For Japanese tattoo addicts, great masters of the Japanese prints hold no secrets for them. Hokusaï, Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kunichika... it is among the works of these now familiar artists that collectors choose nowadays the motifs of their next tattoos. For tattooers, searching in the massive amount of artworks produced by artists in the 19th century provides an endless source of inspiration for the creation of new compositions, when they do not replicate faithfully popular characters of the Japanese folklore, as such as the ones from the Suikoden, historical figures as Taira no Tomomori, buddhist deities as Fudô Myô-ô.

Along the course of its history, Japanese print not only illustrated the past and the abstract, it also illustrated the present and the reality. In this way, the term ukiyo-e- used generally to designate prints produced in the 19th century-is explicit: ukiyo can be translated by ‘present’ and e by ‘drawing’. At that time, portraits of kabuki actors-true stars of the time you can compare to modern movie stars-were bought frenetically by the numerous kabuki fans among the urban population of the old Tokyo. Ukiyo-e Project very clearly claims this integration of Japanese print in the contemporary world by taking from the entertainment industry, two of the most popular hard-rock bands of all time: Kiss and Iron Maiden. Two bands with a strong and rich environment able to provide enough creative inspiration to the artists involved in the project. These bands are also well known for being supported by a strong fan-base involving serious collectors; fans which Ukiyo-e Project targets directly with these images produced in a limited edition and sold at a quite high price-the starting price is $1250 dollars.

Whilst these images are no longer the popular and cheap images they were in the 19th century (at that time the price of a print was considered to be the price of a bowl of noodles), the reality is that the craft is striving to survive and look out for new solutions to preserve the knowledge which still exists. The process of producing a print is a relatively complex and costly issue.

In Japan, it is the result of the association of several skills: an editor -(hamoto), an artist (e-shi), a wood-carver (horishi) and a printer (surishi) and Ukiyo-e Project chose to diligently work the same way. Concerned by the decline of the profession, Ms.Yuka Mitsui started the project. As a professional involved in the music business, she naturally made it grow from there and built up a team of experts. We figured it would be a good idea to meet these highly skilled artists and the craftsmen involved in this project to understand the process of making a print and the interactions between them. Here, they share with us some of the vivid passions they have to perpetuate Japanese print culture, an art deeply involved in the Japanese tradition which of course, also belongs Japanese tattooing.

THE CRAFTSMAN
A craftsman from the 3rd generation, Yusuke Sekioka, chose to follow the path of his predecessors. Not as a printer but as a woodcarver, work he has done for almost 39 years. At almost 60 years old, he’s not only keeping up the good work but he’s also keeping it at his home in Tokyo.

WHAT IS THE REALITY OF THE ECONOMY OF THE JAPANESE PRINT TODAY?
The classic ukiyo-e is dying. Partly because the government doesn’t protect this field anymore and doesn’t fi- nance any projects as it used to. However, if the business is not doing very well, it is not something new. My father’s generation was already complaining about it and was talking in favour of a ‘new’ ukiyo-e.

DO WE HAVE AN IDEA ABOUT THE ACTUAL NUMBER OF WOODCARVERS STILL ACTIVE IN JAPAN?
There are actually less than 10 working in Tokyo. 5 less than when I started this work 40 years ago. In Kyoto and even if we consider it as another culture-we usually associate the word ukiyo-e to the prints produced in the city of Edo, the name of the old Tokyo-only about 10 woodcarvers are still active. In Osaka it is hard to say, there is no identified group.

ON WHAT KIND OF PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING?
Apart from the Ukiyo-e Project we are collaborating with the manga world and, more traditionally, Senjafuda‘s world. Senjafuda are kind of business cards that collectors trade for business purposes. They can also be done for a special occasion and given as a gift. In Japan for example, celebrating someone’s 60th anniversary-kanreki-is an important event which you can celebrate by editing a Senjafuda, but initially they were stuck on temples in order to connect the owner to the divinity and be assured of its protection.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN DIFFICULTIES A WOODCARVER FACE WHEN ENGRAVING A PRINT?
The hair and the eyes... and especially the hair of the women. Its realisation requires the finest level of delicacy possible, unlike men for which the processing can be harsher. It is a technical issue specific to woodcarving. To make curves, you have to give a proper strength to the tool and being at the same time careful not to push the wood too much otherwise it will break but it is not a work of strength. The face is also something dif- ficult to do. In the case of kabuki prints and especially for actor’s portraits (yakusha-e), the viewer should be able to recognise the actor depicted. For that reason, the Kiss prints have been particularly complicated because there are 4 faces to reproduce and almost as many pair of eyes.

DOES THE INTERVENTION OF THE WOODCARVER HAS AN INFLUENCE ON THE ORIGINAL DESIGN?
It is important for the woodcarver to preserve the line and the taste of the work of the illustrator, who steps in at the very beginning of the process of production of the print. At the same time, we reserve the right to adjust this line, in the case for example when lines are not straight or not the same size, in order to make it match the style of the ukiyo-e. Also, if there are too many nuances of colours, they will be reduced according to the way it is done traditionally. This adjustment of the drawing is part of our work. The woodcarver has, in that sense, the right to judge the artwork and do some modifications, even very light, without asking for authorisation. It is not a surprise for the illustrator. He knows the final artwork will be a little bit di¢erent from the one he delivered.

THE ARTIST
Masumi Ishikawa is, at 38 years old, a Tokyo-ite illustrator whose classic style close to the ukiyo-e is solicited for projects as varied as Star Wars or Ukiyo-e Project.

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE ROLE YOU PLAYED IN THIS PROJECT?
Traditionally, the illustrator delivers a drawing done with black ink from which the woodcarver carves the outlines of the drawings in a wooden board. Then, it is sent to the printer who makes a first print. Usually and after this step, the illustrator chooses the colours and where they should be placed. I worked almost exclusively the same way on the images of Kiss and Iron Maiden, with the exception of the choice of the colours that I did first.

HOW DOES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE ARTIST (E-SHI) AND THE EDITOR (HAMOTO ) WORK?
Once the artist has agreed to participate to the project, we determine the number of images to do before discussing their content. This comes at a very early stage. Then, the artist produces a sketch which will be used as a base for the discussion and proceeds to do the modifications required until an agreement is found. It is a whole work in itself to try to reach a point which satisfies the artist and the producer. The artist is then hands off up until the realisation of the final drawing. Only the colours can be modified at the last moment. In total, these talks run through a period of two months to start the process of carving and printing.

HOW DID THE CREATION OF THE DRAWINGS WORK?
I knew these two bands and I already had in mind strong images. The made-up faces and the character of Eddie from Iron Maiden. When the project happened it was very simple to transfer these images into the world of the ukiyo-e that I knew very well and in which I took a lot of references. In this way, for the representation of the actor who looks at his face in the mirror, I got inspired by the work of Kuniyoshi that I like very much. The one with the four faces has also been inspired by an old ukiyo-e.

LOOKING TO OLD PRINTS FOR THE CREATION OF NEW ONES, IS IT SOMETHING COMMON IN THE WORLD OF THE UKIYO-E?
Copying in the ukiyo-e world was authorised, because in the city of Edo it was impossible to hide anything. Also, ukiyo-e was kind of a subculture and the craftsmen were very close. Therefore it was very flexible, the artists had the right to mix their creation with elements outside of their original family. In the case of the Utagawa school (a very famous school of ukiyo-e from which grew some of the greatest ukiyo-e artists like Kuniyoshi and Kunisada) it had very good relations with the others. Its artists could take elements from Hokusaï’s artworks for example, the only obligation was to keep the ‘manner’ (yoshiki) of the school, it should still be personal.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE ‘MANNER’ OF THE UTAGAWA FAMILY?
It is hard to say, the details are almost invisible to a non-informed eye. The most important is the balance, between the face and the eyes, between the bodies. Each element can be drawn in a similar way, from one family to another, but the way they are put altogether is di¢erent. I love Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s manner and I want it to stay alive. I’m infused by ukiyo-e, in a very natural way. What I think, what I draw... everything is connected to the ukiyo-e. When I’m on the phone and I draw for example, it is ukiyo-e. For me, it is life.

IS THE JAPANESE PRINT STILL A MODERN ART?
Yes, totally. During the Edo period, the ukiyo-e was aiming to describe the era the craftsmen were living in. It was a modern art. Today, whether we may be in Edo or Tokyo, it is the same thing. More than a subject matter, modernity is a matter of technique.