Tucked in the damp back streets of Nakano, Tokyo, is a small tattoo shop called Freestyle Tattoo. Around these parts the streets twist and turn into dizzying arrays of dead ends and alleyways. Faded graffiti and weathered signage adorn the walls amid a dark yet strangely nostalgic labyrinth of mom-and-pop izakayas. It seems painfully appropriate that Horitsuki-san chose this “shita-machi” district as the venue for his first Tokyo tattoo studio; his wabori work also conjures up a poignant blue-collar nostalgia, bolstered by stained hachi-maki towels and a crushed pack of smokes.

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Admittedly, I was nervous leading up to this shoot. Horitsuki-san seemed friendly enough over email; however a part of me struggled to get over the hardy yakuza-affiliated horishi stereotype. Needless to say, I was taken aback when Horitsuki-san greeted me with a polite bow as he ushered me into his impeccably clean studio, complete with wall-to-wall sketches of past concepts and the faint aroma of cigarettes and rubbing alcohol permeating the tidy quarters. He offered me a smoke as he sat before his drawing board. Though he was 13 years my senior, he spoke to me in measured keigo, a formal Japanese vernacular dedicated to speaking to someone of seniority or of a higher status. We chatted up to the very last minute before his next sitting and snapped some shots of his studio and concepts, as well as some of his own tattoo pieces.

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Horitsuki-san encountered irezumi in his late teens. “Some say I am mild-mannered for a tattoo artist,” he offers. “But I guess I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak.” In 1999, he began his career as a self-taught tattoo artist, specialising initially in Western tattoos. After several serendipitous encounters at international tattoo conventions, Horitsuki-san developed a renewed interest in traditional Japanese aesthetics. He has been pursuing wabori tattoos since. “My career has been largely shaped by the talented artists and mentors I have had the privilege to meet,” Horitsuki-san says. Perhaps the most endearing quality about this wabori artist is his undeniable humility and emphasis on go-en, or the serendipity of personal encounters, as his primary source of inspiration.

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Check out more of Horitsuki-san’s work here.

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.