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BLACKWORK TATTOOING HAS BEEN a staple of Indigenous tattoo cultures for thousands of years. Whether hand-tapped, hand-poked, skin-cut, or skin-stitched, this style of tattooing was originally produced with combs, needles, cutting tools, and natural black (and sometimes red) pigments for a variety of ritual, personal, and social reasons.

Over the millennia, blackwork has evolved to become a contemporary art form inspired by ancient tribal and more modern neo-tribal roots. It also has come to represent other movements in tattoo art like Art Brut (“raw art”), which is characterized by über chic noir designs created by modern ink masters such as Noon, Little Swastika, Yann Black, and Simone Pfaff, among other virtuosos.

As Blackwork scholar Marisa Kakoulas writes in her recent photobook Black Tattoo Art 2: “Everything is possible [in blackwork], and everything is allowed.” Black lines, spirals, zigzags, dots, and geometric plains predominate. And the creative scope is unlimited: spiritually infused tribals, sacred geometry, and elaborately stippled patterns with three-dimensional qualities. Today’s blackwork is characteristic of completely free, pure, and unconventionally tattooed layouts.


Neo-Marquesan hand tattoo and a Jomon revival sleeve.
Neo-Marquesan hand tattoo and a Jomon revival sleeve



“Lotus with a thousand petals,” based on Mehndi designs and “Cyberpunk” neo-tribal tattoos

A NEO-TRIBAL GURU

Tokyo-based tattoo artist Taku Oshima has captured the essence of blackwork in his bold designs: powerful neo-tribal works that convey the endless possibilities of art that can be created with monochromatic tattoos. And they also ignite the visual senses in deeply profound and spiritual ways.

Oshima has been tattooing for nearly 20 years, but before he took the leap he studied anthropology at the university. He was first exposed to tattooing in Goa, India, in the mid-’90s and then traveled the world as an artistic nomad for seven years. Because he cultivated his skills and style outside of Japan, he was not heavily influenced by the traditional Japanese irezumi school of hand-tattooing. Instead, he gravitated to tribal aesthetics early on, especially Indian Mehndi (henna) and Borneo designs that were graceful, spiritual, and bold at the same time. Later, he became inspired by numerous other Indigenous artistic styles, including Polynesian (Marquesan, Maori), Native American (Northwest Coast), Southeast Asian (Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines), Pre-Columbian (Mayan, Aztec), and Japanese (Jomon and Ainu), among others.


Polynesian hybrid tattoo with core Marquesan design elements and more neo-Marquesan blackwork
Polynesian hybrid tattoo with core Marquesan design elements and more neo-Marquesan blackwork


Neo-Mayan work and ornamental blackwork based on Mehndi henna designs
Neo-Mayan work and ornamental blackwork based on Mehndi henna designs

Oshima says: “For me, tattooing is a spiritual act, but I don’t mean this in the sense that it is an initiation rite as in Tribal societies. Rather, it’s more an act of affirming an already existing identity. It’s like deciding to show off the invisible thing which is your soul. I truly believe this.”

“I love any kind of tribal tattoo. And ideally the larger the piece, the better. But here in Japan, tribal tattooing is not that popular and when people decide to get one, they are usually very small. Sometimes I feel like a Sumo wrestler, grappling with what clients desire and what I want to create for them. Ideally, large works that can be seen clearly from 10 meters away is what I love! Mainly, my clients that are self-employed (musicians, stylists, etc.) are the ones who receive the large pieces. This is because tattooing is still stereotyped here in Japan as part of criminal culture, and when you wear a large piece people think you are a gangster. I am not joking, but my mother still thinks I am a member of the Yakuza!”


Ainu-Jomon hybrid leg piece. The Jomon were a prehistoric people ancestral to the Ainu of Hokkaido and inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Jomon artisans created ceramic figurines called dogu that were probably used for protection against illness, infertility, and spirits. Markings on the faces and bodies of many of these objects likely represented tattooing, a custom also practiced by the Ainu until recently.
Ainu-Jomon hybrid leg piece. The Jomon were a prehistoric people ancestral to the Ainu of Hokkaido and inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Jomon artisans created ceramic figurines called dogu that were probably used for protection against illness, infertility, and spirits. Markings on the faces and bodies of many of these objects likely represented tattooing, a custom also practiced by the Ainu until recently


Baobab tree with tribal roots and avante-garde design that defies explanation
Baobab tree with tribal roots and avante-garde design that defies explanation

Oshima shares his Tokyo studio – Apocaript – with a traditional irezumi master, Shinjuku Shodai Horiai, who is one of the top Japanese tattooists of Taku’s generation. Their studio is not large by Western standards, because of the high price of leasing space in Tokyo. Oshima explains: “It has been moved four times, but we have been in our current location for six years. Before we got here, we were spending so much money on larger spaces and had to pass this cost on to the customer. But now we don’t have to do that, so we can just concentrate on tattooing. This is better for everyone involved.”

Apart from his fascination with tribal art, Oshima is inspired by several leading contemporary artists. “If I were to name just a few, they would be Tomas Tomas. I try time and again to imagine how he works, and it’s a mystery to me! Gerhard Wiesbeck is another because he makes HUGE blackwork pieces all the time, and I always dream of doing this more often! Another is the energetic Elle Festin, who has paved the way for the Philippine Tattoo Revival. Actually, I am really pushing hard for a revival of traditional tribal Japanese and other Southeast Asian tattooing forms. The prehistoric Jomon people, historic Ainu, and peoples of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan all had tattooing traditions, but they disappeared. And because Jomon tattoos can only be seen on ancient clay figurines, we are still attempting to understand their functions and meanings. However, I am already making some very big Jomon-style tattoos for willing customers, as well as hybrid designs that combine tribal Philippine, Taiwanese, and other Southeast Asian patterns. If anything else, I want people around the world to become aware of these incredibly beautiful tattooing styles that only recently have been rediscovered. After all, Indigenous peoples like these are the ones who invented tattooing, and we would not have a vibrant tattoo culture if it were not for their achievements in the medium of blackwork.”


Minimalist diamond fractal tattoo sleeve and circles of modern blackwork
Minimalist diamond fractal tattoo sleeve and circles of modern blackwork


Polynesian hybrid leg piece
Polynesian hybrid leg piece

For more information on Taku, please visit his website and studio.

ありがとうArigatō!

TRIBAL TATTOO APOCARIPT
A-169-0072 #503 1-15-17
Okubo Shinjuku
Tokyo, Japan
E-mail: oshima.taku@gmail.com
www.apocaript.com
Voice: 81-080-3504-7966


Kalinga, Northwest Coast, and Naga neo-tribal hybrid tattoo based on historic and contemporary traditions. Once known as the fiercest headhunting tribe in the northern Philippines, the Kalinga have an ancient tattooing tradition that is believed to be more than 1000 years old. Men earned the right to be tattooed after success in hand-to-hand combat and women wore designs to increase their fertility, beautify their bodies, and promote longevity. Kalinga tattoos consist of numerous natural symbols, but the most common are python scales and centipede motifs that were believed to fortify the body. Both animals were revered as
Kalinga, Northwest Coast, and Naga neo-tribal hybrid tattoo based on historic and contemporary traditions. Once known as the fiercest headhunting tribe in the northern Philippines, the Kalinga have an ancient tattooing tradition that is believed to be more than 1000 years old. Men earned the right to be tattooed after success in hand-to-hand combat and women wore designs to increase their fertility, beautify their bodies, and promote longevity. Kalinga tattoos consist of numerous natural symbols, but the most common are python scales and centipede motifs that were believed to fortify the body. Both animals were revered as “friends of the warrior” because of the omens they delivered on the warpath


Neo-tribal Paiwan backpiece with Kalinga-inspired sleeves. One of the largest Indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Paiwan were feared warriors and heavily tattooed. Traditionally, tattoo artists were female aristocrats who also served as shamans for the community. Tattoos were hand-tapped in various patterns, including family totems, anthropomorphic spirits, and designs based on the patterns of the hundred pace viper. This snake was believed to be an ancestor.
Neo-tribal Paiwan backpiece with Kalinga-inspired sleeves. One of the largest Indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Paiwan were feared warriors and heavily tattooed. Traditionally, tattoo artists were female aristocrats who also served as shamans for the community. Tattoos were hand-tapped in various patterns, including family totems, anthropomorphic spirits, and designs based on the patterns of the hundred pace viper. This snake was believed to be an ancestor.

FURTHER READING

(2013) Marisa Kakoulas. Black Tattoo Art 2. Aschaffenburg: Edition Reuss.
(2007) Lars Krutak. The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women. London: Bennett & Bloom.
(2010) Lars Krutak. Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal. Aschaffenburg: Edition Reuss.