A Chat with the Master of Monmon Cats

A Chat with the Master of Monmon Cats

Horitomo on his famous tattoos of kai neko with traditional Japanese tattoos.


The talented Kazuaki Horitomo Kitamura couldn't decide what he loved more — domesticated cats or Irezumi — so he found a clever way out of this dilemma and invented Monmon Cats. Monmon Cats are depictions of felines that have their own large-scale pieces of body art in the traditional Japanese style. Check out some of his tattooed cattoos that will make you wish one brushed against you, purred a bit - sort of like a cuddly tattoo machine - and then just laid on you (like until you die) forever.

Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace) does awesome monmon cates eating sushi. #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats #snake #sushi

Horitomo has published two books, one on his iconic cats and the other about the symbolism behind the Buddhist figure Fudo Myoo. "[Monmon Cats] was really fun and relatively easy [to put together] compared to my other book, Immovable," Horitomo says. "Monmon Cats was a collection of over one year's worth of paintings with an introduction into what they are and why I created them." Since he published this book of inked members of the family of felis catus - or in Japanese, kai neko - tons of tattoo enthusiasts around the world have become smitten by his Irezumi kittens. 

One of Horitomo's (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace) slinking monmon cats with a Daruma doll back-piece. #chrysanthemum #Darumadoll #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats

Like all litters, what grew into the sensation of Monmon Cats had small beginnings. His first illustration of one of them was on a business card that he made in 2001, inspired by the two felines he owned at the time. "One of them had very strange markings, and I would imagine them to be tattoo motifs," Horitomo says. "Sometimes cat patterns resemble Japanese bodysuit shapes, and this struck my imagination." Who would have thought that something as quotidian as house cats can act as a muse for artistic greatness? 

Astounding scalp-piece of a monmon cat by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). #scalp #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats

As of now, Horitomo only lives with one cat. "Her name is Ginnan," he says. "It means gingko nut in Japanese. She will be 19 this spring." That's amazing! Like Irezumi, what incredible longevity she has, and he sounds like a great owner. Just guessing, but we bet she sleeps on his head. May she have eight more happy lives left.

Incredible monmon cat back-piece by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). #backpiece #FudoMyoo #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats

When thumbing through his book of tattooed felines, it becomes apparent that his work is influenced by great Japanese art from the past. In fact, when the ukiyo-e genre rose to prominence in Japan from the 17th to the 19th century, cats became a common motif in woodblock prints. Sometimes these pieces of art even depicted them as humanoid creatures that - similarly to Horitomo's sushi-eating fat cats and others, minus the tattoos - engage in the activities of daily Japanese life, wearing kimonos to boot. "There is a connection of course," Horitomo says. "Artists from this period are very influential to me, especially Kuniyoshi. Every traditional Japanese tattoo artist is heavily influenced by them."  

An image of one monmon cat tattooing another from Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). #fineart #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats

There is something metacognitive or self-referential about Monmon Cats. In other words, because some of his paintings depict cats doing things like tattooing each other and the fact that they are body art of creatures with body art, they seem to point at the very idea of tattooing itself. "It was not in my thought process at all that the cat tattooing is me," he says slyly. "Any connections to him and I are purely coincidental." Okay, Horitomo, but we're onto you. We still think that's secretly a feline version of you in "Tebori Cats" (pictured above), no matter what you say.

The posturing of this monmon cat with an Oni back-piece by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace) is purr-fect. #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats #oni

Since the advent of his signature Monmon Cats, other artists have been adopting or even abusing this motif of tattooed felines. "I have mixed feelings. We are building a brand out of my artwork," Horitomo says. "So it’s flattering on one hand, because it means my ideas and concept are loved by many. But on the other hand, it disappoints me when people try to merchandise my artwork for their gain." Who steals a man's cats and tries to sell them, really? While having more Monmon Cats in the world would be awesome, there needs to be measures of protection for the owner, even if it's only a flea-collar.

A lovely sequence of monmon cats around chrysanthemums by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). #chrysanthemum #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats

"Lastly, and this is the most important inspiration to me in creating Monmon Cats," Horitomo says. "I want people outside of Japan to appreciate and love traditional Japanese tattooing so that one day people in Japan will have no choice but to embrace Japanese tattooing as a legitimate art form." Looking back on centuries of the art form's stigmatization in Japan, we and many other tattoo lovers out there also want to see the birthplace of Irezumi become more tolerant toward what is one of the country's greatest artistic traditions. Due to a number of sociopolitical factors, most experts don't foresee the taboo surrounding body art as going away any time soon, especially since grassroots change is so uncommon there, but Monmon Cats, with their beckoning wave, give us hope.

Some of Horitomo's (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace) best monmon cats carry a tanto in their mouths. #Irezumi #Horitomo #monmoncats #namakubi #tanto

Should you want to see more of Horitomo's excellent Irezumi and other visual art, including even more Monmon Cats, slink on by his Instagram. He works at State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose, CA if you want your very own piece of body art from him. Also here are links with which to purchase his books, Monmon Cats and Immovable. Lastly, he also has a website devoted to his tattooed fuzzballs, where you can even get cool merchandise and apparel to make everyone around you go meow. 

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