Ever since he was a child Damien Rodriguez was enamored with Far Eastern culture. Rodriguez’s first introduction to the culture was with Bruce Lee and other Kung Fu movies throughout the ‘80s, but it was when he first saw the work of Filip Leu and Horiyoshi III during his tattooing apprenticeship that he was hooked for life. Now, 16 years into his tattooing career, people are being introduced to Japanese tattooing through his work.
In this episode of SESSIONS we watch as Rodriguez puts the finishing touches on a traditional Japanese sleeve. When working in a style that has been established for centuries, there are some unique challenges that an artist has to tackle. “[The toughest part] is catching the soul or the essence of the imagery being tattooed,” Rodriguez explains. “Making it simple yet powerful. Making the background wind and/or water flow and look alive and dynamic, trying to make it all convey emotion. Trying not to hide behind bells and whistles and avoiding the trends of the day.”
It takes years to master the skills the Rodriguez is speaking about. So much of what makes the Japanese style of tattooing so impactful is in the little details; it doesn’t matter how well done the dragon that serves as the star of the piece is if the supplementary elements are lacking. It is all about the entirety of the piece, and going even further, how that tattoo fits in with the rest of the body.
By coming up through a traditional apprenticeship, Rodriguez had ample time to learn. “[It’s important to] respect and listen to those who came before you,” he says, “they will forever have more knowledge and experience than us rookies. I was taught the classic concepts by the people I respect and look up to, and from there I apply them and see where it goes.”
One of these concepts that was drilled into Rodriguez and that he continues to honor to this day, is the mythology that is attached to each motif. “Aside from Gods of course, the dragon is pretty much the strongest of the mythical beasts,” he explains. “Only the Kirin can match a dragon in a fight, but still can't beat him, so it’s good to keep in mind that a dragon should be powerful! For me that’s first and foremost, make it look strong.”
“After that I look to the basics like the flow and all that,” he continues. “As long as all the parts are there you can't really go wrong. But to capture that energy and power for me is most important, and it’s the hardest part!”
A powerful dragon sleeve by Damien Rodriguez. Photo by Jessica Paige.
As you can see in the video, Rodriguez was more than up for the task. He can be found tattooing out of Invisible NYC.