HOW POPULAR IS JAPANESE STYLE TODAY IN ITALY?
Very popular. I was the only one doing Japanese tattooing only in 2003, now I think there are maybe 3 or 4 doing it. I was there as an avant-garde probably but I was sure it would explode one day. In the future and in my opinion, the next step will see some Japanese artists saying ‘This is our thing, it is not right that gaijin (Japanese for ‘foreigner’) do it!’.

AS AN ITALIAN TATTOOIST SPECIALISED IN JAPANESE TATTOOING, HOW WOULD YOU REACT TO THAT KIND OF STATEMENT?
People can say whatever they want! Then we have to see if they have more right than me to talk about Japanese tattoo. In this country, at least, I make the history of Japanese tattoo until now. Can you say the same thing about yourself in your country? You want to tell me I don’t exist? Because I’m giving a Japanese version filtered with a western culture? It’s all there, right down to the technique.

HOW DID YOU CONNECT TO JAPANESE CULTURE?
We have a close relationship with Japan since the second world war. Then, all of my generation in Italy grew up with manga, anime on TV. I was then not only curious about trying what I saw as being part of the Japanese culture, but the art of Japan also made sense to me. The very first drawings I was obsessively looking at when I was a kid were Japanese. That’s why when they tell me ‘that is not your culture’ I usually reply ‘Well, maybe it’s not yours but it is mine!’ I never played football in my life. I was doing Karate when I was 6.

HOW WAS YOUR FIRST TRIP IN JAPAN?
It was in 2003 and besides being my first trip outside of Europe, it was like getting o’ on Mars. I had the chance to go there and work-with my machines hidden in my suitcase because of course tattooing is still illegal in Japan-I had friends waiting for me there. I took tons of pictures, did lots of sketches of places depicted in the Ukiyo-e. You have to feel reality because otherwise your drawings will look fake and I don’t want to be an imitator of anybody. I want to be myself when I draw.

ALONG THE WAY IN JAPAN, IS THERE A SPECIFIC CHARACTER WHO REALLY STANDS OUT?
Among all the Japanese tattooers that I’ve got the chance to see, Horihide from Yokosuka (a city in the south of Tokyo) was the best. This guy took Ukiyo-e designs and took it to another level, his own level, redrawing everything and made it a tattoo. He is the first, in my opinion, to build the bridge between Ukiyo-e and tattooing. The other old tattooers of Japan that we know, they all either do Japanese prints on the body, developed a di’erent design forms-good or notor they were painters who brought their techniques into tattooing. Horihide is a self-taught artist, he is the first who really decrypted the way Ukiyo-e are designed and made it specific to tattooing. I’ve really admired his work for a long time. He’s, even now at 88 years old, a strong influence. MORE PRECISELY THEN, WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM

HIS WORK?
I love the balance his work has, the strength of his characters and their unity. It suits the customer’s body so perfectly that it seems like he doesn’t have tattoos, it looks like a natural body. When a tattoo is too much on top of the person, it is not good. He made 600 body-suits and this is an experience that people don’t care about nowadays-they check on Instagram their number of follower and that’s it, but it’s much more important how many people are wearing this huge stu’ from you. You feel responsible for that. In Japan they tell you : ‘You have to feel responsible for your customers’. Yes, because you always have to be able to finish the tattoos you started. This is very professional. And I learnt that there, because I had no teachers here, everybody is doing his own thing and some are good, some aren’t. In Japan it is a school.

DID HE HELP YOU THROUGH YOUR STUDY OF THE JAPANESE TATTOOING?
Yokosuka Horihide took my drawings and corrected them, like a master would do. He gave me some tips to improve my dragons too, things that really changed my life. For example, he told me, ‘Your dragon body is a snake body, and it’s wrong’. The lines of the shape of the dragon should not be parallel and look like a tube, they should move. He also explained to me the choice of colours, things that are di’erent in reality but we don’t have to give a fuck about because it looks good on the body. He speaks a lot about the shape stuff should have, about how much portion of the chest the tattoos should cover, how many colours, how many details... it changed my work and made it grow, an adults work! He is my judgement.

TALKING ABOUT DRAGONS, IT IS A DESIGN THAT YOU SPECIFICALLY LIKE, WHY?
It’s a mixture of many techniques you want to learn when you want to draw fluently. When I read the life of Hokusaï, I read that he was drawing a karajishi (Chinese lions) every morning, so I do it with dragons. Almost every morning I do a sketch, a head, the claws, a part of the body. It’s a design which gives good energy when you do it. The reason why my dragons have eyes crossing comes from the ukiyo-e tradition and for example when you want to show strength for Kabuki actors, you normally cross his eyes. Sometimes it also adds a little irony and a little craziness in the design of dragons you can see in the temple. A dragon is a crazy force, it’s a strength of nature. FROM THE BEGINNING YOU WERE MORE INTERESTED IN THE CLASSIC LOOK OF TRADITIONAL JAPANESE TATTOOING THAN THE EUROPEAN MODERN VERSION THAT EVEN YOUNG JAPANESE TATTOOERS WERE LOOKING AT... All my friends in Japan were telling me, ‘You’re not doing Japanese tattoo, you’re doing your style’. And I was wondering why they would tell me this. So when I went to Yokosuka Horihide and showed him my work, he said, ‘This is real Japanese style!’. So you guys should learn from him. They were doing the Filip Leu style-they were more impressed by Mick (Zürich) and Filip than the traditional style of Japanese tattooers. Then I saw Ivan Szazi’s work and I saw another guy doing old-school stu’... it meant that other people understood my taste. The difficulty was getting people to like the designs on paper, before putting it on skin when they didn’t look as charming as the 3D dragons for example. It’s less of a cartoonist kind of rework. This is more serious and elegant. This is a word that Horihide told me: ‘Elegance’. It is the most important thing in Japanese tattooing. In Japan they call it ‘ikki’. It is a mixture between elegance and manner. I really understand that.

YOU’RE PAINTING BESIDES TATTOOING, WHAT INFLUENCE DOES IT HAVE IN YOUR CREATION PROCESS?
It’s very important. I started painting as a tattooer like everybody else, by painting flash. I did it like tattooing, with concentration and physical contraction. Because you have to take care of a lot of parameters, there is a tension. The paintings-like the dragons-that I do on huge scenography paper are more free. This opposite energy counter-balances the energy for tattooing, for your body and your mind. I like to give the idea of a painting in my tattoos. For example, I put a lot of dots behind my tattoos, I like the effect of sumi painting. The body is the canvas.

YOU OPENED YOUR FIRST SHOP IN 1997, YOU WERE 21 YEARS OLD. HOW DO YOU LOOK AT TATTOOING NOW IT HAS EVOLVED?
Tattooing, in the beginning of the 90’s, was an artistic revolution. We had the chance, and we still have that chance, to make it happen in society. People didn’t like art anymore before tattooing-they were not looking at paintings anymore, not going to museums. Now it is changing, because drawing is cool, because you can be an artist. So people want to join this. This is good. When people have a heart for expression, humanity comes back out. We were ashamed of our sensibilities, now even tough guys buy a painting! ‘Oh look, this is by Ichibay’. Can you imagine a huge biker with a painting? This the revolution we started but we have to continue on this path.