Born in Mie, Japan, Kazuaki ‘Horitomo’ Kitamura, known as Monmon Cats, became interested in tattoos from the Japanese surfing community, ‘I saw tattoos in surfing magazines and thought they were very cool. Seeing tattoos is very rare in Japan, so it was fascinating to me’. Now living in San Jose, CA, fans travel from around the world to get inked with one if his signature styles. We spoke to Horimoto about traditional Japanese art, the perception of tattoos in his home country and borrowing special cat powers through his art.
How did you get into tattooing?
I got my first tattoo – a moray eel – in a private studio in Nagoya and wanted to learn how to do it myself. The artist I got tattooed by then opened a street tattoo shop and needed someone to help him run it and I was lucky enough to get the job. Eventually, I became his student.
What was the first tattoo you did?
The first tattoo I did was a tattoo on myself, a small tribal design. The first tattoo I did on a client was a sun symbol – it was the 90’s!
What do you think of the Western fascination with Yakuza and traditional Japanese tattoos?
I think Western people getting traditional Japanese tattoos is a good thing and I’m proud of the beauty of Japanese art and culture. Japanese people often don’t acknowledge the beauty of Japanese tattooing, so the more they see Western people with Japanese tattoos, the more they might start appreciating it too.
The perception of tattoos in the West and in Japan is very different, do you think this might be changing with traditional tattoos becoming more popular in Japan too?
I hope that if people around the world come to love Monmon Cats and the tattoos that go along with my paintings, it might help change the stigma of tattoos in Japan and allow tattooing to be recognised as a traditional art form in the same way wood block printing is viewed.
How did your love of cats start?
I lived in Osaka in the late 90’s and my wife found a stray cat and brought it home. I fell in love with her, her name is Ginnan (another name for the Ginko nut). She is still living with us today.
You are inspired by the artist Kuniyoshi, what else inspires you in your work?
Kuniyoshi of course inspires me. He also designed traditional Japanese tattoos in his time. Wood block artists and carvers sometimes worked together to create tattoos in Edo Japan. The painter would design and the carver would tattoo. Not often, but sometimes. That’s what we think happened anyways. Other inspirations of mine are nature and Japanese traditional art overall.
How did you come up with the name Monmon Cats?
‘Monmon’ is a slang term for tattoo in Japanese, so Monmon Cats fits perfectly with my tattoos and paintings.
Do you have another favourite motif, apart from cats?
I think dragons are very important in Japanese tattooing. Everyone loves dragons and there are so many variations because it’s a fictional animal. That being said, the Japanese dragon cannot be changed too much so it’s the subtle differences that each individual artist creates that make the Japanese dragon beautiful and unique.
Your cat tattoos seem to be quite narrative and symbolic, where do the stories come from?
The symbols and stories come from Buddhist motifs and traditional Japanese legends. Also, clients might have their own story to tell in the tattoos.
There seems to be a spiritual aspect to your work too, can you tell us a bit about that?
I feel that painting and drawing cats lets me borrow the cat’s powers.