SoCal Connected on KCET

Skin As Canvas: Japanese American National Museum's 'Perseverence' Exhibit

Original Airdate May 28, 2014

Val Zavala: Have you been obsessed with tattoos for a while because this is incredible! This exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum downtown would never appear in Japan.

Why? Because the subject is tattoos. And tattoos are scorned in Japanese culture. But photographer Kip Fulbeck and curator Takahiro Kitamura, saw it through different eyes.
Kip Fulbeck: This is an art form that is revered around the world except for in the country of its origin. Japan still looks down on tattoos. With my tattooing on my body I still can’t join a health club, can’t go to an onsen, or a bathhouse. I can't go to public swimming pool.

Val Zavala: Part of the reason is that tattoos associated with a Japanese crime syndicate.

Kip Fulbeck: It's always associated with the Yakuza, or the Mafia. And part of that is just huge stereotypes and part of it is based in reality. Did I photograph any Yakuza for the show, sure? But I also photographed police officers, and doctors, and firefighters, and professors, and CEOs. This isn't about the people, this is about the work. If you look at any of the work in these photographs, they’re never overworked. It works with the body, it’s peaceful.

Val Zavala: This tattoo is by Horitomo. He's also the artist who created a stunning tattoo on Kip's back and arms.

Kip Fulbeck: When I look at my back piece it’s a Horitomo piece. It's signed by Horitomo. And what I wanted to do as an artist is put this in a situation where we really acknowledge as an amazing art form...these are hugely dedicated. I remember seeing Horitomo in San Jose and asked if he wanted to go to dinner one night and this is one of the greatest living tattoers in the world. If you look at any of the artists here, especially the seven we featured, none of them will say they are a master. They will say I’m still learning. I’m still trying. If this show didn’t kick-ass, I would be like I had the greatest ingredients as a chef and I couldn’t cook it, so this was a huge challenge to kick off.

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Photographs of intricate full-body Japanese tattoo designs are now on display at the Japanese American National Museum’s new exhibit, “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World."

The exhibit is curated by Takahiro Kitamura and photographed and designed by Kip Fulbeck, who has been honored as a Local Hero by KCET.

Tattoos have been around for centuries. In fact, explorer Captain James Cook brought the first literal reference to the term "tattoo" to Europe after his first voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand, according to Evan Senn in KCET's Artbound.

In the 1900s, traditional Japanese tattooing rooted itself within America's mainstream tattoo culture.

For many cultures, tattooing was often used as a healing practice and a symbol of personal identity, criminal branding, and cultural decorations, as Artbound writes.

"SoCal Connected" host Val Zavala recently paid a visit to the museum to learn more about the design and significance behind the tattoos in a special exhibit named after the Japanese word "gaman," which translates to "endurance with dignity, for a purpose."

However, this particular exhibit would probably never appear in Japan. Why? Because tattoos are still scorned in Japanese culture.

"This is an art form that's revered around the world except for in the country of its origin. Japan still looks down on tattoos," says Fulbeck.

Find out more about symbolism and story behind the underground Japanese tattoo scene, and how it has shaped and influenced modern Japanese tattoo art in the U.S.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Kip Fulbeck, photographer

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