Known for their incredible offering of printed artist materials, Kintaro Publishing produces iconic must-haves for serious lovers of fine art within the tattoo community. Though many styles are embraced, the thread that runs through every project and product of this small publishing house is the devotion to high quality. Preserving and perfectly representing the works of artists around the globe on the finest materials is their passion. Continuing a tradition that is slowly being lost to the fast paced digital world, Kintaro Publishing embodies the analog spirit of the tattoo industry. Each book and print is an absolute labor of love.
André van Zomeren, founder of Kintaro Publishing, was kind enough to give us a look into the process of creating books, working with artists, and what it was like making a monolithic tome with Horiyoshi III.
I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about the people behind Kintaro Publishing. Why are they passionate about this project and why is it important to them?
We are a small team with big ambitions. We love books, paper, design, color, ink, and the artists, of course.
How was Kintaro Publishing formed? What makes Kintaro unique?
In the beginning of the 90s, I was working with this former partner on music festivals, tattoo conventions, bike shows and I was selling merchandise, like t-shirts with dragon prints and tribal prints, stuff like that. I liked the freedom it brought with it, like traveling to Europe and working in conventions, getting tattooed, getting to know tattoo artists...but the merchandise business was never my thing. So, after doing this for some years, I was looking for a way where I could put my complete energy, 100% focus on something I could stand behind. That led me to publishing. I was looking for a way to work in the same scene because that is something that I really like, something that would give me the same freedom and means of traveling. So, I thought about what would fit with that? What are the people I know interested in and how can I work with that? And this led to Kintaro Publishing. Or, at least you start with one book, not really knowing which way it would go, but that was more or less how it started.
What makes us unique is that we’re a traditional publisher. I see myself as a traditional publisher. We print all books offset, none of them are digital or digitally printed. We do small batches, like around 500 or 1000 copies. But everything is offset, so in this way I think it's pretty unique.
How do you go about choosing which artists to work with? What are always the top goals when working with artists to produce a really great book?
I think so far, mostly, we get approached by artists and this can be somebody who I may be familiar with or out of the blue. So far, all the books we did were with people we knew already, most of them. But deciding on making a book is a bit of a gut feeling. The work has to stand out, but this is based on how the artist presents their idea as well. If they are enthusiastic about the project, it comes through the work. If I think it's good material for a book, I cannot put a benchmark on it, that's just my personal taste. If you have to reject somebody's idea, and I cannot always explain why or what. I don't want to say that work isn't good enough because it's so personal. There's just a certain way they should fit in with the books we've done before. I would say a gut feeling, as well as how the project is presented and who is the team? Does it fit with what we did before or what we want to do?
The top goal is to make a good book that the artist should be satisfied, completely satisfied, with how their work is represented and this is with paper choice, print quality, quality of the final product, the whole process of putting it together, the size, hard or soft cover...so much. But that is the big aim: that the artist is satisfied with how his or her artwork is represented in the book. We get one shot to do this, so it should be good! Of course, the publishing company should be happy with how it looks too, and that's also a goal.
The least interesting thing, the sucker part of this, is that I have to keep the commercial side an aspect...like you can’t go crazy and dream crazy on how you want to make a book; there are many possibilities in production, but you also have to be realistic about the cost side, the commercial side. That's the most difficult, and not the most interesting, but I always find some way in the middle and, in the end, everyone is happy.
How does one go about making a book? What does the process entail?
It can be that we get, when we talk about flash or drawings or paintings, first the material...because all the books we’ve done until now are hand drawn or painted, so the originals need to be scanned, that's the first step. We talk about how the artists sees their book in mind, get some examples of layout, and then from there we take it to the design team to look at the possibilities: what fits in with the work, the style, which direction we wanna go. We talk about paper with the artist and what the design team thinks would fit, what gives a nice feel, what would look good with the works...should it be uncoated or coated, is it modern work or traditional, is it color or black and grey? So far there's pretty much freedom from the designers in coming up with a layout, and of course input from the artist. And then we take it from there.
From layout to cover design we make three or four mock ups, proposals, and send them to the artist and see if they like it and if we’re on the right track. If they like it, from there we go into more detail, and refine it, tweek it. That is more or less the process. What I really like about the process, if you think about it, somebody put it on paper first. From there, it becomes digital, and the originals can be made in Japan or the West Coast of the US, and then it gets transferred. If we don’t have the original, we receive them digital and work with those images with the graphic design team. Then, it goes into print and then you have these books getting delivered at the warehouse. And then suddenly you have something you can touch and smell and browse through again and that's a fantastic process.
What have been some of your favorite past projects and why?
Let me put it this way: in the beginning someone approaches me, we start to talk. This person shares an idea of a book. And in the past when I get enthusiastic about an idea, we start to brainstorm about it, start to email or phone about it, and then the artist would ask, “How many sheets would be needed to make a book?” You say maybe 50...then the artist is like, “Cool! if I make 1 a week, it takes a year and then I'm done!” Most of the time, that doesn't work..because creativity you cannot plan. Maybe one week you don't feel it, it doesn't come out. You have your private life...things happen. So, what I learned in the past, is if somebody has an idea about a project..I always say, show me when the artwork is ready. It’s best when somebody comes presenting the whole package. “I made this. Here it is. It’s done.” And this flows so nicely because somebody did their homework, and mostly within a short period of time you can really make a book if you stay on top of things and this works nice for everybody. Maybe it's a bit the same for tattooers. If they work on a back piece and they see the customer three or two times a year...you're not staying so much into it. You lose the feeling a bit.
Favorite project in the past, or currently, is the scrolls book by Horiyoshi. This is a huge production and very challenging, first of all to work on a book with Horiyoshi...that’s something that's amazing. This is the last Japanese living legend, tattoo legend, around. And to make a book, the book itself, production wise with the size and the fold out pages that represent the scrolls almost one on one, the book weighs 13 kilos...it's a very challenging project and something I'm really proud of. Because of what it is, the fantastic work from Horiyoshi, working with Horiyoshi, and all the people involved from design, production, translators. I can also honestly say, there aren't many printing factories who can produce something like this. The sheets are printed 1,20 meters. That's insane. Almost the whole book is hand labor and it is a challenging project, especially, you talk about 2020, Covid is making a huge mark. We had some setbacks, some things we couldn't plan because of Covid and really had to keep it calm and move forward with a positive mindset. But this is something I'm really proud of.
Are there any future projects you’re excited about and want to share?
Future projects? I'm a bit superstitious. There are things floating around of course, but let's announce a project when it's into print..and then show what it is. This is what i've done from the beginning, and it just feels good like that.