Manga style tattoo by Horibenny, Invasion Club, Osaka Japan

Manga, Comic Books & Otaku Culture: An Interview With Horibenny

Hailing from Minneapolis, Horibenny had been a comic book fan since Junior High. Following his love of manga, comic art and ‘otaku’ (nerd) culture all the way to Japan, Horibenny pioneered a style of tattooing which reflected his passions and has built a tattoo and clothing empire in the heart of Osaka.

How did you come to settle in Japan?

I was always interested in Japanese culture and language from a young age and began seriously studying the language whilst in University. Upon graduating in 2001, I thought it would make sense to at least go and live there for a bit and immerse myself for a year or so in order to hone my skills and deepen my understanding of Japanese art and culture. That was 20 years ago!

Were you always interested in art? Did you undertake a traditional apprenticeship?

I’ve always loved art. My earliest memories are of drawing with markers and crayons on my mother’s kitchen floor. I always doodled during school and eventually started keeping a regular sketchbook by high school. But I only did it leisurely until I discovered tattooing while living in Japan, which is where I apprenticed and now run my own studio. I began meeting Japanese tattoo artists and just hanging out with them, getting tattooed by them. Their relationship to their work, how their art defined who they were, was very attractive to me. It felt like exactly what I had been searching for in my youth and so I requested an apprenticeship.

Manga girl tattoo by Horibenny

When did you discover your love of manga and comic art? How did this develop as part of your tattoo style?

I was a comic book fan by the time I was in Jr. High School. Manga was super underground in the early 90s and didn’t enjoy the huge following in the West that it has today. Pickings were slim. In the USA, this predated juggernaut series such as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. Outlanders, Caravan Kidd, AKIRA, Appleseed, Dominion to name a few.  It was so strange and different and dark… and that led to the real paydirt – in 2000 I discovered Suehiro Maruo. His dark, evil and haunting compositions, his linework, it really influenced my earlier work. Through him, I learned of Yamamoto Takuto, Saeki, Ito Junji and Kago Shintaro.  In manga there are really no boundaries. It is an expansive, powerful medium and you are only limited by your imagination. And so it goes with tattooing. Every aspect of my work – line, flow, form, story, symbolism and characters – all of it is informed by anime and manga. I strongly feel that a tattoo artist shouldn’t limit their creative diet to tattooing only. Other mediums have much to teach us.

Manga style shibari tattoo by Horibenny

Do you have a favourite character to tattoo – or one that you’d still love to create for somebody?

Absolutely – I have a whole list of them! However, as much as I enjoy existing characters as motifs, I really enjoy creating original characters from my mind these days. I find it very gratifying and rewarding to make original characters for my clients based on their wishes. We both get to take part in the creative process and the results are often something that I might not have been able to imagine in isolation. I find that this exercise keeps me flexible and creates a special intimacy with my clientele.

Your tattoos are richly detailed with particular attention paid to costumes and accessories worn by the characters. Are you inspired by Japanese fashion/street style?

Oh, absolutely! Inspiration is everywhere! From ancient European armour, to Asian street fashion, to beautiful runway lingerie! I love the beauty of it all. I feel tattoos are permanent in the sense of the wearer’s lifetime, but transitory on the scale of humanity – the work will pass from our world when their bearer dies. All the more reason I want to detail every last leaf of filigree, every last frill of lace and detail the shine of every last button. The ethos of traditional Japanese kimono makers, sword smiths, carpenters and irezumi practitioners is very special to me. The experiential nature of the execution of the art itself is very calming for me – almost shamanistic. The iconography of my work may appear very ‘pop’ but I hope the underlying love of the artistic process resonates with the viewer.

Sailor Moon tattoo by Horibenny
Manga tattoo by Horibenny

Japan has had a complicated history with tattoos with some artists finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. What is the scene like there today?

Gah… This could basically be an entire article, but basically the police decided unilaterally to persecute artists for “medical malpractice” and one artist sued them and won in the lower court. At the time of writing, the police are challenging it in the Japanese supreme court who will hand down a ruling this year. This case would not establish any new laws but would set judicial precedent. It is unclear if the Ministry of Health and Labor will eventually nudge Japan toward a regulated license system or simply make tattooing completely illegal. However, after five years of litigation the damage to the tattoo community in Japan has been palpable. Many artists carry on in secret and we have extremely limited access to new tattoo gear and technology as imports are always seized by customs, who interpret the laws like the police do. With neither conventions nor events taking place in Japan and a decline in interest toward tattooing, the mood has been increasingly solemn. This has also driven many Japanese artists to re-establish themselves permanently overseas or to begin extended travel schedules.

Why did you choose Osaka as a base for your studio? Is your client base mostly Japanese or do customers travel to you?

I chose Osaka because it is a wacky friendly city with amazing food. The people are very welcoming on the whole and I feel that my adopted city has been very kind to me as an immigrant in their midst. My client base has shifted from being 95% Japanese to almost 50/50 foreigner vs. local due to Osaka’s status as a tourism hub. This is, however, pre-corona conditions and is likely to change going forward.

Manga tattoo by Horibenny

Tell us a little about your clothing line.

I originally began doing clothing to distract from the fact that my studio was, in fact, for tattoos. It was something that began as just a hobby for fun but turned out to be something that I really enjoyed! Its pretty rewarding to see that there are people out there that get motivated and inspired to wear around my designs on their attire as well as their skin. The local community especially, the sense of belonging that it has brought to everyone here at our studio is beyond my wildest imagination. The whole process has been intoxicating and I can’t wait to do even more!

Manga tattoo by Horibenny

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline for 2020 and beyond?

Oh man… like so many! New art prints, a sketchbook, a toy project and of course new clothes just to name a few. Can’t spill the beans about everything of course, but there are definitely some unicorns that I’ve been chasing for a while that will hopefully come to fruition this year!

Finally, are you looking forward to visiting The London Tattoo Convention this summer? Can you share a little about what you’ll be tattooing over the weekend?

Absolutely! I’ve always fantasised about visiting London itself and soaking up every ounce of fun the city has to offer. Especially excited to hit a few parties and shows while I’m there. The convention of course has an amazing reputation and attending as an artist has been a dream of mine for some time since many of my close friends and colleagues have recommended it to me for years. I’ve got a great base of adventurous clients all over the world, many of whom are making special preparations to fly in and get some salacious erotic work done! It’s going to be a weekend to remember!


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