shapes or pictures. Others choose traditional, Japanese-style tattoos that are more elaborate and take longer to create.

Perseverance, art and tradition

Japanese tattoo as an ancient art form is the focus of a new exhibit — titled Perseverance — at the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

It features a series of photographic portraits of people with tattoos that were created by some of the world's finest Japanese-style tattoo artists.

Lee Anne Chesterfield is the museum's interim deputy director for Art and Education.

“What you’ll see in this exhibition — and what you’ll see throughout America today actually — is a great synthesis of the traditional Japanese tattoo with the modern American take on that,” she said.

"This exhibit shows everything from the very strict, traditional Japanese tattoo through to what you would see in New York and Los Angeles and their take on Japanese tattoo."

Chesterfield says that it really all started with Don Ed Hardy.

"One of the most famous tattoo artists in our country — bringing the Japanese tradition to America."

Symbolism and form

That tradition includes the use of symbolic Japanese images -- koi, dragons, cherry blossoms -- that flow seamlessly into a full body tattoo, or form a shoulder and arm "sleeve," or a full back tattoo.

Kip Fulbeck is the exhibition artist, designer and photographer who curated the exhibit along with renowned master tattoo artist Takahiro "Horitaka" Kitamura.

The two hand-picked seven of the world’s leading tattoo artists — as well as several others who practice Japanese-style tattooing — to represent the contemporary world of this centuries-old art form.

The artists were inspired by the ancient art of Japanese tattooing and deeply influenced by the traditional Japanese arts of calligraphy and ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking.

Fulbeck's photographs include full-body as well as candid and close-up shots of tattooed individuals, "to show them as people as well as canvases of art," he said.

The stigma of tattoo

But Fulbeck pointed out that while Japanese tattoo is revered around the world, it's regarded quite differently in its country of origin.

"If I were to tell any of your viewers about a Hokusai print, which is a woodblock print, they would say that it is an art form. Or Kabuki Theater, which is an art form. Or Japanese calligraphy, ceramics and pottery, that is an art form. But tattooing is still related with the Yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, so it's not considered an art form."

Fulbeck hopes to dispel that stereotype.

“Did I photograph some Yakuza? Sure," he said. "But I also photographed police officers, firefighters, professors, CEOs, and teachers... So I would like people to recognize that this is an amazing type of artistry that has been honed over thousands of years."

"So what I want to do with this art exhibit," he explained, "is to show that Japanese tattooing is a vibrant, and current art form that is influencing multiple facets around the world."


Fulbeck's own tattoos — on his arms, chest and back — were created by three master artists, including co-curator Takahiro Horitaka Kitamura ("Taki") over dozens of sessions.

"The relationship with the tattooer and client in Japanese tattooing is a bit different because it's so extensive, because it lasts for so long," he explained.

That kind of commitment develops into a personal and respectful relationship.

"Traditional Japanese tattooing isn’t Western, where the customer is always right and you go into a store and say 'I want this, this, and this now,'" he said. "To go to someone at this level, these artists, you let them do what they want to do.”

"The tattoo artists are going to put in 50, 100, 200 hours — or longer — on an artwork; artwork that has a limited lifespan, it has an expiration date. They finish that piece, they take a picture, it's gone. That person gets hit by a bus, they're done. That person is going to die and the work then goes. So it's really a very Zen idea of it's in the moment, right now."

To make the point, Fulbeck explained that all the clients featured in the exhibit "were really, deeply reverential to their tattooers."

When he photographed a large panel of thirteen people for example, he said they all took off work and traveled to be there for that shoot, out of respect for their tattooer.

"There is one tattoo by Henning Jorgensen where his client flew to LA [California] from Germany and came into the studio with a suitcase," he said. "I photographed him and he said thank you, and he went back to LAX [airport] and flew back. I mean he flew across the world to get his photograph taken out of respect for his tattooer, so there is a great deal of symbiosis between the tattooer and the client in an ideal relationship."

Changing perceptions

On the opening day of the exhibit, 18-year-old Zach Hendrickson, a local visitor, took off his shirt and proudly displayed his Japanese-style tattoos to Fulbeck and our VOA cameras. They were created, he explained, by renowned artist Brian Bruno in Richmond, Virginia; the site of the museum and home to the third largest tattooed population in America.

Hendrickson says most people have had a positive response to his tattoos and believes attitudes to tattoos in general have been changing in America.

“I feel like in my generation now, it’s more of turning from rebellion into just an art form, to where a lot more people are accepting of it instead of pushing it away," he said.

Pointing in the direction of a couple of elderly visitors in the exhibit, he observed that they were looking at the photographs of tattooed bodies "more comfortably than before, instead of shunning it."

Peter Gates, who was visiting from New York, fit the profile Hendrickson was describing.

"I never considered tattoo to be art," he said, "but after seeing these Japanese tattoos, I see that it can be, and is in this case, true art."

Gates is living proof that, no matter the style, tattoo as an art form is gaining popularity — and respect — both in the U.S. and overseas.