Tattoo artists Kanae and Damien Rodriguez both specialise in traditional Japanese tattooing. Hailing from Japan and the USA respectively, the couple recently married and welcomed a baby, settling together in the UK. Damien joined Kanae and her team at her well-established Nine Tails Tattoo studio, a haven for Japanese tattoo enthusiasts in North London.
This week, we caught up with the artists to discuss their journeys in tattooing, influences from Japanese culture and the balance of tattooing and family life.
You grew up in a small town in rural Japan. How did you discover tattooing?
I grew up in the countryside, in a city called Shimizu. When I was a teenager, I started getting into punk and Japanese hardcore music and began playing in a band. The friends I was hanging out with at this time were also interested in tattoos.
My first real experience with tattooing was when my friend went to get a tattoo by a traditional Japanese tattooer. I went with her and saw the studio – it was a room within an apartment – it was really cool, but scary as well!
It took a little more time before I started tattooing. I was 28 when I started learning tattooing from my teacher, Makoto. My best friend was getting tattooed by him and I was introduced by her.
Did you undertake a traditional apprenticeship?
Yes, I did. But my teacher didn’t treat me in too much of a traditional sense, for example using unnecessary violence, oppression. He was scary but not in that way. He was strict about motivation for tattooing, professionalism, ways to behave, being humble, and showing respect to elders. I worked for him for 5 years before leaving Japan and relocating to London.
Can you talk us through your design process? What are the most important elements to consider in Japanese tattooing?
The design process; I talk to customers, ask what they want. Sometimes the ideas are not suitable, but I won’t push what I want too much. I try to figure out the place which meets in the middle.
The most important element is the background. That is the main element for Japanese tattoos – and it’s very difficult to do it right. I’m still trying to figure it out…
What is your favourite subject to include in a tattoo and why?
I love classic tattoo motifs. Dragon, koi, tiger, fu dog, gods, peonies, chrysanthemums, cherry blossoms and so on… But my favourite, 100%, is the dragon!
I love dragons; they are strong, wise, big, powerful, mysterious and divine… It’s so classic and such a cool subject for a tattoo. They are very difficult to draw and to tattoo, too. It is very challenging for me to try and do a perfect dragon.
I would love to hear people coming to get tattooed by me saying “I love your dragons”. That’s my goal!
You’ve worked extensively in both Japan and NYC, both locations where tattooing has found itself on the wrong side of the law over the years! Have you ever experienced any ‘tattoo prejudice’ in your home country or overseas? Now that tattooing is widely recognised in mainstream culture, do you feel attitudes have changed over time?
I don’t know so much about NYC, I can only talk about Japan here… But yes, I had so many experiences of tattoo prejudice in Japan and it hasn’t changed yet, unfortunately. I have been hoping to see a change one day but I’m not sure if I’ll see it in my lifetime!
But in a way, at first I became interested in tattoos because it was a “bad thing”. Being a punk rocker, I liked being the minority, I wanted to be different. Especially as Japanese society doesn’t like people to stand out and I hated to follow everyone and be the same. In that sense, I don’t want tattooing to become too popular or mainstream.
So part of me is hoping for tattooing to be more accepted but another part of me hopes it does not become too popular. It’s a tricky question!
As well as being a great tattooer you are also a full-time business owner with your studio Nine Tails Tattoo. What are the best and most challenging aspects of running your own shop?
I am not a business person, I am just a tattooer. I just wanted to create the space for me and the other tattooers to be comfortable and to be able to focus on tattooing.
At the beginning, I struggled to manage people. I had to use a lot of my energy and time for it and it stressed me out sometimes. I asked myself, why I am doing this? A few times I thought I’d close the shop and just have a private studio by myself!
But luckily I now have a great trustworthy team – Ky, Val and Ben. Because of them taking care of my shop whilst I was travelling and on maternity leave, I could take time off without stresses… I really appreciate this. I think finding people who you can trust and who are positive, bringing good vibes and great work motivation is the key.
I am very happy now!
You’ve recently made the move from NYC to London – welcome to the big smoke! How are you enjoying tattooing in the UK?
I love it! Luckily London and NYC are very similar in so many ways, so the transition has overall been a very smooth one.
Can you tell us about your start in tattooing?
I had been going to punk, hardcore and metal shows since I was a little kid and had always thought all the tattoos I was constantly seeing around me were awesome. I got my first few tattoos when I was 15 or 16 and not long after I knew I wanted to do tattoos for a living. The only problem was I had zero idea how to start! Things were still very hidden from the public eye in the 90s, and there were only like 10 shops back then… all of which were manned by some seriously scary characters. So I was terrified to even ask! But regardless, I mustered up some courage and after I finished high school I went to as many shops as I could with my shitty portfolio and asked to be hired… of course every shop said “no way”!
I gave up and let the idea go for a few years and was content to just get tattooed a bunch and hang at my friends’ shops around town.
Finally after hanging and getting tattooed at one shop in particular for a while, and with help from some mutual friends from the neighborhood putting in the good word for me (and lots of begging), I was able to land an apprenticeship at A1 Tattoo in South Jersey in late 2002. Their initial plan was to just use me for slave labour until I freaked out and quit like everyone else but I stuck it out and over time was able to prove myself that I was serious and eventually I was shown the ropes.
When did you discover an interest in Japanese art? What drew you to this particular culture?
My older brother and I used to always watch kung fu/samurai/martial arts movies – we had ninja weapons and took Karate and stuff when we were growing up, so I was always exposed to Far Eastern culture as long as I literally can remember. Something so radically different from my own culture really appealed to me. It all felt alien, and thus was so much more interesting to dissect and learn about.
I discovered Horiyoshi 3 pretty quickly after I started my apprenticeship and was amazed by the heavy coverage full body style.
After digging a little deeper I learned there were so many variations to the style, from the illustrative Filip Leu and Grime to more traditional Horiyoshi and Horihide, but I loved them all! I just thought it was a great look, the way it flowed with the body… the dragons and koi looked like they were literally swimming up the arms and legs. It stuck out to me more in comparison to Western tattoos, where full coverage was obviously also a thing and still really cool but in my opinion not as flowing. It looked a little stiff to me.
And on top of that all I’ve always had a huge interest in world history my whole life, so I loved how the Japanese tattoos usually depicted real people and stories from the past. I appreciated the scholarly aspect of it on top of the aesthetic look.
You’ve travelled to Japan quite a bit over the years. Do you think it’s important to visit Japan as a a tattooer specialising in this style? How have your travels influenced your work?
Absolutely, 100% necessary! All the books in the world in no way compare to being immersed in the culture, Japanese or any culture for that matter. Hard to put into words, but the feeling you get on a mountain, or in a forest, or in a temple can’t be found in a book or on the internet. You see things in front of you, statues and panel paintings and temple carvings, and you begin to see things in a different light and hopefully sometimes begin to slowly understand certain concepts here and there.
Going to Japan so many times has contributed almost fully to everything I do in a tattoo. I was very fortunate to strike up a nice friendship with the Horitoshi Family and have worked at their various studios in Tokyo many times over the years. My friends Shinji, Hide, Akira, and even sometimes Horitoshi himself have helped me countless times with advice and direction on my tattooing.
Horimomo, based in Tokyo, has given me so many tips and taken me to dozens of hidden and not so well known temples and shrines, as well as my friends at Desperado Exchange Tattoo in Osaka.
And not only in Japan – Roberto Borsi helped me in Milan, my friend Demon in Sweden opened his shop to me, Taki, Bill and Junii in San Francisco have all helped me. All of these people have been insanely generous and welcoming and it all has all had the most positive effect on me. It inspires and humbles me and I see so many amazing tattooers around the world working hard and pushing themselves so it motivates me to do the same and try and make the best tattoos possible!
Which artists (both tattooers and fine artists) do you admire?
Besides the above mentioned? The man who taught me everything, Cracker, is still one of the hardest working guys in this business and I have the utmost respect for him. We were bumpy at first during my apprenticeship because I was a stupid kid and he’s a maniac, but over time our friendship grew and he’s still one of my best friends to this day.
Everyone I worked with at Invisible NYC, Troy Denning and Chris Garver in particular. Troy built something incredible at Invisible that I don’t think can ever be replicated. And Garver is probably the single most talented tattooer I’ve ever worked with, everyday just mind-blowing working with him. And he has zero issues with helping and sharing his knowledge, which also was hugely impactful on me and my tattooing.
Yutaro and Claudia at Red Point Tattoo for being the hardest working parents in the game! They continue to give us great advice on how to balance parenting and still kick ass tattooing.
But most of all, my wife Kanae for achieving so much despite having one hand tied behind her back. She moved from a different country, learned the language, built an insane tattoo clientele through her skill and hard work alone, opened her own shop, and now runs that shop and tattoos with a new baby and is literally Mother of the Year. Admire is an understatement.
Kanae & Damien:
You are both passionate about tattooing and Japanese culture – how have you learnt from each other?
K: I learn so much about Japanese culture from Damien. He studied a lot about Japanese history and Japanese culture. I have Japanese philosophy in me naturally. But at school I didn’t like history class! So Damien tells me all the cool stories about shogun and stuff… After I moved away from Japan I came to further appreciate Japanese culture and being Japanese.
Also about tattooing, we’ve both been tattooing the same amount of time – but in different countries, different situations. So it’s very interesting to talk about tattooing with him. We talk a lot about it and we share so many opinions as well.
D: It was great when we first met and were talking, I saw instantly Kanae had the same obsession with tattooing that I had. So that makes it even more fun to experiment with different machines, needles, inks, etc and then share them with each other and help push each other. I think more importantly though, as Kanae mentioned above, we regularly talk about tattooing with each other still, the philosophy around it, the history, or even just simple “check out what so and so did today” type talk too. It’s very enjoyable to share that with someone.
Since becoming parents (congratulations!) how do you strike the right balance between running the studio, tattooing and family life?
K: Thank you! I’m still trying to figure out a good balance between being a shop owner, tattooer and mother. I was just about to start working more days, but now this pandemic happened…
So this will be my task to figure out. I always worked 6 days a week. Before I stopped working I was scared to not work for such a long time. But once I gave birth, I couldn’t think of anything else but my baby for a while. It’s so much work having new born baby. Especially since I was 43 years old when I had him, it wasn’t easy physically.
Now I’m ready to go back to tattooing and being a studio owner again. I have MORE energy and motivation for it! Hopefully this experience is going to change my work for the better.
Damien is really helpful with taking care of the baby and is a great support for the business side as well. He is a great dad and a trusted person to ask for opinions about tattoo shop business. It’s definitely making the whole situation much easier for me.
D: Yes, it was VERY challenging at first. It took some experimenting with ideas in the beginning with our schedules to see what worked, who would work which days and for how many hours and stuff like that… very bumpy at first though, haha. We were flying blind! But we eventually got into a nice groove with caring for the baby and after a few months of trying out different approaches, things slowly started coming together with our work schedule that made us all happy and felt balanced. But I have to say, a huge thank you is in order and respect to the guys at the shop Ky and Val and later on Ben – they were super patient with us the first few months as we were trying to figure things out. It was pretty chaotic. I’ve worked in shops in the past where the owner is nonexistent and I remember how frustrating it was. Without them all being so supportive and understanding, things would have been a million times more difficult for Kanae and I!
Do either of you have plans to travel for guest spots in the future?
K: We have regular conventions and guest spots we always come back to. We want to keep it going as much possible!
D: Oh definitely – New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Japan and Italy have all been regular places we tattoo at and will continue to visit, and hopefully new places as well!