|This is the story of the evolution of my back tattoo. From blank skin to completed work, I am documenting each session with text and images. Along the way I am adding relevant quotes and links. Thanks for reading.|
"The Japanese consider it the most spirited of fish, so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals. The carp is an appropriate symbol to encourage the overcoming of life's difficulties leading to consequent success."
I chose Chris
O'Donnell at New
York Adorned to do my back work, I put together a written outline
of what I wanted. It's hard to get across sometimes, but this guy
had the vocabulary I was looking for. Here's
what I wrote:
Session. April 16 2003. 10:45AM.
Session. April 16 2003. 6:00PM.
We got the Koi outline 100% done with a bit of the water that overlaps at the fins and tail. I highly suggest Chris O'Donnell at NY Adorned if you are looking for Asian influenced work. He's fast, concise and a nice guy.
I go back on April 25th to do the outline of the background elements. Fire, bamboo, maple leaves, water, wind, some symbolic touches... All in all, I couldn't be happier.
Session. April 25 2003. 10:00AM.
I take delivery on a custom-made Taiko drum today, too. It's a small one, more suited to practice than performance, although it can be played in a group setting. The people over at World Sphere Taiko were kind enough to make it for me.
hours till tattoo time, 12 till that beer. And then about 336 hours
till the next session.
Session. April 26 2003. 11:00AM.
We got a good amount of color work done. About 1/3 of the Koi has been colored in. Chris picked some nice oranges, yellows and a touch of red. All blended to give the image some great depth and motion. It's interesting how the color changes over the course of a few days. When you first see the color, your skin is red. The color is also much darker due to the blood that mixes into the excess ink. As the swelling goes away and you wash off the ink that didn't "take," the colors become much more vibrant and alive.
It's looking better than I could have hoped.
"The great Koi fish is a symbol of majesty that awes the raksas, nagas & demons into submission & the basket where they will be contained."
Session. May 9 2003. 10:00AM.
Session. May 9 2003. 11:45PM.
I had dropped off printouts of my back for Chris to sketch the background on. When I got to the shop, we started discussing where the other elements will be placed. We're moving the bamboo to the right upper back to use as the cover up on the preexisting work. We discussed making sure the maple leaves don't look like pot leaves. He also jazzed me up with how he plans on doing the "wind" swirls and other little (big) touches. I think we're pretty much agreed that there won't be an element of fire on this. Makes sense as it is an aquatic theme, but he does these really cool pieces I've been calling "Tibetan Fireballs" and I hope we can suss out a way to drop them in there somehow. It's interesting how I have given him complete control on this. If he thinks something isn't quite right, that's that. I don't push like I would normally. While I like 95% of the work I wear and respect the artists who did the work, Chris is undoubtedly the most accomplished artist I've ever worked with.
This "piece" will be an awesome combination of bright oranges, blues and greens. Obviously a good deal of blacks and reds, too. And I still can't get over how huge this tattoo is. My entire back and tying into my sleeves. Once I finish my back, I'm going to complete the chest work. And then I'm done until I turn fifty and at that point I plan on seeing Trevor Marshall to do my legs. :-)
Back work is strange in the sense that you have no idea what is happening until it's done. I sat for about two hours straight today before we took a break for me to see. So you lay there and deal with the boredom and the annoying noise and little bit of pain and then when you take a look at what's been completed, your face lights up. "Hell yeah!"
We got the dorsal fins and the "flipper fins" done today. This will probably take six more sessions to complete. My hope of being finished by July 4th will not come to pass. But that's fine, because this is going to be pretty rocking when it's done.
Carol (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote:
Case in point: I was in Florida at a good friend's shop
best way seems to be: wash off the lymph, plasma and any blood for
the first 48 hours using mild soap and cool water. Pat dry and apply
a thin layer of antibacterial ointment. After the 48 hours, switch
Session. May 22 2003. 9:45AM.
Session. May 23 2003. 10:00PM.
"Carp" is similar sounding to the word "business" in Chinese. It is also homophonic with "profit" or "advantage" whilst "fish" is homophonic to "surplus" or "wealth". Paintings featuring Koi Carp are therefore considered symbolic of good fortune in business or academic life. The Carp is also considered a symbol of endurance and perseverance, and is said to be able to progress along the mighty rapids of the Yellow River leaving all other fish behind. Comparisons are drawn with businessmen seeking advantage over their competitors. Carp, according to ancient belief could transform themselves into dragons when they reached 100 years old."
Session. July 11 2003. 8:45AM.
Session. July 11 2003. 12:00PM.
Let me tell you, after the first hour or so of shading the head, the water outline was excruciating and it only lasted 10 minutes. After the outline, going back to shading felt damn good. Not to dwell too much on the pain because the end result is more than well worth it. I am very, very happy with this project.
The koi on it's own is pretty damn well done but I get jazzed when I consider that we still have to add the background elements. The background will add to the story, scale and impact. One solid piece across my entire back.
One day, Chris asked me "how long have you been thinking about a Koi backpiece?" I responded "forever." Looking back, that was a mis-statement. While I have been thinking about a backpiece for many years, I never once nailed down what I wanted. I never even really thought about it. I just knew I needed something there.
One day, seriously, I just woke up and knew the Koi was what I wanted. I guess it ties into the fact that I've immersed myself in Asian arts over the past 5 years. I spent some time at Zen Mountain Monastery doing a Buddhist retreat and that opened my eyes to all sorts of artistic endeavors. Ikebana, Budo, Taiko, Ukiyo-e, Japanese gardening and even Nawa Shibari. Well, the Shibari influence came from other quarters, but still.
I've spent most of my adult life studying and appreciating Nordic culture and find many parallels between the two. Love of wood, love of the out-of-doors, the fishing industry...
a damned comedian, huh?
Session. July 25 2003. 4:00PM.
I don't think I've mentioned this before, but everything except the koi itself has been done freehand. There is a misconception about the word "freehand" in the tattoo world. Some people think it means the artist uses the machine and just wings it. That's not true. The artist uses a marker to draw the piece first and then inks it in. Tonight, as Chris was drawing the water on my back, it struck me how important it is that the artist can draw. Sounds obvious, I know. But I mean really draw.
the piece unfold is fascinating. It's a truly organic process.
I think you really, really need to trust your artist because there
is no final picture and no definite placements. You need to be comfortable
with not only their ability to tattoo but their ability to conceive
of the entire piece and make it happen.
is another word to describe "love" which is "koi".
The kanji character for "kokoro (heart)" is included as
part of both kanji characters. Both "ai" and "koi"
are probably translated as "love" in English. However, they
have slightly different nuance :
Progress image. From sessions 2 and 6.
Session. September 19 2003. 11:00AM.
"fought" getting Asian-styled work when started my sleeves
and now, while I can't say I regret anything, if I could do it all
over, I just might. Ahhhh, if I only knew then what I know
Session. September 19 2003. 8:02PM.
also the end of an era. 24 years ago I got the Pink
Panther tattoo'd on my back and tonight we covered up 95%
of that tattoo. I took massive amounts of ribbing for that tattoo
but I loved it. The Pink Panther cartoon was and still is one of
the coolest. Anyway, below are pictures from this afternoon's session.
Session. October 14 2003. 8:00AM.
aren't doing the work justice. And the freshness makes it shine.
Once it's done and healed I will definitely have a high quality
horimono, what is the meaning of koi carp?
Session. October 24 2003. 10:30AM.
here I now sit, knowing that the work will still be happening as
winter falls. And that one day soon it will be finished. 36
hours or so total. Resulting in one amazing piece of art. Living
art. Art that bother empowers and humbles. Art that will die
with me and in that way alone, a most intimate piece of art.
Art that I can't readily see yet is with me at all times. Inseparable.
And if I am mindful of the lessons the Koi teaches, an enlightening
form of art.
It's getting there. We covered some serious ground tonight. The rocks look cool and will only look cooler when they're healed. Chris uses a type of ink that fades to a nice grey from the initial solid black. Sumi-e like. Then he'll go in and add the texture in a real black. We also added a fair amount of water to the piece and need to texturize and detail all that. Actually, all the water will get a bit deeper. No pun intended.
The image on the left is a fast sketch he did to show me how we'll tie into the work on my left shoulder. The maple leaves will be intertwined with the "wind." As I look closely at the work, all the little details that are missing are becoming apparent. But that's cool. I know we'll hit it all in due time.
Next session isn't until December. Maybe I'll finish up my chest work during November. My birthday month.
On Friday October
17th, these pages were featured on one of my favorite sites, BoingBoing.net.
I received a number of great emails from around the world. My favorite
came from a bozo named Dickie.
image. From sessions 2, 6 and 9.
I feel like we're in the home stretch now. In reality, we're not. There's much new work to be laid down and a lot of details to flesh out. I have three more sessions booked.
We're thinking about where to place the final elements like the maple leaves and how far down and over the work should go. I want my left butt cheek covered. I'd also like to work in a Mitsu Tomoe.
been asking myself "why" get such extensive work.
Especially work that I will never directly see. I know the answers
in my gut. The symbology means much to me, the pure artistic expression
of such high quality work can't be denied, the drive to "customize"
my body has always been strong, there is a definite narcissistic
and sexual undercurrent. Can something you can't see be defined
Session. November 21 2003. 9:50PM.
Right now, it's a little difficult to see anything except the black work, but if you look closely you can see the maple leave's outline. You can also see the final bits of water. I love this style of water. I'm really looking forward to coloring in the leaves. The movement of the entire piece is impressive. Totally dynamic.
what is going to go on my left butt cheek and at the base
of my neck. All in all... getting there.
"... my teacher took me to a carp pond and we
sat there all day looking at the carp.
After we came home my teacher said, "Do you know why I was
watching carp all day?"
"No," I answered.
"It is because I want to study the living carp. I don't
like cartoons; I'm a professional artist and
I want to tattoo the true spirit of the carp"
At that time I hadn't seen the work of other tattoo artists.
In May my teacher took me to the festival at Sanja Temple where
I saw many tattooed men wearing loin cloths. Then I understood
what he had said about the living spirit of the carp as opposed
to tattoo designs which are cartoons. I remember two carp
tattoos: one by Hori Bun, which looked like a cartoon, and one
by Hori Uno, which had some of the true form of the carp
but was still partly a cartoon. It was supposed to be a
carp climbing up a waterfall but it looked dead, and a dead
carp can't climb a waterfall. The face of the carp climbing a waterfall must be strong, like the face of a samurai, but
the face of the carp by Hori Uno was not strong. The expression
on the face is very important in a tattoo. For example, in the traditional tattoo of the samurai fighting the
giant snake, the samurai doesn't know whether or not he can
kill the snake. His face must express this feeling."
Session. December 5 2003. 10:30AM.
friend of mine, Wes, just launched a site. He's journaling the evolution
of his Japanese-themed tattoo. Check it out at I
Awake In The Forest. Another friend of mine, Derek, just started
a full-body dragon tattoo and is posting thoughts and images at
of the Dragon.
And a traditional tebori
tattoo shop has been opened in NYC. It's called 55
Tattoo and it's run by the Horitoshi family.
Oh, and The Last Samurai was pretty damn good. Except for one or two predictable scenes I was totally impressed. Someone called it Dances With Samurai, and that's pretty accurate. And funny. I practiced Iaido for a year (need to get back to the dojo) and the scenes with the bokken were right on. The sword fighting was super exciting and the soundtrack was great. I need to pick that up next week.
we got more than "a few inches." It's been snowing
heavily for more than 24 hours and accumulation may hit 1.5 feet.
The Blizzard of 2003 they're calling it.
Tattoo Arts: Horiyoshi's World"
I definitely have moments where I wish I'd have done my arm work differently, but when I look at it from a few steps away it all flows with my back pretty nicely. This is due to the fact that I've always chosen my iconography based on mythology and symbols that are extremely important to me. Fact is, I already have a great deal of water, sky, foliage and blackwork on my arms so the overall effect is consistant. I definitely need to add some finishing touches to my arms like completing some sky and clouds and coloring in the acorns and oak leaves. I just printed out some pictures of my chest work and drew in the perimeter I want to work within. I don't think Chris will want to deal with completing unfinished work, but there are a few other artists I have in mind. I can see my upper body work complete by the summer. BFT.
you know what? I feel like this little mini-site is a valuable contribution
to the world of tattoo. That feels good. And for those of
you reading this that don't really know me, I've also contributed
a bit to the world of body
piercing, branding and cutting.
tattoo session I went to say goodbye to Alex.
A great friend who is moving back to Germany. I saw a bunch of old
friends from my days as Senior Producer at Atmosphere
Interactive. After the party I jumped on the F
train at the 2nd Avenue
subway station and made my way home.
Session. January 8 2004. 7:15AM.
I may not even wait those ten years. I just dropped Trevor an email
asking about doing a complete design that can be laid down
in a way that each group of sessions are complete unto themselves.
We'll see. People ask me why not continue the current theme onto my
legs. I feel that a pictorial approach only works on the upper
body. I feel that legs should be more graphic.
It has something to do with the legs grounding you to the earth.
So the work should be more representative of that. Solid yet open.
And Trevor is the guy to do it. And no, I'm not going for a
full bodysuit. Just need to finish my chest and legs.
We have two more sessions booked, but it will probably take three. As you can see from the pictures there are a few tweeks that need to be made to say nothing of the whole lower section. We also need to add quite a bit on the right hand side to match the left. I'm excited to finish this project and move onto my next. I rarely do anything long-term and am always looking for the next thing.
People say "you should be proud of that tattoo" and I laugh. I'm not proud of it. If anything, I'm proud of the fact I've maintained my commitment to see it through and proud of the fact that I chose the right artist.
makes some of the best steel and titanium body jewelry available. They've
made a number of cool pieces for me and I carried their stock at the
BodyArts studio. Founder Barry
Blanchard suggests you have the following in your Japanese Garden:
purples and yellows,
and a frog, Of
course, you need to stock the pond with koi
of all varieties, especially large
orange ones, and friendly
And be sure to keep the predators at bay.
NEW YORK ADORNED
47 Second Ave., New York, NY, 10003; (212) 473-0007
"To anyone who thinks tattooing and piercing was a fad: Fewer supermodels may be getting stuck, but business is still good. This shop is colorful and super-cool, with fast and very friendly piercing. They feature steel, wood, glass and gem curve jewelry, as well as a wide variety from Thailand, Borneo, India and Vietnam. Incredibly talented tattooists (plus visiting artists from around the world) do work you'll be proud to have forever." Paper Mag©
January 20 2004. 7:20AM.
"The reason I am writing to you is because I am looking for ideas for a full Koi related back piece myself...I have been following your experiences of the fantastic Koi back piece you are currently having done and would like to say that I think it's stunning...I would dearly like to base my work around your design...I hope you don't think I'm taking the juice or anything by contacting you about your design and work done but I really did fall for your design the first time I saw it...I hope you are not offended by some of the questions I have asked and I assure you that no offence is intended because I know how much of a personal thing it is that your doing and to think somebody is copying you could cause some people to take offence."
This guy did the right thing. He and I wrote a bit, I asked him to please have his artist take the idea and work it into his own, one-of-a-kind piece. He said:
"Thanks for such a prompt reply and I totally respect your view about the back piece. I will endeavour to carry on searching and find suitable artwork which I am completely satisfied with."
the other hand, some people may have copied this design a little to
closely for my tastes. Just sayin'. Again, I know the symbol is
universal and the background elements traditional, but
please, give it your own spin like I gave it mine. Read about ©opyrighting
And about stealing tattoos, here.
Session. January 20 2004. 11:00PM.
Holy crap the last 20 minutes sucked. And I'm still convinced that music plays a huge part in the experience. I think I've heard maybe a handful of good tunes since I've been having this done. As anyone who ever visited my old shop Modern American Bodyarts knows, music sets the tone for a session.
paid the man, took the F
to the R
and enjoyed some of Brooklyn's best pizza.
I know, I know... those love handles won't disappear if I continue
to eat like that. But it's freezing out, I've been working and training
my ass off and that's that.
Man Saves Fish With Kiss of Life
"A quick-thinking former ambulance driver from Belgium recently
saved the life of his pet koi fish by giving it
He suspected that the koi had had heart attack. He took the fish out of the water and gave it a heart massage, and after about fifteen minutes the fish started to move. Mr. Van Aert replaced the fish in the water, but it then stopped moving again. At that point Van Aert removed the fish from the water and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, also known as the kiss of life, as well as continuing the heart massages. His actions saved the koi's life." - Sherry Morse
Progress image. From sessions 2, 6, 9 & 14.
Binnie Tebori Ukiyo-e Prints
> Oxford Thesis on Tattooing in Japan
> Asian tattoos on BME
Session. January 30 2004. 7:45AM.
It's rewarding to compare things like the Sagas & Sutras / Valhalla & Seppuku / Barbarians & Bushi / Shinto & Asatru / Thor & Fudo / Berserkers & Kamikazi / Mead & Sake / Thatch & Staves / Oslo & Edo / Runes & Kanji / Broad sword & Katana.
Again, these pictures don't do it right. The work is swollen, dried blood, glare from the ointment and the left over marker all combine to make it, well, crappy looking. But as the black fades to that wonderful sumi-e like deep grays and the blues blend into each other...
We're really almost done. Wild. We saved the worst for last. As I mentioned in the session #12 entry, tattoo on the butt hurts beyond what can be called "pain." I'll quote myself:
holy crap, tattoo on the ass doesn't just hurt, it's kind of not-describable.
It's not like the pain on the rest of your body. All those types
of pain are identifiable. Sharp, annoying, dull, whatever. But the
pain on the cheek isn't even a pain, per se. It's this crazy sensation.
I'm at a loss for words about
I'm obviously not looking forward to it. But tonight is really the
last session. This last bit wraps it up. I do have one more
session booked, though. I was able to book a final session on April
16th just for detailing and touch ups. That's one year to the
day that we started. Pretty cool in my book. We'll use that
day to fill in a few spots and do some final touch-ups. I think it's
pretty cool that when some one asks "how long?" I can reply
"one year to the day." Of course the project manager in
me will want to add "that's duration, not effort."
It's anti-climactic in a way. I have no great "deep thoughts" to share as we near completion. I do have a good feeling of seeing something through to the end. Of having a vision of what I wanted and steadfastly, little by little working towards it. I'll be happy when its complete. Like something is off of my mind and I can move onto the other tattoo work I need to complete. I've started discussions with Stephanie Tamez about finishing up my chest work.
getting some super cool emails about this site and how helpful it
is for people looking to understand Japanese tattoo in general
and Koi symbology in particular. Want to drop me a note? Click here.
to everyone who has read along and sent me email.
photos: Chrysty Nyberg, KA, Medea, Kari Anne, Chris O'Donnell, Yon, Melissa Medina, Rachel Larratt