Japanese-trained artist inks tattoo images in Auburn

By: Gloria Young, Journal staff writer
-A +A
When Joey Sprawka opened Utopia tattoo parlor in Downtown Auburn two years ago, he wanted to reflect a more positive side of the business. “I wanted to do something different for our industry and more exclusive to give the public a different view,” he said Wednesday. Part of that is hosting specialists in the trade. That includes Hori Suzu, an Oregon tattoo artist who has been trained in the Tebori method. The traditional Japanese form involves using hand tools instead of the more modern gun. “Here they use machines to fill in things and put in color,” Suzu said. “But (Tebori tattooists) put in color by hand.” He has been working in the business for 12 years and recently completed a 10-year apprenticeship studying with a Tebori master in Tokyo. “I got into tattooing through seeing tattoos while traveling around,” he said.” I’ve lived all over the world — Europe and Asia — and got exposure to actually seeing the Japanese method.” Now he divides his time between Tokyo and a tattoo studio in Portland. History is a big part of the Tebori tradition. “The practice has been passed down from master to apprentice, so people can trace the lineage of their tattoo history at least 100 years or more,” he said. “I can trace the founder of our specific style of tattooing to just before the turn of the century in the late 1800s.” Because it is done by hand, the look is a little different than the modern method. “A lot of people say it is not as painful,” Suzu said. “It is more of a pressure than a sharp pain.” The Tebori style of tattooing is known for its large canvas. “The Japanese are the founders of the full body suit,” he said. “It is a tattoo that covers your entire torso — only your hands, neck and feet are not covered so you can hide (the tattoo) with a business suit or long-sleeve shirt.” It is unchanged in its current form over the past 500 years. “All our tattoos have stories behind them,” he explained. “Generally people will come in and want a specific story or a tattoo that has a special meaning — a family member or something that will bring them good luck. Then I’ll create the design for them.” According to Suzu, there are only a few tattoo artists in the United States that have been trained in the Tebori method. “It is pretty limited to get tattooed by someone in the traditional way,” he said. Suzu does not limit his artistic endeavors to tattoos. He also does photography and painting. “I’ve had photo shows and shows of my paintings,” he said. “I’ve been featured in a few books in my art. I’m actually working on books myself about Japanese art.” His Auburn clients are getting what Suzu describes as “collector pieces.” “The most popular are flowers… Each flower carries a lot of different meanings,” he said. “They are luck images. Things that are good luck charms are pretty popular as well.” The hand-applied method is more expensive than the more mechanized alternative and takes a little longer. If it takes an hour by machine, Suzu says he can complete it in an hour and 15 minutes. Auburn resident Danielle Fournier was planning to get one of Suzu’s tattoos Thursday. “I have a lot of Asian-style tattoos,” she said. “I have always wanted to get a tattoo in the old style and I’m glad I’m having a chance to have it done by Hori Suzu. …The whole left side of my body is Asian theme. To have the Tebori style and from someone so well versed in what he does is a real privilege for me.” Fournier was planning to get the tattoo on her left calf. “I’m not quite sure what it is yet,” she said Wednesday. “He’s so good. I trust whatever he’ll draw for me.” For Sprawka, he not only appreciates bringing in Suzu’s tattoo method to the bustling shop, the two are also longtime friends. “He’s one of the cool things about our industry,” Sprawka said. “If you’re doing it right, you are going to have friends from all walks of life. He’s a good artist and doing a dying art. I get to bring some history and culture to Auburn. The great thing is it is so ingrained in history. Most people wouldn’t look at a tattoo shop for that.” Reach Gloria Young at