Johan Ulrich is both a tattooist and toy designer, currently working in Jack Browns Tattoo Revival. Now someone who travels to New York and California for toy conventions rather than tattoo conventions, Johan has released several series of toys, manufactured in Japan. Here, Ed Crooks discusses with Johan how he became a toy maker, his favorite childhood toys, and the influence of his Dad’s friends on his tattoo career.
Hi Johan, how old you are and where are you from?
I’m a lizard man on my 34th cycle on the blue planet. I hatched from the egg of great reptilian in south Florida and crawled my way up to central Florida where I was apprenticed in the arcane arts of skin zapping. After a few years, I needed to leave my nest and travel westward where I landed in Texas to do some zapping for a few years. There, I met a desert witch who captured my heart in her blazing gaze. We spent all the energy Texas had to offer us, aligned ourselves onto the planet’s energy axis that deposited us in Virginia, and have been here since.
So, you’re our first tattooer and toy maker, where do you tattoo?
I’ve been tattooing 14 years now and have spent the last six of those working with the best dudes at Jack Browns Tattoo Revival in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
What was your path into tattooing?
I was 20 when I took on a proper apprenticeship in a shop called Fat Katz Artistry in Ocala, Florida. I learned to tattoo under Dan Loose, who I am eternally grateful to for teaching me the trade.
Was it something you always wanted to do?
I thought about it in passing when I was in high school. I was always into art and knew that I would pursue a career path that included it, but didn’t think about tattooing seriously until I spent some time around my Dad’s friends. They were covered in tattoos and had gold teeth. Somehow, they were the raddest and most terrifying people I had ever seen–I was entranced. I knew for sure that I wanted to live that life, and for me tattooing was a great way to do what I love for a living.
Do you travel much with tattooing?
Not so much anymore. I traveled for tattooing a lot more when I was younger, but these days I am more content to stay at home. When I do travel, it’s for toys more often than not. My wife and I go to toy conventions in California and New York. We are hoping to go to Japan in the near future to meet some of our friends and see the factory where my toys are made.
You’ve done some amazing manga and anime tattoos–what are some of your favorite series and tattoos you’ve done from those genres?
Oh man, definitely Cowboy Bebop, Berserk, Mushi Shii, Devil Man, Dororo, and so many more. My wife and I watch a ton of anime at home–we just finished watching Goblin Slayer and Rage of Bahamut before that. I have done so many Dragonball Z tattoos that I have lost count at this point, which is awesome because I grew up watching it daily. I had the opportunity to do a fun Ryuk piece, from Death Note, and a Cat-Eyed Boy as well. One of my favorite pieces I’ve been able to do is a large Bee and Puppycat tattoo on my wife.
Were you a skateboarder or interested in alternative music, or both, as a kid?
As a kid and teen I was definitely into skating and surfing. I grew up near the beach in Hollywood, Florida–tons of great skate spots down there. Never really skated much though. Music wise at the time, I was listening to bands like Bolt thrower, Kreator, Sleep–basically lots of stoner and death metal.
Were toys always a big thing for you? Which lines did you love as a kid?
Toys ruled my world as a kid. I was fortunate enough to be the baby of four, so I got all my older siblings’ toys as hand me downs–one being a jumbo Mazinger. Some of the only new toys I bought as a kid were the obvious choice of TMNT, but I was also into Street Sharks, Muscle Men, Toxic Crusaders, and was able to score a few cheap Bandai vinyl Godzilla and Ultraman figures from an Asian market near our house.
So how and when did you get into toy making?
I came up with the Deathcat Toys line in 2013. I had a few toys out that year like the bent back lady Lilith, and the Death Cat mascot. Around that time I made friends with a few Japanese toy designers who were interested in my toys and illustrations. It kind of took off from there. The stars weirdly aligned and I was able to make the connections needed to produce my toys in Japan. I have been lucky to gain several Japanese friends during that process, some I talk to almost every day.
You have also done lots of illustrations for other toy makers right?
Oh man that’s one of my favorite things to do currently. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with a bunch of great artists: Nerdone, Newtervision, ISH, Shingangu, Splurrt, Awesometoy, Yamakichiya, Michael Skattum, PlanetXasia, Kurobokan, Cure Toys, Science Patrol’s, Toy Pizza, Uhoh toys, and SQDBLSTR to name a few!
Where did your influence come from for the bezerker & ghoul?
I’d say my main influences for the Berserker character come from a combination of
Gamura Twist seal series, Guts from Berserk, Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, a little David Bowie from Labyrinth, and any barbarian or warrior tropes from the ‘80s. The ghoul is a sidekick character for Berserker, I imagine him along the lines of a slimer from Ghostbusters or Orco from the MOTU series.
What have been your favorite toys you’ve made?
That’s a tough one, really. I have to say I really love making keshi toys. I love the size and format and how it allows you to appreciate the toy for its design. There’s no bells and whistles or anything, it is just a little eraser toy. At the end of the day, my heart will always be with sofubi.
What do you have out right now?
The current line-up of toys are the Elder Demons/Berserker series. These are finger puppet style toys and keshi figures, plus the Berserker Mace Grendel in Vinyl. Also, a series with Niall from Shingangu called DeathTek Mashin: Chaos Dimension.
I also have a line coming out called Obake Mystery under the LifeDogToys Line. This series will focus on traditional Japanese yokai and demons.
What toys lines do you focus collect these days?
Nowadays I’m collecting mostly vintage stuff like vintage Popy and Bullmark toys, and old Kaiju figures. Newer stuff I’m collecting is IluIlu, Uzumark, Utsugiyo, Uncut, and random Japanese keshi.