Breathtaking tattoos of dragons and carp, oiran (courtesans) and samurai, all designed in the Japanese traditional style. Toronto-based Japanese tattooer Maru is the secret behind these colourful and detailed works of body art.
Wabori, the Japanese traditional style of tattooing, is a unique art that is known for its historic patterns and images. Because of its tendency to be bigger, sometimes covering the whole body, wabori tattooing is sometimes said to imply an association with the Yakuza. This tendency makes Maru laugh—his family in Japan doesn’t like tattoos and he might be considered an outcast because of his profession. However, his devotion toward this ancient art is nothing but pure professionalism. From his studio filled with sketches of historical and imaginary figures, Maru talks about the “love of his life.”
“I think wabori can express things more than words can.”
Bento Box: Impressive work. Your work is very different from something we’d see at most other tattoo studios in Toronto.
Maru: Thank you so much. Once tattooed, it is there to stay on the body almost forever, so I try my very best to create something my clients can be proud of. Something they can get compliments on from people who see it. I think it is better not to have any tattoos if you can’t be proud of them. It is not about how skilfully the tattoo was done, but how suited the tattoo is to the person who has it on.
When I am asked the question by a client, “How many hours does it take to finish?” I usually answer, “Perhaps two years, maybe three years” [laughs]. It depends on the design and [the client’s] tolerance of pain. Either way, it will be a commitment financially, physically and mentally. Because of that, I would like to build good relationships with all of my clients. “I will give my best as your tattooer, so please be sincere with me in return. When you come to this studio I will always be here to see you. Please come in regularly so that I can work on it.” That is what I usually tell my clients.
BB: For those who can’t commit too much, maybe small and simple tattoos are the way to go?
Actually, I rarely do small tattoos like kanji (Chinese characters) tattoos. Most of my clients want to get Japanese-style tattoos. [The style] is called wabori and it has existed for more than 200 years. Wabori is very unique. The tattoo designs come from religions, folklores and mythologies. So, there is a deep meaning to each motif. And the designs are meant to “fit and hug” the human body, so even a smaller image requires one whole arm, for example. It is not a quick, single tattoo, like Western tattoos.
BB: So, in a way, wabori tells stories more than the Western-style tattoos tend to.
I think so. That is why I fell in love with wabori. I think wabori can express things more than words can. I do tattoo kanji if the clients want, of course [laughs]. But I would ask them why they want to get it done during the consultation. And I try to suggest something that fits their request better, if I can think of anything.
It is not that I am being disagreeable. I think it is part of my job as a tattooer to have some input in the work I am about to do. I do not want to blindly tattoo whatever the client wants. My initial consultation is a little long, maybe one to two hours, because of that. And I am constantly researching and learning to be as resourceful as possible so that I can give the best suggestions.
BB: Do you feel there is still lots to learn about Japanese mythology to help your clients make the best choice?
Yes, I do. I have been doing this for a long time now, but I often realize how limited my knowledge is. I have learned how samurai carried their swords differently, and how armour changed during the period from Heian to Kamakura. When drawing historic characters, it is very important to research so that I don’t make mistakes. For example, if the character is an archer, his armour on his right arm should be soft material, otherwise he can’t bend his arm to shoot arrows. Since I am Japanese, I might know a little more about the creatures that can be done as tattoos and the rules around them. Yes, the imagery has some rules, such as a Chinese lion (Karajishi) in the peony garden, etcetera. [The lion is the king of the animals, and the peony is the king of the flowers. So the image suggests the strongest match.] But, still, there is lots to learn.
BB: Besides its historical depth, what is it about wabori that attracts you?
I think wabori’s ability to cover all sorts of things is very interesting. We have both strong patterns and softer images, creepy creatures, funny and cute images, you name it. Wabori patterns can cover lots of themes.
That is why I keep on studying it. Wabori is teaching me about tattooing and life. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It is like a high-maintenance girlfriend to me. Still, I love this job, I love talking with my clients … I think I am spoiled. [Laughs].
Japanese-born tattooer Maru has been working professionally since 2002. He moved to Canada in 2010. Maru has opened his own studio in Toronto. For more info about him and his works, visit Hidden Door Studio (www.hiddendoorstudio.com)