Like most of downtown’s treasures, Onizuka Tattoo doesn’t boast. The shop is nondescript, tucked in the crook of an open-air parking lot in Little Tokyo, but it’s home to several of the most practiced and respected traditional Japanese tattoo artists in the city.
Jiro, the owner of Onizuka, has been tattooing in the US for 20 years, 11 of which have been spent in Little Tokyo. He and three other artists, Jakoh, L.A. Horitaka, and Horichuy, are the lynchpins of Onizuka.
"Everyone here has a unique style," Jiro says. "We've all learned this in our own ways, we all have different experiences."
Horitaka practices tebori, the traditional Japanese method of hand-tattooing, and is one of the few artists still working who can tattoo this way. Jakoh also comes from a very traditional background, and balances that aesthetic with a more modern hand. Horichuy is the newest artist to the shop, and the only one who isn't from Japan.
"He’s studied very hard," Jiro says, “and sometimes--a lot of times--I’m learning from him too."
Onizuka is a collaborative space, and its collective influence reaches farther than its little corner behind the Astronaut Onizuka Street parking lot. Many restaurants in Little Tokyo feature the artists' paintings. Jiro builds and ships out tattoo guns from the machine shop downstairs. Takahiro Kitamura, aka “Taki”, of San Jose’s “State of Grace”, curated Perseverance, the Japanese tattoo exhibit that took place at the Japanese American National Museum last year. The exhibit featured works from all Onizuka's artists as well as Irezumi artists from across the US and Japan.
“It’s not just a tattoo shop,” says Juan Mecias, one of Jiro’s first L.A. clients. “These guys are artists all around.”
And Japanese tattoo is, above all, a fine art: artists spend years honing their craft and studying the principles by which it’s bound. Japanese tattoo has deep roots in history and mythology, and therefore images in each piece must be cohesive--flowers drawn on one part of the body must bloom in the same season as those drawn on another, different animals existing in a single tattoo must also have some relationship in mythology or in nature. Each piece holds meaning that goes beyond individual expression.
Even the smaller pieces are done with painstaking attention, and some can take months, or even years, to complete.
Mecias boasts a near full-body tattoo that is a decade in the making, mostly all Jiro’s work. A tiger stretches across his back. A snake uncoils over his ribs. Peonies bloom across his chest.
"This is my ritual. Five hours every two weeks for the last ten years," Mecias says. "You have a little tea. You do a little work. You talk about just about everything. You're not just a client and a tattoo artist here--you're friends."
All that's left now are his legs. And what happens when he runs out of skin?
"Oh man, I don't know," he says. "This place is like a family. Once you're in, you're never leaving."
"Our print and original online article erroneously stated the Perseverance exhibit last year was curated by L.A. Horitaka of Onizuka Tattoo. The exhibit was in fact curated by Takahiro Kitamura, aka “Taki”, the owner of State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose.” - Ed.