Like most traditions of body art, Irezumi was very much so a “boys’ club” up until the recent past. The practice of traditional Japanese tattooing was handed down among men through an apprenticeship system that dates all the way back to the Edo period. Alongside the globalization of this ancient style throughout the 20th century, its ranks of classically trained practitioners have grown more diverse. Jill “Horiyuki” Bonny — one of the first classically trained female Irezumi artists from the western world — exemplifies what women can accomplish in the tattoo industry.
Bonny was the first woman from the western world to be awarded the revered title of “Hori” from Japan’s most famous Irezumi artist, Horiyoshi III, in 2006. After studying at Cooper Union in New York City, she spent a significant amount of her career as a tattooist working alongside other classically trained Japanese tattooists. This not only helped her refine her take on the style, it’s given her a rich knowledge and understanding of the Irezumi’s origins.
“I have always found my tastes to be somewhat conservative in relation to the subjects of the tattoos I prefer to do, and find a satisfaction in the steadiness of paying homage to the celebrated archetypes of Japanese tattooing,” Bonny writes in The World Atlas of Tattoos.
One can see Bonny’s appreciation for the folklore from which Japanese tattoos adopt their figures. She doesn’t just create body art of run-of-the-mill imagery such as koi fish, hannyas, and dragons; she makes large-scale pieces featuring some of the more obscure icons from the artistic tradition. Her portfolio is full of some of the most bizarre mythological creatures and yokai found in Irezumi, including kirins, kappas, heikegani, jurogumo, and Bai Ze.
She also honors the tradition in which she is taking part by representing some of its most celebrated heroes. She’s done a number of back-pieces that depict the legendary figures, as seen in her tattoo of Taira no Tomomori and other characters from the Suikoden, one of the seminal texts from Japanese history. Interestingly, she models them on woodblock prints made by Japanese artists of the past like Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, translating their aesthetic into 21st century body art.
To see more of Bonny’s Japanese body art, visit her Instagram. She tattoos at Studio Kazuko in San Francisco, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for consultations. She is also the author of two books about tattoos, Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner's Journey Into the Japanese Tattoo and Tattoo Artist: A Collection of Narratives, so if you want to read some of her writing, think about ordering one of her titles.