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Taki: One of America’s Finest Japanese Tattoo Artists

Samurai Kato Kiyomasa s history of sixteenth century Japan is brilliantly depicted here

Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura was born in Tokyo in 1973 and moved to the United States with his parents when he was two. His father taught for 18 years at the University of California, Davis (UCD), and his mother instilled Japanese culture in her children, from cuisine to folktales, to preserve their history. Kitamura got his first tattoo during his senior year of high school, around 1991, and after graduating from college in 1994, he moved to San Jose, California, where he has lived and worked ever since. He began his tattooing career in 1998 and was fortunate to be accepted as one of Horiyoshi III’s apprentices in Japan, which proved to be a wonderful experience.

With two decades of expertise and a focus on Japanese tattooing, Kitamura has accomplished more than the majority of individuals in that time: Founder of the acclaimed tattoo studio State of Grace, author of books, co-organizer of the Bay Area Tattoo Convention, curator of museum and art gallery exhibitions, and more.

Above: Samurai Kato Kiyomasa’s history of sixteenth-century Japan is brilliantly depicted here.
Tattooing the Hikae chest panel on client Smoleg
Tattooing the “Hikae,” chest panel on client Smoleg.

Instead of concentrating on the present, I want to conduct a retrospective interview. I feel it is essential to inform readers about your amazing achievements in your career.

Thank you for saying they’re amazing. But, for me, that sense of accomplishment is always fleeting. “Oh, here’s another feather in your cap,” Ed Hardy always jokes, but I’m not sitting there reveling in it, as I want to do something else. I believe that when you finish a tattoo, a book, or a project, you think of everything—and, while I’m not a pessimist, I do consider what I could have done better.

Tomoe Gozen, a renowned onna musha from the late Heian era of Japanese history is shown in this artwork
Tomoe Gozen, a renowned onna-musha from the late Heian era of Japanese history, is shown in this artwork.

Let’s go back in time—you grew up in a bi-lingual, bi-cultural setting (Japanese- American) that offered you a unique viewpoint. How so?

My parents moved to America. So I studied both English and Japanese at the same time. Growing up [in Davis, California], I felt we were a minority. We used to joke about there only being three or four Japanese-American families; do you all know each other? However, we did know each other. We experienced some casual racism and there were incidents, but overall, life was great and much good was happening. It gave me a unique perspective on life because I also traveled back and forth to Japan for summer school. I believe immigrants, like Asians and Mexican Americans, face specific discrimination in this country [US]. “Oh, where are you from?” people will ask—but not in a curious way; sometimes, it’s meant like we don’t belong here. I don’t have time for people that think like that; I consider myself to be an American.

When I went to Japan, they treated me like an American. So I believe there is a feeling of not belonging entirely in both places, but it can also be flipped, feeling like you belong anywhere in the world. And as I grew older, especially regarding tattooing, I realized, “Wow, I’ve been given this key.”

Tattooist Kitamura is again in action and wearing a Monmon cat tshirt a brand he coowns
Tattooist Kitamura is back action and wearing a Monmon cat t-shirt—a brand he co-owns.

In the early 90s, you were in high school and involved in the skate and punk scenes.

It is related to being bicultural. A shout-out to immigrant parents raising children because my mom is sitting there trying to get me to do extra math homework, and I’m like, “What are you talking about? All my white friends are all skateboarding, dude.” So I think it isn’t easy to be traditionally Japanese in California when your child wants to dye his hair and skateboard. It was my way to rebel. But I guess ironically, I had been exposed to Japanese tattoos, and I thought they were cool, but my initial foray into tattooing was because of more like punk and skate type, you know, the Jason Jessee interviews and the few punk bands with tattoos. Because back then, sports people weren’t tattooed. It was punks and bikers, and various subsets had tattoos.

The Kitamura family Molly Kubi Takahiro and Chaja
The Kitamura family: Molly, Kubi, Takahiro, and Chaja.

I’ve always considered the punk subculture to be impactful.

I mean, it’s funny because we went down memory lane because my wife was the same way. She grew up as a goth punk kid. We didn’t know each other back then but were on the same courses. But we wanted to separate ourselves from this larger society, which we later discovered is just a part of being in the broader society. But it’s fun when you’re young. But we just watched that Sex Pistols (FX’s “Pistol,” a six-episode series) on Hulu, which brought back many memories.

The tattoo legend Takahiro Kitamura working at his station
The tattoo legend Kitamura working at his station.

It was fun!

Yes, it was an epic time! The Sex Pistols were a band that posed a lot of danger to society, and I think it’s like, now and then, you’ll get one band that’s the banner for a movement. And I feel the same way, NWA; I remember when NWA came out when I was in high school, and people even in the suburbs were freaking out, mainly white parents.

Another art piece by Takahiro Kitamura this time representing warrior Konjin Chogoro
Another art piece by Takahiro Kitamura, this time representing warrior Konjin Chogoro.

The punk mentality is often anti-corporate greed and non-conformist. Do you still believe in some of the punk ideologies?

Granted, I am a tax-paying business owner; I have no delusions about that. I’m a homeowner as well. So there are specific ways to say I’m assimilated or sold out. Our tattoo shop is in Japantown [in San Jose, California], and we believe in small businesses and helping one another. And those, in my opinion, are anti-corporate ideals. Tattooing has an anti-corporate ethos; you still have the “by tattooers, for tattooers” kind of thinking. Some still believe this, even if you see supply companies arguing about who is investing and whatnot. It’s difficult because many contradictions make it difficult to say, “Oh my God, I want to do this.” But I find that I have to buy my paper towels at Costco, or you have to buy this through Amazon Prime and support the world’s largest corporation.

The left sleeve of client Smoleg part of his Hikae
The left sleeve of client Smoleg, part of his “Hikae.”

We’re trying to avoid contributing to one of the world’s wealthiest people (Jeff Bezos), but it’s difficult with the convenience of his service, the low prices, and fast delivery time.

Right. When I was younger, I probably was louder and more opinionated because, you know, I was always right. Young and dumb, as they say! And as you get older, you see how interconnected things are. And even, for example, paying taxes to the government. We’re funding all these things that, a lot of which we probably like, but a lot that we don’t. You look at the things that are going on. You look at the Khashoggi murder, and both Biden and Trump were totally fine with the Saudis. They still are. Biden fist-bumped them. And I think the two-party politics in America is just a matter of big money. And I guarantee you, whoever’s in that office, they answer to the big corporations.

People say during COVID-19, “Well, rich people had it easier.” Tell me about a time in history when wealthy people did not. So, you should choose what is most important to you and try to stick to it. And I think tattooing has been very fulfilling because it’s not like I’m saving the world. I understand. But I’m also engaged in a practice dating back to the dawn of human existence.

Kitamura used a bright purple pigment for this tattoo of Suikoden hero Ichijosei Kosanjo
Kitamura used a bright purple pigment for this tattoo of Suikoden hero Ichijosei Kosanjo. 

But you do save some people.

Maybe.

There is a healing, therapeutic aspect to tattooing.

Also, I’m not dumping toxic waste in the ocean. But if I can help people express themselves, learn something and maybe get through their day, that is a satisfying feeling.

Tattooist Tyler Harrington working alongside Kitamura at State of Grace studio
Tattooist Tyler Harrington working alongside Kitamura at State of Grace studio.

You started professionally tattooing in the late 1990s and soon received a chance to apprentice under Horiyoshi III. What were the advantages and disadvantages of this experience?

So I think it’s hard to summarize my 10-year experiences with Horiyoshi III. It was a life-changing experience. It was the best opportunity I could ever have had. It’s funny when it first happened; many people were like, “Well, why would he take you? You’ve only been tattooing for six months,” and that’s precisely why. I went there; I got my back tattooed by him. And also, that year, Alex Reinke got his back done. So we both were the same year when we joined him. And a lot of it was this joke: “why are these two kids with Horiyoshi III?” But that’s why, because we were kids.

A candid photograph of the Japanese-American artist
A candid photograph of the Japanese-American artist.

Yes, easier to mold.

Moldable and teachable. Eventually, when Horiyoshi III pulled in Horitomo, like the following year, he already had over ten years of experience. So he was beefing up the family then.

I presume Horiyoshi III chose me and offered me this position because of what my value brought. I don’t mean this insidiously. For example, immediately on my first trip, I began translating letters and responding to fan mail for him. Having someone bilingual was advantageous. But at the same time, he’d have a stack of fan mail that he’s like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” And then again, the fact that I had a college degree in community studies meant that I could write. And I think together he and I, we accomplished a lot. We published a lot of things together. It was a great run! I wrote the book “Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo,” about my first experiences in Japan. And that’s why Ed Hardy talked to me. That’s why Ed gave me the time of day after that. I’d proven, “Oh, okay, I’m worthy of your time kind of thing.”

Kame No Koh the rising dragon with a complete background
Kame-No-Koh (in Japanese tattooing from neck to lower thigh, which is known as “turtle-back placement”); the rising dragon with a complete background.

Ed Hardy was one of the big print publishers.

I learned about Horiyoshi III through Ed Hardy’s Tattootime publication. There’s a whole generation of us; without Tattootime, we might not have become tattooers.

And not just Ed, but Ed’s crew, like Leo Zulueta and Bill Salmon, all these people, like Jack Rudy, Michael Malone, Lyle Tuttle, Junko “Junii” Shimada, Pinky Yun and so many more. We can’t thank them enough. A lot of this, too, is standing on the shoulders of giants. If you’re a Japanese tattooer, you’re probably nothing without the work of people like Horiyoshi III, Horitoshi, Horiyasu and Horitsune. On top of that, you’re nothing without the artwork, and they’re nothing without the artwork of Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi, and everyone else. So I think the Japanese tattoo is built upon many generations of fantastic artwork and dedication, and I’m happy to be a part of it now.

The demon Rasetsu is tattooed on back  Tattoo on Darker skin
The demon Rasetsu is tattooed on back (“Kame-No-Koh”).

Being a traditional apprentice meant being a lifetime member of Horiyoshi III’s tattoo family. What were the repercussions when you parted ways?

I served Horiyoshi III for ten years, and I learned much from him, and yes, we parted ways. I, and a handful of other people, left the family at the same time. And we had our reasons for doing so.

I will say this when people mention that things are supposed to be a “lifetime,” in an ideal world, you have these ethics and values that you hold yourself to, but then see how many people get divorced. See how many people leave the military, leave the mafia, and leave a motorcycle club. There are a lot of things that are supposed to be for life.

But you end up dead by some groups, like leaving the Mafia.

Sure, but this is a tattoo family, not a crime family. My point is that people join things with the intention of a lifelong relationship, and things don’t always work out that way.

I guess you survived.

That was an issue for me, was this something I could leave? But it wasn’t suitable for me anymore. My father had just passed away. I was there when he took his last breath. I was in the hospice for weeks. That year, I went to Japan eight times. So a lot of stuff was going on. And maybe if that had not happened, I might have stayed in the family. I don’t know. I’ve been criticized for it—my advice is to do a decade in a tattoo family and then tell me about it.

The tattoo artist s wife, Molly, has a dragon fully shaded in tebori
The tattoo artist’s wife, Molly, has a dragon fully shaded in tebori.

Well, judgment is quicker than learning the whole story.

And these are the same people criticizing who can’t stay married for five years.

I’m not going to disrespect what Horiyoshi III has done for me. He was an amazing master, but I went through some stuff, and I had to leave, and that’s that.

A portrait of Takahiro Taki Kitamura
A portrait of tattoo legend Takahiro “Taki” Kitamura.

You were discussing Ed Hardy, who was also like you, a connector between the East and West.

Ed is not East-West. Ed is global. He also is the one that brought Sulu’ape [master Samoan tattooist] out to Europe and connected the whole world of tattooing. Many people wouldn’t probably know as much about Samoan tattooing if Ed hadn’t done that. And Ed has friendships all over the world. He just was that guy. Ed has single-handedly advanced tattooing more than anyone I can think of; he is the fucking king.

Japanese family crests known as Kamon
Japanese family crests known as “Kamon.”

In a previous article (Discover Nikkei, 2013), you said, “Japanese tattooing cannot exist without Japanese culture, its history, folklore, symbolism.” Please elaborate on this.

If you look at Japanese tattooing, from the implements to all the imagery to the stylistic elements, it’s all based on a larger culture than just tattooing. If you go back to the Edo period in Japan, you had Kabuki [dance-drama theater], woodblock prints, tattoos—all of these are co-mingled and co-inspired. Such as a Kabuki actor wearing tattoo makeup, and then that person is represented in woodblock print. It’s not something that came out of nowhere. And my advice to anyone studying Japanese tattooing is you have to study all of it. You have to learn Japanese history. 

The other day I gave a talk at the California Academy of Sciences, and before going into tattooing, I had to give a crash course in Japanese history. “Okay, these are figurines from the Jomon period. And now we have this, and this is from Edo period.” And it’s important to understand that because of all the civil wars and the unification campaign, this peacetime allowed art to flourish and Japanese tattooing to develop. It’s not just pictured on the skin. These are pictures that represent the culture of a whole nation.

Connection with the customer is crucial to the tattooing process
Connection with the customer is crucial to the tattooing process.

Your studio’s (State of Grace) original purpose was to concentrate primarily on Japanese tattooing, but you’ve expanded to include other styles. What prompted that decision?

Initially, opening State of Grace in 2002 was actually at the urging of Horiyoshi III because he was like, “You’re Horiyoshi family. You have to have your studio.” But my current advice to anyone who’s only been tattooing for three-and-a-half years is, don’t open a studio. At the same time, I got pushed into a pool and started swimming to make it. In hindsight, I didn’t know how to run a studio; it has taken me 20 years to learn how to do it well.

And yet, you’re right. Originally it was supposed to be this outpost like we were putting the flag out for Japanese tattooing, but our scope has broadened. But as time passes, you develop friendships—for example, Sef [Samatua]; he’s Samoan, and he’s been tattooing in San Jose. We became friends, and then one day, it was, “Hey, I want to come in [work at your shop].” And I was like, sure. Sef and I are very similar. We come from different cultural backgrounds, but we’re both Americans and provide a type of tattoo that’s significantly culture-specific. I like to think State of Grace offers an authentic tattoo experience regardless of the genre of work.

A view inside State of Grace in Japantown
A view inside State of Grace in Japantown, San Jose, California.

Have there been apprenticeships at your shop?

We apprenticed Colin Baker. Whenever you start someone off, even if I take someone as an apprentice, the whole shop teaches them. His first tattoo was on Horitomo. On this fun day, Horitomo said, “You know what, just start filling this in.” And so talk about pressure! But it was hilarious. And then, Berto [Garcia] is getting a bodysuit from me, and we’re apprenticing him right now, but the whole shop is teaching him stuff.

When they start, they do it by helping at the front [desk], which I think is vital for a few reasons. One is you need to show your value to the shop. In a sense, you need to pay back with labor to the shop. But also, when you hang around tattoo shops for a year or two, if you’re observant, you’ve seen how they deal with situations, and that helps when you begin as a tattooer. That’s why I’m anti-tattoo school. I think the apprenticeship is a better way to do it, i.e., being in a shop.

The Kitamura dream team Molly Kubi, Takahiro and Chaja
The Kitamura dream team.

Your wife Molly deserves much praise for her contributions to the studio and beyond. Are you two a tag team?

We’re more than that. I don’t even know if we’re two anymore. We do everything together. And I think we both know when to hang back or help. But no, we’ve been married for ten years and do everything together—we are one entity.

Portraits, studio photos © The Tattoo Journalist
Tattoos courtesy of Takahiro Kitamura