October 22, 2020

Words by Damien Belliveau

Meet Damien Belliveau, a writer and tattoo collector currently based in California. Here he shares with TTTISM his fond memories of artists he has worked with over the years and over the world on his journey to create an intricate body of art.

We start with Taku Horisuzu.

I had no intention of becoming a tattoo collector. But it happened. Piece by piece and year by year, I’ve assembled a collection that continues to grow as I grow, change as I change, evolve as I evolve. I like how tattoos look, sure, but I also love that each piece tells a story. Like all good stories, my tattoos mean something different to everyone who encounters them. Not least of all, my tattoos carry meaning for other tattoo artists. No matter what tattoo shop I walk into, or who the tattooer might be, there’s always at least one piece that makes someone go, “Is that [fill-in-the-blank tattooer]?” The reactions to my tattoos embody the communal quality of the art form. I like that. Tattoos not only start conversations, they are conversations. I was in London getting a piece from Liam Sparkes at Old Habits. He pointed at a Stanley Kubrick portrait on my arm and asked, “Is that from Manface?” I said it was, and all of a sudden, Liam was wrapped up in some random memory about a summer in New York that had nothing to do with me, or my Kubrick tattoo. “But I thought he’d stopped tattooing,” Liam said.
“I think this was one of his last pieces,” I answered. Liam shrugged, and ran his tongue along the sticky part of his hand-rolled cigarette, and stepped out to smoke. He was right though, shortly after Matt “Manface” McCormick tattooed my portraits of Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma, two of my favorite film directors, he pivoted fully to his fine art paintings and fashion collaborations. And this is another quality I love about tattoos: they aren’t only benchmarks in my life, but in the lives of the artists who do the work. The tattoos, and the artists, and the subjects are all connected, and in this way a tattoo is both finite and infinite, personal and public. My collection of tattoos is random, uneven, eclectic, incomplete, and very much the natural byproduct of my own inexhaustible curiosity.

Around 2011 is when I started getting serious about tattoos. I had a few pieces, but not many, and nothing particularly impressive. In fact, I was interested in getting the tattoos that I did have covered, or “fixed,” whatever that meant. When it came to tattoos, I was about as ignorant as one could be. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But from Lil Wayne to David Beckham to Rihanna, visible tattoos were becoming more common, and my interest in expanding my collection was growing.

Located in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, Bryan Burk’s Dark Horse Tattoo was my local tattoo shop. I’d passed by Dark Horse countless times, on my way to or from Bar Covell, which was next door. Bar Covell had a patio where you could smoke and drink at the same time, which is uncommon in Los Angeles. I’d often thought about going inside Dark Horse, but I was intimidated. Walking into a tattoo shop requires a bit of humility. Part of me was apprehensive about potentially wasting someone’s time — if I knew I wasn’t ready to get a tattoo, why bother an artist with a bunch of questions? Another part of me, the part that knew that I liked tattoos and wanted more, was worried I’d walk in with questions and walk out with fresh ink in my skin. And yet another part of me was shamefully preoccupied with being perceived as lame or weak or dumb or goofy or whatever — my pride kept me out. 

Those of us who want to be tattooed make ourselves vulnerable as we enter these spaces. We’re unsure of what we want, and unfamiliar with what’s “good,” but hoping to make informed choices about what we’re about to put on our skin forever. The fact is, unless you’ve spent many hours around tattoo artists, you have to expect, and accept, your ignorance. Closing that information gap can only come through communicating with people who already have tattoos and are willing to get you up to speed; or from direct conversations with tattoo artists, the best of which are usually very busy and short on time. Both options require some social proximity that the majority of people don’t have. But one night I decided to finally leave the sidewalk, and mount the short staircase, and shoulder my way through the door that led into the lobby of Dark Horse Tattoo. As a random walk-in with no appointment, I was greeted by the one artist who wasn’t busy with a client: Taku Horisuzu. 

I had a few ideas for tattoos that I might want to get. I’d brought with me a print-out of a painting by the baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, his Hippopotamus and Alligator Hunt. I liked the energy of the piece, the violence, the man-versus-nature quality of the event being depicted. Taku took the page, studied it, and shook his head. Rubbing his chin, he said he couldn’t do it. “There’s not enough black,” Taku said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “This isn’t a tattoo,” Taku said. Taku took the time to explain the logistics to me, explaining why a painting like this Rubens wouldn’t make a good tattoo. I didn’t really understand, but I decided to trust him. He seemed sincere, and willing to educate me. I appreciated that. The other ideas I had were paintings also, and I assumed that one classical painting would have the same problems as any other, and didn’t bother sharing the rest of my ideas. But Taku was so friendly and so chill that I felt comfortable asking him more questions. I showed Taku one of my old tattoos that I was hoping to get fixed, or covered up — a scorpio M symbol on my calf. Many years earlier, I’d gotten this tattoo from some random dude who was a homie of some buddies of mine, rappers who were living in Tempe, Arizona. This guy was teaching himself how to tattoo, and giving people free tats as a way to practice. I was down to get something. So, with 40s and blunts flying around, this stranger went to work. The scorpio M was contained in a thick black oval, floating in a pool of red ink. The finished product kinda looked like a superhero emblem, unintentionally (and unfortunately) similar to the logo of the Green Bay Packers football team. The work wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely amateur quality. Without changing the overall design, Taku was able to beef up the color, sharpen the lines, and generally elevate a piece that wasn’t particularly complicated or interesting to begin with. Over the next few weeks, as Taku’s work healed and settled, I was impressed by what a difference his touch-ups had made. I went back to Dark Horse, and talked to Taku about ways we could upgrade the other tats that I wasn’t happy with.

Before I get too far along, I gotta say that at this point in my life, I was a fan of tattoos but I was not a student. I didn’t do a lot of research. Instagram was around, but it was barely a year old. I didn’t know about Instagram hashtags, and Googling “tattoo” could take you down some weird, sketchy internet holes. So, like I’ve said, I was ignorant about tattoos. Growing up, my mother had a tattoo of a tarot card on her bicep. As a kid, that made an impression on me. When I was in the Army, me and some buddies celebrated our graduation from Boot Camp with a trip to a random tattoo parlor in San Antonio, Texas, and I got a scorpion on my chest beneath my family name in script. Since my name and my zodiac sign would never change, it felt like a safe choice. Then, over the years, I picked up a couple other things — a small infinity symbol on my leg, an Egyptian Ankh on my right bicep, and the eye of Horus on my left bicep. All three of these pieces were inked in black, no color at all, by strip-mall biker tattooers whose names I never knew. By the time I walked into Dark Horse and met Taku, each of these tattoos was looking pretty rough, fading, and taking on that green discoloration that a lot of 90s blackwork suffers from. 

Taku practices traditional Japanese tattooing. I’m not talking about tabori, although he does do that as well, I’m just saying his work adheres to classical styles of Japanese tattoo aesthetics. It’s not neo anything, it’s classical, traditional. At the time, I was ignorant of what traditional Japanese tattoos were. I was ignorant of traditional American tattoos too. I was also ignorant of tribal tattoos. If you haven’t caught on yet, the theme of this piece is my all-encompassing ignorance in relation to tattoo culture. Today, I wave off the idea that a tattoo has to mean something. Today, I understand and celebrate the fact that there’s nothing wrong with getting a tattoo for the sake of a tattoo, just because it looks cool, or because the artist is gifted. But back then, I was still someone who believed a tattoo should have some definitive meaning, which explains how my next few sessions with Taku evolved. 

After Taku had done such a clean job fixing up the scorpio M, I asked him if he’d be down to expand the concept to wrap around my lower leg. “Sure,” Taku said, “What do you want to do?” I chose some other scorpio symbols — an actual scorpion, a zig-zagging line which is the Egyptian hieroglyph for water (the scorpio element), and the constellation of scorpio. Taku layed out the placement of these three objects around my lower leg. He followed my general instructions, delivering what I wanted. I was shamefully unaware about what I was doing, or rather, what I was asking to be done. But that was my responsibility, not Taku’s, and Taku did his best to make sure that he delivered the most quality version of whatever I asked for. This is really the best you can hope for in any collaboration with an artist where the concept originates with your original idea. It would take me another year, at least, to realize that one should always go to a tattooer whose aesthetic is consistent with the desired tattoo. In other words, don’t ask a dude who does traditional American tats to deliver a Polynesian tribal design, or some fine-line cholo work — odds are you’ll both end up unhappy. Anyway, over a few months, while Taku was fixing up the scorpio M, and expanding my scorpio-themed calf band, I was able to watch the other artists work. 

The buzz of vibrating tattoo guns filled the Dark Horse air. I noticed the clackity hiss of the machine whenever the gun was held away from the body, and the soft hum of the motor whenever the needles dug into a client’s skin. I’d look to my left and see Adam Warmerdam executing some of the illest looking girl heads you’ll find anywhere. I’d look past Adam and see Bryan Burk putting in work on neo-Japanese animals that stretched across clients’ entire torsos. These guys were producing the most beautiful tattoos that I’d ever seen in real life. The colors popped, and the designs were so fluid and alive. I was impressed by the way Bryan and Adam approached the anatomy of their clients, taking into consideration how the body moved, how limbs shifted and turned. The attention they gave to ensuring each piece was unique and cool made me think about tattoos in ways that I hadn’t before. And these dudes were all very chill about everything. After spending a lot of time in the shop, the idea that I was once intimidated by tattoo artists seemed crazy. They weren’t all that different from my own friends. Watching them work, I was reminded of my homies who were graffiti writers, and the way they’d approach murals, pieces, burners, even throw-ups. Like graffiti, tattoos could be super fun and skillfully-rendered. It would be a while before I realized just how many tattoo artists come from the graffiti world. The more time I spent inside Dark Horse, the more I was exposed to what well-made tattoos looked like. 

Once my scorpio-themed band was complete, I liked it, but really, I didn’t know what the fuck it was. It wasn’t tribal. It wasn’t “traditional” anything. It didn’t flow. It didn’t have life. It was well-done. It was professional. It was clean. But it wasn’t cool. When I hopped off of Taku’s table, stood in front of the mirror, and looked at the final product, I thought it was good. But me looking at a tattoo was like a casual sports fan watching the World Cup — you kinda know what’s going on, but you can’t really appreciate the true value of the thing. When I caught other people in the shop glancing at my leg, the reaction was just sort of meh, if they bothered to look at all. That didn’t make me feel great. In fact, it reminded me of the apprehension I’d had when I first considered walking into Dark Horse. Now, I wasn’t getting these tattoos to impress anybody else, that’s not what any of this is about, but you hope, or at least I hoped, that when I did get a tattoo that it would be deserving of the most basic admiration. I’d spent months watching people stand in front of the Dark Horse mirrors with pieces from Bryan and Adam and thinking to myself, Damn, that shit is fucking sick! Thinking it, and saying it to the clients and the artists. Other clients and tattooers in the shop would walk from table to table, study freshly finished tats, and give props to the artist, nodding at the client in approval. Yeah, man. Good job. Well done. The reaction to Taku’s work on my leg was not like this, not at all, and not because of Taku’s work but because of what the tattoo was. Standing in front of the mirror, when I looked over at Taku, he was lost in his phone, his eyes following whatever pages his thumb was scrolling past. He didn’t even bother to take a picture of my completed piece. In the months since I’d started seeing Taku, Instagram had blown up, or at least I’d become more aware of it, in large part because of what a powerful tool it is for tattoo artists. So, in this emergent Instagram culture, I knew that Taku not bothering to photograph my tattoo was a bad sign. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted something cool, something worthy of documentation. So, I asked Taku about covering up an existing piece. “Yeah,” he agreed, “let’s do something cool, something Japanese.” We made an appointment, and I was back in a few weeks.  

The infinity symbol I had on my left calf was small, maybe two inches by three inches, and black & grey. In the style of a traditional Japanese wrap, Taku used the feathers of an eagle’s wing to hide the symbol. I was surprised by how easily Taku was able to mask one tattoo with another. After that session, I walked out of Dark Horse happy. The infinity symbol was completely invisible, and it was covered by a really sick-looking screaming eagle. With a five inch band that wrapped all the way around my calf, I finally had a well-made tattoo that had some color, and some motion, and some genuine aesthetic value. 

Like the scorpio M touch-ups, I watched Taku’s work heal and settle. The longer I looked at the piece, the happier I got. I admired Taku’s work. It was beautiful. So delicate, so nuanced, so complicated. This was my first lesson in realizing that if you want to get the best work out of a tattooer, you have to ask them to do the style of work that they specialize in. And if they don’t specialize in any particular style, that’s something you ought to think about before getting a tattoo from them.

In a matter of weeks, I was back at Dark Horse. It had become obvious to me that, as a stand-alone tattoo, the eagle band was incomplete. I asked Taku to do the rest of my lower left leg, and he was happy to continue the work. We added a peony, complemented by wind and rocks and splashing water. Finally, people were nodding, offering thumbs up, saying, Nice. Cool. Sick. I was fascinated by the work, and wanted more. I asked Taku to tattoo my right bicep and chest. We discussed doing a traditional Japanese dragon, a three-quarter sleeve that would spill onto the right side of my chest. This involved covering up a six-inch Ankh on my bicep, and my first tattoo, the scorpion on the right side of my chest. Taku let me know that this project could take five or six three-hour sessions, which would mean a few months of work. I was fine with this. I was unhappy with how raggedy the faded Ankh and scorpion looked, and I was really excited to have more colorful and exciting tattoos from a uniquely talented tattooer. 

In those months between sessions with Taku, I researched Japanese tattoos on the internet. I learned that my approach had been all wrong. I learned that the traditional Japanese body suit should be conceived in its entirety at the beginning of the work. I learned that there was a proper order in which the pieces should be implemented — back, arms, chest, legs. Not to say any of this is set in stone — it’s tattooing, it’s art, it’s open and fluid and plastic — but I was getting these tattoos without understanding even the most basic history and tradition of the craft. As always with Taku, the work was incredible, I could see the quality of each completed section after every one of our sessions. But the more I learned, the more I realized I’d gone about these last few tattoos the wrong way. Obviously, I should have done the research before getting tattooed. I should have. But I didn’t. My ignorance had set me down a path that only through the dumb luck of meeting Taku did I not end up with a bunch of janky-ass, poorly-done tattoos from some fool who couldn’t care less about a random walk-in. There aren’t enough words to express how grateful I am that I walked into Dark Horse, and met Taku, and got these Japanese tattoos from someone who is not just good, but gifted. Many people in my situation stroll into shops blind, and instead of being greeted by a world-class, well-respected tattoo artist end up talking to someone who is still learning, or just straight-up untalented. My Japanese work from Taku is always appreciated by artists who know what they’re looking at. I was incredibly lucky. But I decided that once Taku was done with my dragon piece that I’d stop getting traditional Japanese work. My decision wasn’t only in response to what I’d learned about Japanese tattoos. 

By nature, I’m a curious person, I have broad tastes in movies, books, music, fashion, and most everything. The more I learned about tattoos, the less inclined I was to commit my entire body to only one aesthetic. I was getting interested in other types of tattoos. I wanted some variety. The three-quarter sleeve from Taku was definitely cool, and well-made, and I was proud of it. Now, I wanted to try other things. Through Instagram, I’d discovered a few artists who were practicing innovative variations of traditional American stuff, guys like Mark Cross and Javier Rodriguez. I liked the bold lines and bright colors and traditional iconography of traditional American tattoos. I was already gravitating toward individual artists. I was moving past thinking about my next pieces in terms of specific images or ideas that meant something to me. I liked tattoos that embodied something unique about the artist, a signature look, especially when the tattoos were rooted in a traditional style. In addition to being curious, I’m also impatient, and in these early days making an appointment for a tattoo frustrated me. I liked being able to walk into a shop, meet the artist, chop it up with them for a little bit, pick something off the wall, and leave with a fresh tat. This was how I stumbled upon High Seas tattoo parlor. 

You can find more of Taku Horosuzu's work on Instagram (@horisuzu).