Alex Reinke is a German tattoo artist who specializes in Japanese Irezumi. He owns a private, appointment-only studio in London.
Hi Alex, you just got back from the Athens Tattoo Convention— how was that? Greece is not somewhere I'd instantly link to tattoo culture (especially with their current economic situation); how is it there?
I love Greece. It's one of the last free places on this planet and it’s changing at a crazy pace to become just like any other country. They’re all interchangeable now with their H&M, Starbucks, etc. The Greek people get tattooed quite a lot these days; I was very busy. The economic situation is fatal—that’s for sure. I cut my hourly rates in half to make ends meet for them. I love the people, the weather, the chaos, and the food.
What is your tattoo background? When and where did you start and what inspired you to tattoo?
I tattoo 21 years this year. I got interested in Japan first, around the age of 12, and then specifically in Japanese tattooing. It’s never left me ever since. I’ve only ever really liked the Japanese approach to tattooing—to this day, I think it's the most accomplished style. They are perfectionists. No wonder it's called “tattooing for adults!” My inspiration came from movies and from my martial arts training. I was drawing daily from an early age. When Japanese designs were introduced into my life, I drew those obsessively. I started tattooing in my last year of six form.
Would you say your particular style is influenced by one or more artists?
Of course it is, influenced especially by my former Japanese master, who has taught me a great deal. Nowadays, I still focus on the old Japanese Ukiyo-e masters and painters. Contemporary artists in our business are interesting as well: I’m thinking here of people like Mike the Athens, Ivan Szazi, Mick of Zurich, Ichibay, some of my former master’s ex-students, and many more.
What first sparked your interest in Japanese tattoos?
My family history and the martial arts training were the initial triggers. I found myself in that. I was a troubled boy and it made me settle a great deal. The accompanying movies did the rest!
Being well versed in such things, would you like to give us a brief look into the history of Irezumi?
It was in the hands of the firemen mostly and very popular among the first Westerners coming to Japan in early Meiji period. Later it was forbidden in an attempt to ‘clean up’ Japan in order to make it more presentable to the West. That was in the late Meiji period, for about 50 years. That lasted until 1948, where tattooing was again legalized during the ongoing occupation of Japan by the United States. Unfortunately, at that time the tradition went completely underground and Irezumi was only practiced by the Japanese Mafia—the Yakuza. The name “Yakuza” is a just combination of numbers, with which one loses in a certain traditional Japanese gambling game. It basically means, “worthless”—a quite charming name to give oneself being a mafiosi. I like that a lot about Japan: it’s very typical Japanese understatement—modesty is extremely unique in a world of usually big-headed people.
In Japan, the tattoo tradition was being kept alive by the Yakuza until the 1990s. Afterwards, it became more mainstream, but the current trouble with tattooing in Japan shows it still has a stigma and a bad reputation even though it has established itself publicly in the past 30 years! The officials have no problem simply shutting everything they don’t like or don’t understand down—something typical of the Japanese government. In this case, they want to ‘clean up’ Japan again for the upcoming Olympics in 2020! I can't believe they didn't learn a thing in the past 100 years. Now they shut tattoo shops down and ask that the artists have a doctor’s license. It’s ridiculous but typical. They don't give a shit about the people's lives they destroy, all of our colleagues and friends. We need to support them as best we can. One way to do so is with their 'safe tattooing in Japan' campaign. The problem is also that, even if tattooing is returning underground in Japan, the Yakuza has been weakened in a way never before seen. They’re struggling to keep themselves going right now. I think tattooing will really struggle in Japan for a long time, which is very sad. It's such an amazing and necessary part of their culture. Just to keep the balance, it’s crucial to have it around.
Can you go back and tell us a bit about your personal history with Japan? Could you also shed some light on your tattoo name and where it came from?
Well, my last name is Reinke which is an old German name for “fox.” I have a family tree dating back to 1420 and a family crest with two foxes in it. The name “the carving fox” (Horikitsune) was a no brainer. I thought I needed to give up that name after some modern day social media troubles, but I figured out I didn't have to and I decided to actually keep it in the end.
My personal history or family-related history with Japan goes back quite far. My great grandaunt, Mother Mayer, was a head nun of the Sacred Heart Order, something like the Jesuits for women as far as I know. She first went to Japan in 1910. She departed from London (funny enough) to Yokohama by ship to open the first Sacred Heart monastery in Japan—of which she became the abbess. She then founded the first all-girl elite school under the motto: “Big You -
small I,” in 1923 in Obayashi. She remained the headmistress there until her death in 1955. During her time she taught many girls, one of them was to become Princess Chichibu. This is the woman who married the Emperor’s brother, Prince Chichibu, second in line to the throne. I have a photo of him bowing to her grave in Japan. The school still exists and even more were founded all over Japan. She was very successful with her endeavours, which is probably due to the fact that German and Japanese values are quite similar. I felt very much at home over there.
The brother of Mother Mayer was the Jesuit priest Pastor Rupert Mayer, who resided and preached in Munich. He was beatified by Pope John Paul the second in the mid 1980s for his resistance against Hitler. He was put into prison by the Nazis during the war. They couldn't kill him, for then he would have become a martyr to his many followers so the church had to put him into a small room in their monastery walls. Basically, his own people messed with him. He died preaching on the chancel in late 1945, after the war had ended. They say the whole ordeal broke his heart. I know I’ve drifted a bit away from our subject—fact is they both would probably turn in their graves knowing I converted to Buddhism to become a lay monk of Rinzai Zen.
Nevertheless, the old letters, postcards, the bits of Japanese art, and the stamps we had from my great aunt’s packages (ones she’d sent to my great grandparents back in the day) definitely played a part in my interest in that country. I went to Japan for the first time in 1991. I have to thank my dad for taking me. I was able to experience a Japan that was lost shortly after that period.
I decided to get my bodysuit at 14, very much to the dismay of my doctor parents. Back then, tattooing wasn't what it was today. Even when I started in 1995, everyone thought I'd end up living under a bridge—even I wasn't too confident I'd go anywhere with it, but for some reason it was what I had to do. The way tattooing has changed and how mainstream it has become wasn't something anyone could have known back then. In a way, I miss that time. I took the risk to follow my heart against many people’s wishes. I risked it all really. And that usually is the necessary condition for some form of success—not that I would say I'm anywhere near successful. Let's not forget, I'm only in my second decade, slowly going towards my third. In Japanese terms, I'm nowhere yet. After 30 years it gets interesting; then a certain mastery has established itself. In a time when everyone wants to be someone right now, trying to cut out the becoming part, this Japanese system of education can be very frustrating for people. I love it, however: it keeps me grounded and inspired. I came to my former master in 1997 and he took me in in 1999. As far as I remember, the decision was made in a black cab in London. I was a so-called satellite apprentice, flying back and forth twice each a year, all these years, until summer 2015. Then everything changed and, sadly, I will have to complete the rest of my path alone. The only real constant in life—change.
You do lots of amazing large-scale work. Do you have lots of clients starting off small and working their way up to larger-scale pieces or do they know what they want straight away with regards to big pieces?
Most people that come to me know what they want, which is good. Japanese tattooing lives off big scale, kick ass designs. In addition to a balanced size and harmonic positioning, working with the client’s body is key. Starting small is usually not the best for the overall look later. It's up to the expert tattooer to advise and guide the client accordingly—even if it means to refuse work.
Lots of tattooists travel while tattooing. Is that something you are still interested in now that you have a child?
I loved the travel-tattoo period in my life! But now that child number two is here, it's close to impossible. Other colleagues with kids might disagree, but for my family and our agreements and splitting of duties, I have cut down on travels tremendously—it’s just to keep everyone at home sane, really. And I’ve missed so much already, the children grow up so quickly. I’d rather wait a while with the travels, or take my family with me.
When and how did you decide to start collecting vintage Star Wars figures?
They were all I played with as a kid. I had a lot of figures and I built a case for them when I was 20 years old. Then the hype kinda came back. Just this year the hype got out of hand and I got back into collecting the few figures I’d missed. I thought it was a few…turns out I bought nearly as many as I had previously. Mental. And they’re expensive plastic nowadays. But I'm a collector of pretty much anything that interests me. I collect just for fun, not as a form of investment.
What comes first for you—the movie or the toy line? I encountered the toy line first, but I know most watched the movie first.
I had the toys first. I wasn't allowed to see the film until later—too young. Back then people cared about kids’ minds. Now I see Star Wars-crazy dads take their four-year-olds to the new Star Wars, which is in-fucking-sane. I’ve seen little ones cry their eyes out and that damage went beyond a bad night’s sleep! I read a lot about screen time and the development of children’s brains. It's part of our, more or less alternative, old school lifestyle. A psychologist friend of mine diagnosed me as a conservative-anarchist the other day—whatever that means.
What other hobbies do you have?
My work, tattoo-world stuff in general, collecting, books, meditation, my kids, reading, photography, painting, DIY at home, motorbikes and all that comes with that!
What are your music tastes?
In my calmer period, only classical music like Beethoven, Vivaldi, and so forth. Nowadays, I'm back into metal. I especially like instrumental rock—things like Jakob, My Sleeping Karma, Monkey 3, Russian Circles.
Thank you very much for taking time to do this. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you buddy. Good luck with it all. Be yourself always and trust in the power of the force!