Brooklyn tattoo artist uses ancient tebori skin art method

Takashi Matsuba tattoos a client using the Japanese tebori-style at his studio in Brooklyn. Credit: Aymann Ismail, ANIMAL New York
Takashi Matsuba tattoos a client using tebori at his studio in Brooklyn. Credit: Aymann Ismail, ANIMAL New York

Tebori is Japanese for “hand-carved,” referring to the indigenous method of tattooing by hand using a sharpened bamboo stick called a nomi. Holding the nomi like a pool cue, artists insert the ink with a repeated stabbing motion.

Due to associations with the Japanese mafia, many tebori artists remain underground. Only a handful still live in Japan and, according to Takashi Matsuba, there’s only two practicing the art form in New York. He’s one of them.

Matsuba’s Brooklyn studio doesn’t have a sign. The tattoo artist isn’t particularly furtive; he’s eager to talk about his craft. He doesn’t announce himself because he isn’t interested in tattooing just anyone.

“Usually, people email me first,” he says. “Then I choose a customer.”

Matsuba began his career as an apprentice. A Japanese apprentice is more like a servant than a student. “You clean up. You cook food. They don’t teach you,” he explains.

Apprentices learn by watching their masters work. They practice on their own time. Matsuba practiced on his own skin. “When you are young, you don’t care. I was tattooing [myself] once every two days,” he says.

Before his client arrives, he mixes his inks. The inks are one of the ways he can distinguish a hand-poked tattoo from one made by machine. Most tattoo shops are limited to what’s commercially available. “We make our ink ourselves,” Matsuba says. “I can see if that’s my own ink, or bought ink.”

He also makes his own nomi. He used to use a simple piece of sharpened bamboo, which is more traditional, until he was forced to switch. “In the United States, you can’t use it because of the health department. They have a law. You have to use something sterilizable. I was using something like this at a convention and the health department stopped me,” says Matsuba.

His client today has requested a tattoo of a chrysanthemum. That’s all the input the client of a horishi — Japanese for “trained artist” — will typically be allowed to give. Matsuba has created an outline and picked out the colors.

He outlines the tattoo with a tattoo machine. Matsuba thinks tebori’s chief strengths lie in shading and gradation. For the black outline, the machine works just as well.

The rest he pokes by hand. He dips the tip of the nomi in the colored ink, poking the skin with a quick rhythm. A tattoo machine’s electric hum masks the sound of needle piercing flesh, but the sound of needles is plainly audible. It sounds like someone repeatedly pressing their lips together very lightly. Matsuba says he finds the sound soothing.

Tebori is often thought to be more time-consuming and painful than machine tattooing, but he disagrees. A skilled tebori artist can work just as fast as a machine, and the amount of pain comes down to the artist, not the method. “If you’re trying to get a whole back piece, yes, it’s painful,” he admits. “But the machine is the same. I think the machine is more painful.”



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
International

Sierra Leone Ebola patient, recovered from family, dies…

An Ebola patient whose family sparked a nationwide hunt when they forcefully removed her from a treatment center and took her to a traditional healer has died.

Local

VIDEO: Cop reassigned as NYPD investigates alleged head…

An officer alleged to have stomped on a Brooklyn man's head last week had his gun taken away and placed on modified duty.

National

New York Times calls for legalization of pot

The New York Times editorial board on Saturday endorsed a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana, becoming the largest paper in the nation to back the idea.

National

Two injured after cable snaps on Ohio amusement…

(Reuters) - A cable on a large swing ride at an Ohio amusement park snapped and struck two riders as the swing was in motion,…

Music

Newport Folk Festival: Photo gallery of 35 moments…

As has been the tradition since Bob Dylan plugged in a bajillion years ago, the Newport Folk Festival embraces more musical genres than its name implies.

Music

MKTO: Behind the bromance

MKTO's Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller talk about the American Dream tour, Demi Lovato and getting turned down by girls.

Arts

James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne head to…

Two-time Tony winner James Earl Jones returns to the New York stage next month as an eccentric grandfather in a revival of the 1930s comedy…

Movies

Box office: Scarlett Johansson wins battle of brains…

Scarlett Johansson's "Lucy" handily dispatched with Dwayne Johnson's "Hercules" over the weekend.

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

MLB

Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…

MLB

Yankees GM Brian Cashman breaks down art of…

The action frequently accelerates as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, as it will on Thursday.

Auto racing

Jeff Gordon captures fifth title at Brickyard 400

Jeff Gordon captures fifth title at Brickyard 400

Wellbeing

This Week In Health: Friends share similar DNA,…

Friends share similar DNA, study finds Location: U.S. Study subjects: Nearly 2,000 people Results: When it comes to our social networks, it seems that birds of…

Education

Are liberal arts colleges turning away from the…

Bryn Mawr College, a small women's college located just outside of Philadelphia, announced last week that it would be making standardized tests like the SAT…

Education

Recent grads discover school superintendent plagiarized parts of…

  Two recent high school graduates made a surprising discovery about the commencement speech their school superintendent delivered at their graduation: portions of it was copied…

Career

Feeling stuck? Get out of the entry-level job…

Television and movies may be littered with 20-something characters who seem directionless when it comes to their careers, but author Mary Traina says she finds…