Kiku is without a doubt one of my favorite contemporary tattoo artists. He moved from Tokyo to NYC, settled in and conquered! 12 years of hard work and dedication paid off and today Kiku is one of the most innovative and respected tattooers around.
Just like many others, Kiku wanted to study the Japanese tradition of tattooing, with its rules and regulations, but he ended up subverting the status quo and creating his own personal style. His world made of robots, godzillas, punk rock and pop culture in general, got mixed with dragons, snakes, Hannyas and koi fish, with bold lines and bright colors, and the results are incredible. Kiku definitely took over the ancient art of traditional Japanese tattooing, and transformed it, blending together the past and the future.
His work is totally unique and gives a new contemporary flavor to classic japanese tattooing. I go to meet him at Invisible NYC, where he is a resident artist, in a full house of amazing talents, and I really want to get to know the man behind those sensational tattoos. Here is a quick interview that will give you a little insight. Arigato, Kiku san!
What was your upbringing like, what was your main influence growing up and when did you first discover tattooing?
I grew up in a normal family and was raised by normal parents, but I discovered punk rock at an early age and that changed everything! Bands like Sex Pistols and the Clash, mostly, or Exploited, GBH, Discharge etc. really influenced me. I also started listening to American punk bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Misfits and Ramones… all that. So I was all about classic punk rock. Around 18, I discovered this band called Toy Dolls.
I fell in love with them so quickly, and they are probably still in me, somewhere in my blood.
That band kind of changed my life in a way that I can’t explain… just listen. Anyway, I also discovered tattoos when I was really young, at the public bath house in Japan. That was a pretty shocking experience for a little kid.
How did you make your first moves into tattooing? Did you have a mentor?
I didn’t have any mentors, but I had a friend who was already tattooing. So, I used to hang out with him at his studio / apartment, and eventually asked him bunch of questions. Until I decided I wanted to give it a try and bought my first tattoo machine from Huck Spaulding! I had to order tattoo supplies by fax back then, and eventually started tattooing all my friends for free, like everyone else.
You are from Tokyo, Japan. What made you decide to move definitely to NYC to work?
I didn’t plan too much about moving to the states honestly. Back in ‘95 or ‘96, I did this US cross country trip by greyhound and train, by myself, for like a month. I always wanted to come to America anyway, whether it was for tattooing or just to live. From that trip, I felt like NYC was a very special place for me.
I loved the whole vibe of the city. And I was like: this is it! Simple as that.
What’s the main difference between life and work in Japan compared to the US in your opinion?
Think Japanese people like grey. Here in US it’s black or white. About everything. Good or bad. If that make sense.
Japan seems not to value the tradition of tattooing and all the amazing artists that come out of it. Do you think tattooing will ultimately be legalized anytime in Japan? Will the stigmata finally be lifted in your opinion?
It takes a long time because it still has this bad image of yakuza, no matter how much tattooing becomes mainstream. Even though it is a part of Japanese traditional art. Probably things aren’t gonna be like here in the US for at least the next 10 years. Or not in my lifetime.
You have a passion for toys and japanese animation… Where does it come from? Your style depicts some icons of Japanese pop culture mixed with traditional japanese tattoo style: how did you develop this style?
Well, I respect Japanese traditional tattooing and history, but at the same time I can’t lie to myself and ultimately I wanna express myself. So, I decided to paint some stuff that I really like. Stuff like Godzilla and Ultraman. Stuff that I grew up with and that made me who I am and then eventually, people started asking me to tattoo those designs.
Invisible NYC is a studio packed with talents – mostly inspired by japanese tattooing. How many years have you been working here? Tell me more about the shop…
I’ve been at Invisible NYC for 12 years now. Original guys are just Troy and Regino and myself. So many artists came and went, but working with Regino and Chris Garver (even tho he has his own studio today) is a big deal. They are not just good friends, but also a daily inspiration. I love working at a studio that’s full of unique artists. That’s what I love about this shop. We inspire each other, but everyone is different.
Who are the artists that inspire you the most? Japanese or American tattooers?
Ed Hardy, of course. My friend Shinji (Horizakura) and many other Japanese tattooers who are not alive anymore.
What do you mostly miss of Japan? Do you go there often?
I haven’t been back to Japan in over 10 years. And I really, really miss real Japanese food. I’d love to go back and visit all the temples, toy stores, used book stores, etc…
What’s your main passions besides tattooing and can you explain us the meaning of your name KikuPunk (Kiku meaning flower, Chrysanthemum in Japanese, and it is usually a girl’s name…)?
Definitely hanging out with my girlfriend and dog. It is priceless! And traveling. Going to places that I’ve never been to. And I wanna create more art (non tattoo related) and toys. Kiku is my nickname that I named myself long time ago, because I didn’t like my real name too much and I just liked the sound of kiku and punk together… Haha!
148 Orchard st., NY
Follow Kiku on Instagram: @kikupunk