Posts Tagged With: japanese tattoo

Some things

Sometimes what looks like a bad day can turn into a good one in the blink of an eye. On the first day we were back at work in 2012 I had a full day of appointments cancel with less than 12 hours notice. It was kind of a bummer because I have many customers waiting for an appointment and when someone is a no-show with so little notice its hard to get one of those people in. It’s not really so unfair to me, but it is very unfair to the people who have been waiting to get in and can’t just take off work or rearrange their live to come in on such short notice.

Anyway through the magic of Facebook we put the word out that I had some time open and two great regulars were able to step in on short notice. Not only did I get a couple loyal regulars in, but I was really stoked on both tattoos I did!

First up was N. One of those clients who I just knew from the first tattoo was going to become heavily tattooed! Some people just get that sparkle in their eyes the minute they look in the mirror at their first lil tattoo and you know that they have fallen in love with tattoos. He is also one of those customers you can really have a conversation while you are tattooing, one of the great side benefits of being a tattooer is having one on one time with people from all walks of life and philosophies. So we started a squid about a year ago and due to his job was only able to get an occasional session here and there on it til yesterday when we finished this bad boy. . .

As we were working on this another long time shop buddy called and asked if I would have time to do a portrait of their dog. Now i do a lot of kinds of tattoo but portraits (and portraits of dogs especially) I don’t do, not because I don’t want to, but because it’s just not my thing and I can’t do an amazing version of it the way some other tattooers in Pittsburgh could. In this case though he insisted I could do it more “traditional-ish” and since he is a shop buddy I told him to come down and let me look at what he wanted. As soon as i saw the picture of this adorable little guy I was in! T’s dog is part corgi and part dachshund and if that isn’t a formula for the cutest dog in the world then his little smile surely makes him a contender for the prize! I wanted to get his lil tweaked paw (don’t worry, he apparently runs on it just fine) and smiley demeanor so I kept the background very simple and greywashy and put all the blacks and contrast into the pup itself. I was stoked to see it done!

So a day that started off looking like a wash-out turned into one of the more fun days I’ve had lately, yet again I’m grateful and conscious of how lucky I am!


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The places (or drawings) that scare us

All of us who do art for a living have things we like to draw, things we feel confident in rendering right out of our stock of images we carry around in our noggins. I have drawn so many Koi, dragons, and waves that I often draw these things directly on the customers with markers and go right to tattooing. It’s not that im so wonderful, it’s that  I have practiced drawing these things to the point where my hand knows what to do without me sweating too much about it.

Then there is the other stuff.. . . . the stuff we don’t draw as much. Maybe its the more complicated stuff, or the things with less wiggle room for interpretation, maybe its just the things we are not often called upon to draw. They are scary and I never ever, ever draw these things right onto a customer. These designs that scare me require time, reference, and many, many attempts before I have something i can deem acceptable to go on a clients skin.

When I began getting artwork together for the current set of flash I am painting I knew I wanted to work with Japanese tattoo images and I happened to have a halfway decent tiger drawing ready (I usually have some difficulty drawing a tiger I like for some reason), as I began to lay the tiger out on watercolor paper a though struck me, why not make all of the images in this set things that I’m afraid to draw? It would certainly force me to practice with these images and it would also be a way to push myself a little bit.  I have a hard time drawing Ukioyo style figures, I have a hard time drawing  birds that don’t look stiff and awkward and like I said, I have trouble drawing tigers that don’t look like they are missing a few chromosomes.

Heres what I came up with (sorry for the watermarks, flash bootlegging is out of control these days)

Kintaro wrestling the koi. Usually when I draw this it comes out like Kintaro is trying to get a fish pregnant, but I think I got the struggle aspect working here. At first the fish was just black and grey but he looked faint among all the waves and with Kintaro being all bright red i had to do a little wash of carpy green.

Kiyohime entwining her ex-lovers bell hiding place. His monk robe can just be seen poking out from under the bell. This is one of those Japanese tattoos where knowing the story and history adds so much. her kimono is printed with the traditional “Scale” pattern and is meant to imply the snake that she has turned into. When Geisha (or any woman in Ukiyo art I suppose) are shown with a pink flush around their eyes it symbolizes sexual passion, Kiyohimes desire for her little monk was so strong it immolated both of them.

so here we have Wada Heida Tanenaga slaying a giant snake. He is famous for slaying a giant snake and being a loyal retainer. I love drawing snakes but hate drawing figures and to try to get the effect of the Kuniyoshi/manga style bodies was even harder for me. I like the feet, feet are hard to draw!

A barn swallow in flight with some peony blossoms. The trick for me here was just to draw a bird that didn’t look stiff OR like a traditional sailor swallow. how did I do?

So last is the tiger I started the set with. He’s in a very traditional pose, chest out and “roaring at the moon”. Apparently tigers are so bad ass that one even roared at the moon when it rose to show his dominance over it. i wanted to keep this one super simple and bold.

That is my latest set of flash and it was fun after the nearly  year-long hiatus from painting. I am selling copies of these as a flash set for $60 (email me at to order one). I might even do another set of traditionalish stuff this year as long as it remains fun to do.

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New tattoos on old friends

The patron of martial arts, the bird-like Tengu is a skilled warrior and mischief maker, especially prone to playing tricks on arrogant and vainglorious Buddhist priests, and to punishing those who willfully misuse knowledge and authority to gain fame or position. In bygone days, they also inflicted their punishments on vain and arrogant samurai warriors. They dislike braggarts, and those who corrupt the Dharma (Buddhist Law”

Sometimes you get to do awesome tattoos, sometimes you get to tattoo good friends, and sometimes you get to do awesome tattoos on good friends. Josh is one of the sweetest people I know and when he asked for something Japanese-ish to go on his chest our friendship helped me pick the perfect subject. Josh has been involved in the martial arts for years and like most true devotees he feels a spiritual as well as a physical improvement that it brings to his life. The Tengu are a perfect example of that melding of the two aspects of martial arts into one. It doesn’t hurt that they look really cool and are seldom done as tattoos (at least seldom seen by me). So we had the plan to do the outline, a Tengu mask amid a rushing stream:

The red stamp is the Haku bun seal of Joshs wife, Erica, who passed away recently. Erica was a wonderful friend and a true tattoo aficionado who loved tattooing like few other people I have met in my 14 years of pushing the pins.  I had also done this same haku bun on Ericas sister and brother, and it seems truly fitting for Josh to have it over his heart. The sternum is probably the most painful part of the torso to get tattooed but you wouldn’t know it from Josh, no complaints as I ground away on his breastbone he just closed his eyes and kept chatting with Cara and I.

For some reason I have been getting much faster at this type of tattooing lately, apparently the muscle memory finally took hold and I have become very comfortable with my graywash recently. In tattooing confidence definitely translates into speed, and when you are tattooing someone who you feel a connection with its almost like time disappears. We got the outline done in record time and Josh felt good to get some shading in which also seemed to fly past. After a short deliberation and in recognition of the 5 hour drive Josh has to make to get another session we decided to push through and just get it finished:

The whole thing ended up being just shy of 5 hours and then we went out to eat and Josh stayed over to rest up for the drive home tomorrow. I believe that we will be doing the other side in April when Cara and I work at the Baltimore Convention near where Josh lives.

Another great friend is Bert, he not only makes awesome shirts for us but can sit like a rock and picks tattoos that are super fun to do. A couple of days ago he came in to get a traditional-ish lion on his stomach. Again we started off planning to just do the outline since the stomach hurts so much usually, but once the got the linework squared away he was feeling good so we just finished.

Later on we decided to add some red to the mouth and some bit of color to the eyes and fur but not much, after this bit heals it will take just a few minutes to add those parts.

It was a great week and we are really lucky and blessed to have such good friends.

Next week Cara and I will be working the Philadelphia Tattoo convention with the great fellas at Black Thorn gallery in Mechanicsburg. In past years Philly has been crazy busy (and occasionally just plain crazy) so we should have some cool pictures when we get back hopefully including one of the new tattoo Im scheduled to get!

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Work in progress and new jonx.

almost finished with this koi sleeve/chest panel. I haven’t done a really big version of a Showa Koi before so I was a teeny bit apprehensive, but once we got the background on there I was more confident in the ability for it to pop.  The inner bicep (lotus and waves) and some cherry blossoms remain to be done, I’m really excited for how this one is coming together and the customer is super stoked coming in as often as I can make time for him.

I also did a fly reel on a great regular customer who already is wearing two Japanese sleeves I did on him and wanted to express his other passion, namely fly fishing. The reel is from a photo he brought in of a 1940s era piece of tackle that belonged to an uncle who passed away while my customer was still a toddler. But their shared love of fly fishing is something he wanted to do without it looking too much like a memorial piece. It’s on the side of his calf.

Lastly is a piece on shop friend/t-shirt printer extraordinaire Bert. He has a nautical sleeve going on his left arm and wanted to get a lighthouse to fill the vertical triceps area. I tried to keep it super simple, traditional, and scary. I lined this with a new machine that my good friend Robie made.

That’s it for now, I have at least 4 Japanese dragons in various stages of being finished and I have a feeling they will all end up done within a month of each other heh heh. More to come soon. . .

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In progress

so this lil beauty is about half the final tattoo. The plan is to bring an underwater white koi down from this bit so far. Onto the butt and thigh. The circular celtic piece was already there and before we actually started it seemed like it would be a huge problem for thei piece, but the more we do around it the smaller and smaller it looks!

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New WIP!

which of course stands for “Work In Progress”. This Tibetan skull/hannya sleevage is nearly complete, just a few flowers and some butterflies to finish it all off.

the upper arm after we finished the skull and some more background.

matt S tibet skull WIP

the lower arm is healed, ill post a connected picture when we finish the top.

matt hannya sleeve comp

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A couple months back I started on Kevin’s back, his wife has been kind enough to take pictures showing the progress. Most of the time I shoot pics when the piece is finished and it was neat to see the evolution of this thing so far. Its not done yet, but we are closing in on it. Each picture represents between 2 to 4 hours of tattooing each session.

Aside from the neat time-lapse quality of these pics, its also instructive to see just how long this kind of thing takes. In traditional Japanese horimono (traditional style tattoos) the client knows that they are signing up for months (if not years) of repeat visits right from the start. Its an interesting contrast to most American customers who ask “how much longer is this going to take?” by the third session. (For the record, Kevin is not one of those customers, he is extremely patient and appreciates that quality work is often slow going)

On to the pictures.

This is what Kevin came to me with already on his back. Its about 10 years old and looks pretty good for its age. This dragonfly looks huge, but as we put the rest of the stuff around it, it keeps looking smaller and smaller. . .


So we decided to do a sort of pond/waterfall scene to incorporate the dragonfly. I stencilled on the flowers and some of the waves, drew on a bunch of the rocks. Usually I prefer to just stencil on the flowers and draw all the rest on, but this was Kevin’s first tattoo with me and he wanted to see some of the background worked out more thoroughly ahead of time. Cant say that I blame him, so with a preliminary drawing and some markers we got the outline of the lower section on.


We put a couple lotuses (loti?) and a peony/chrysanthemum and a bunch of cherry blossoms. the Cherry blossoms will be important later since we will be doing clouds and wind above the dragonfly and filling that area with blowing cherry blossoms and petals.

For the next session we began shading in the water and rocks. In this picture it all looks like black shading, but the water is all various shades of grey. When i was learning to tattoo this was the toughest part for me, greywash, because you need to trust how much the wash fill fade into its appropriatete shade in a couple weeks.


In this next picture you can see that the greywash from the previous session has faded down while the solid black in te rocks stays pretty much the same. I figured Kevin was pretty tired of watching grey slowly take over his back so we put color into the peony. it might be hard to tell here but that flower is a good 8 or 9 inches across and took an hour to color in just by itself.


More color! This time we took care of the lotuses. Anyone who knows Japanese tattoos will recognise the color scheme and style cribbed from Shige at Yellow Blaze tattoo, I still put my own spin on it but I consider Shige a teacher and mentor (though he has never met me) and am unashamed to try to reach the level of perfection his work has achieved.

You can begin to see how the color pieces ‘float’ on top of the layers of black. In Japanese tattoos its often the color that makes people catch their breath, the wonder how do these guys get it so bright!? Frankly the background is the secret, without the proper proportions of black and contrasting negative space the brightest ink in the world would fall flat. There is a good reason those guys spend twice as long on the background as they do the “main” subject.


We finally get around to re-lining the dragonfly! though you cant see it too well in this picture, most of the time on this session was spent shading the water on Kevin’s lower left rib/love handle area. We are connecting this piece to a rib panel of a koi and water he got at another shop. We did manage to get the cherry blossoms and waves all finished (except the blossoms on the right side, I like to keep the tattooed area limited to one side if possible to make sleep easier while it heals 🙂 )


This picture I shot to show Kevin what we were about to outline. This is how most of my Japanese style stuff gets put on, with markers. I don’t do this to show off, if possible i would much rather stencil my tattoos on instead of drawing them on the skin (I like to work out the details on paper so i don’t waste the customers time) but with the flow and balance so critical to horimono tattooing there really is no better way to lay it out than drawing it on. This way you can allow for the bumps and shapes that the persons body has that a paper stencil simply cant take into account. At this point I find it much harder to draw finger waves on paper than I do on skin. We finished this outline and about a third of the shading at the top but i don’t yet have pictures of that.


I think we will have this bad boy wrapped up in a couple more sessions. Thanks to Kevin for letting me do it and the pictures his wife shot for us! Ill post a finished pic when we get there.

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