Dragon tattoo by Crez

Horimono in the heart of Venice: an interview with Crez

Massimiliano ‘Crez’ Freguja was born in Venice, a city close to his heart where he resides and tattoos to this day. Discovering tattooing at an early age, he fell in love with ‘horimono’ – traditional full body Japanese tattooing – and decided to pursue this passion, dedicating his work and studies to the art-form. Crez is a deeply passionate artist who travels, studies and ‘obsessively’ paints, exploring his craft to the fullest.

What initially drew you to tattooing? Did you have an artistic background? 

My father was a sailor. He had tattoos done in India back in the 60’s, so tattoos were present in my life since I was born.

I wanted to have some on myself and I fantasised about having a dragon on my right arm. When I was a little kid – at the age of 8 or 9, I guess – I was at primary school and I remember tattooing five dots on my forearm, a simple design I’d often seen tattooed among locals. I found out afterwards that it was a prison mark, but I really didn’t care at all; I was just proud that I’d succeeded in marking my arm with a technique of tattooing I’d learned from the tales my uncle told me. 

I’ve always loved music and drawing. I’ve never been to an art school – I’m self taught. I was born on a small island in Venice. My family is working class, art school wasn’t an option. When I was a teenager, we had to move from the island to the suburbs of Venice in the mainland. That was at the end of the eighties; I was 14, listening to the Sex Pistols and writing graffiti on the walls… after some years in the “ghetto”, drawing graffiti was a mania for me. This is my only artistic background.

London Tattoo - Tattoo Artist

When did you choose to study horimono? What intrigued you about the Japanese style?

I wanted to work on bodysuits since the beginning of my tattoo career but it seemed impossible in the early nineties. When I started tattooing with professional equipment I was 17… people in Italy only got very small and easy-to-cover tattoos at that time. I was working in my neighbourhood where many locals had spent time in jail and needed cover-ups, but nobody wanted big scale works…. it was a headache! I’ve had the chance to go big from the beginning because covering jail marks was the priority. Black backgrounds are perfect for cover-ups, so this was the way I introduced locals to a kind of tattooing they didn’t know about.

In 2000, I met the Ryu Family. We became friends and we started to work together at conventions – they come over to work with me at Adrenalink and I go to guest at their private shop in Japan. Since 2003 I’ve been to visit every year.

Horimono just looks fantastic to me: it’s sexy, elegant, strong and delicate. You can choose between millions of different designs and tales and every tattoo is tailored to the customer. It’s a never ending study, challenging work… I just love it.

Is there a specific school of Japanese tattoo you are interested in? Which artists have inspired you?

Hideo Kakimoto aka Yokosuka Horihide (RIP) is my favourite tattooer. When I saw his works in books I was so impressed, he has been a game changer for me and many others. I visited him many times and he always took the time to look at my works and critique them – I am so thankful for that. I’m also a big fan of Asakusa Horicho, so delicate and strong. I really love all the Shōwa era tattoo artists of Japan.

Japanese style chrysanthemum sleeve tattoos, by Crez

How have your visits to Japan enriched your work?

If I wanted to do Japanese tattoos, I must travel professionally in Japan – that was the mantra I repeated to myself every day in my 20’s. It is so important to work there, to visit the temples, the museums, walk in the wilderness, get tattooed, eat the food and drink with your friends.

Manekistefy [Crez’s wife and studio partner] and I have crossed the country several times to see the paintings, the sculptures, the historical places etc, in real life… it is fundamental; if you want to be authentic, you must live the experience first hand.

My best friends and colleagues are Japanese, we’ve experienced a lot together, this is why I can express it now.

Knowledge is built by studying and from real life experience – learning virtually isn’t enough for me.

Outside of tattooing, do you regularly paint or create artwork?

Yes, I’m obsessed! I paint huge murals with a brush, the last one I completed was a 30 metre long dragon with Manekistefy. I love to paint with sumi on rice paper, on wood…. it is fundamental for me to counterbalance tattooing. Painting is soft and relaxing, tattooing is hard and painful and once the customer is dressed, you can no longer see your work.

Dragon sleeve tattoo by Crez

Do you collect anything to reference or inspire your artwork?

Of course I do. I’ve just purchased a painting by Sensei Kazuo Oguri aka Gifu Horihide. I’m so proud of it!

I’ve a huge collection of Sensei Hideo Kakimoto aka Yokosuka Horihide’s paintings. When I can, I buy ukiyo-e representing tattooing of the Edo era. When I travel to Japan I make sure I visit flea markets, these are some of the places where my knowledge pays back – I’ve purchased treasures for peanuts all over the world, you need to be lucky to spot it, but I’m a pro with that!

Tell us a little about your studio space.

Adrenalink has been open for 23 years now. People from all over the world have worked at the shop, we’re proud of it as a working space. I love my station, it is still the most comfortable working space I’ve tried. I only go to the shop for tattooing, painting is a home activity. I taught Stefy tattooing and she taught Rio and Kaya who are currently working with us. We love the idea of the typical Italian “bottega d’arte”, very similar to the japanese “ichimon” system – the master teaches his skills and apprentices evolve it, so the knowledge will be transferred from one generation to another and the evolution will increase the artistic value of the work produced.

In my opinion, in the master/apprentice relationship both learn from each other and increase their skills.

Peony back piece by tattoo artist Crez

Recently you’ve been working on a lot of aquatic and marine themed designs. Can you tell us more about this?

I’ve been a free-diver since I can remember, I think I learned to swim before I learned how to walk! The sea is fundamental for me, diving deep with only one breath in your lungs makes everything special, your focus and perception of time changes – it is an altered state of consciousness when you can really understand the creatures living there all their life in a constant struggle for survival. I want to try to give people the chance to feel this sensation by looking at my paintings.

Japanese-style painting by tattoo artist Crez
Japanese-style painting by tattoo artist Crez

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