Born in Japan in 1957, Makoto Kubota is one of Japan’s most accomplished and international free-lance photographers. A graduate of the Tokyo College of Photography, he has lived in, and extensively photographed, Europe, Africa, North America, and Asia, working for both Japanese and international clients. His portraits of elite athletes, top politicians, media celebrities and artists have been published in dozens of Japan’s news and photography magazines.
Kubota’s published books include Children of the World: Korea (Kaiseisha, 1986), Hot Mexico (NTT Books, 1998), Sumo (Chronicle Books, 1999) and others. Kubota has exhibited his work in galleries in Japan and Europe, including two exhibitions in Geneva.
Over the past two decades, Kubota has photographed dozens of practitioners of the ancient Japanese art of irezumi. To do so required spending further years beforehand to build the trust of the organization to which these individuals belong.
The English translation of the word, irezumi – “tattoo” - is woefully inadequate to fully convey the skill required to create these living works of art, as well as the honor which accrues to the individual who – by virtue of their accomplishments on behalf of their leader and their organization - obtains permission to undergo the painful, multi-year process of receiving this body art.
Influenced by Avedon’s “In the American West,” Kubota chose large format photography for lrezumi. He shot his black and white photos with a Deardorff 8x10 inch Field Camera, and the color photos on a Phase One P25, to allow life-size enlargements for exhibition purposes.
As a Japanese, my memory of "irezumi" has unconsciously accumulated in my mind since my childhood. This may well be my motivation to start this project.
My first memory dates from early elementary school. I went to a public bathhouse with a friend, and saw a large tattoo on the back of a man I didn't know. Many Japanese my age may have had a similar experience. It wasn't unusual to encounter men with tattoos in the public baths of my hometown, the industrial area of Kawasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture. Today, it is often prohibited for tattooed individuals to display themselves in public areas, but such rules were not generally in effect in those days.
The image of the tattoo caught my eyes, and the memory burned itself into my younger self's consciousness. To me, that tattoo appeared to be a clear declaration, or even proof, of his “separation from legitimate society.” At that time, I don't think I clearly understood that concept, but even as a child, I didn't believe that people with such dramatically colored and brightly designed tattoos could possibly share the same world as my father or the other neighborhood men.
My memories tell me that the next time I encountered such tattoos was at the annual Sanja Matsuri (festival) in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. I witnessed something which is now prohibited as a "dangerous activity:” half-naked men clad only in loin-clothes and bright, colorful tattoos, riding crazily on top of the portable shrines being boisterously carried throughout the streets. The tattoos on their backs seemed to be alive and moving with the men swirling in the crowd. I was struck by the impact of the dynamic energy and life of the tattoos, which seemed to be in a different dimension completely from the bathhouse irezumi of my childhood memories. The sight was engraved deeply in my memory.
Afterwards, in the 1980's, when I focused on becoming a professional photographer, I went to London, where my brother lived, and had the chance to take photos of people with various kinds of tattoos on different parts of their bodies. I continued in my career, traveling throughout India, and the mountainous areas of Asia, where I photographed many different tattoos on many people.
Photographing overseas, I came to the realization that tattoos exist in numerous forms in many countries. In countries such as the Sudan and Ethiopia, and in the tribal areas of the Amazon, I understood how tattoos can be a very primitive form of self-expression.
The biggest difference between the tattoos of those countries, and the irezumi of Japan, I came to think, is that the former are more or less fashion accessories - whether of modern or local traditional culture - but the Japanese irezumi represent a lifestyle expressing one's personal "cries of the soul."
Irezumi, therefore, as a representation of the way of life of their owners, pursue an aesthetic beauty as unique artworks all by themselves. For example, the tattoo artist in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s classic novel, "The Tattooer," pours his own soul into the creation of an appropriate design for the back of a beautiful woman. This very well describes the unique Japanese approach to tattoos - a deep, serious and personal pursuit of aesthetic beauty in the flesh.
However, what I was looking for was not a photo of the actual tattoo itself, but a portrait of those men who would own such a tattoo as a means of clarifying their chosen lifestyle and their separation from the rest of society. To do so, I wanted a full size 8 x10 inch view camera facing them squarely from the front, and not a mere 35 mm snapshot. Only in this way could I capture the essence of their natural selves for posterity.
Of course, direct negotiations were necessary to obtain permission for such a production. Because I wasn't shooting candidly without their awareness, but rather with a large, tripod-mounted view camera focused intently on each person, I needed to obtain the consent of each individual involved. I decided to visit the headquarters of the organization to which my subjects belonged. Knowing that face-to-face discussion would be required, and that calling on the telephone would not be appropriate, I boldly and without appointment knocked on the front door of their office to announce myself. I had no previous contacts with, nor introductions to the group. At that time, I thought that I should approach them directly and convey my wishes in a straightforward manner. When I talked about this idea to my acquaintances, they all told me that such an approach would be quite unusual, and were therefore impressed that I did it.
I think my direct approach was effective. The person to whom I spoke understood and respected my passionate desire to portray these men from an upfront angle and in a directly honest way. "You're the first person to ask us to be photographed in such a manner," I was told, and my proposal was received without hesitation. Afterwards, this person took my request to the head of the group and received formal approval, which allowed the project to take place.
It took four years to accomplish the project. Each year, I met with my contact person and presented my photographs of each subject, which I think helped build a trust between us. By following their values of "duty and loyalty," such a relationship allowed me to achieve my project.
I didn't ask anyone to pose in any particular manner. I wanted to capture their natural selves, so I merely asked them to directly face my camera. That's all. Although I had the permission of the group's leader, I did not have a clear idea of how many men I would be able to photograph, because there was no guarantee that any particular individual would participate in the project. Once I started photographing, however, I got the feeling that I was able to create "new portraits" disclosing each man’s essential nature underneath their personalized and strong dramatic tattoo imagery. I felt I could photograph the "Japanese soul" of these men, and not just the exterior of their tattoos.
It is important to me that each viewer of these portraits leaves behind any preconceived notions concerning the concept of irezumi. I will appreciate your viewing each man as an individual human being, with the respect due to each of us.