Immigration Museum Explores Tattoo and Identity

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Immigration Museum Explores Tattoo and Identity

What stories do our bodies tell?

That is the question Immigration Museum asks visitors to explore at the Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks. The suite of exhibitions and experiences includes two photography exhibits that look at the intersection of ancient and modern tattoo practices and a series of contemporary installations curated by Stanislava Pinchuk (Miso).

One of the exhibits is Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, which explores the artistry and rich tradition of Japanese tattoos and their influence on modern tattoo culture in Japan. Facing negative stigma due to its association with the ‘yakuza’, the country’s notorious mafia, this exhibition investigates how tattoo practice has persevered and looks to share its artistry, symbolism and the skill of its practitioners with wider communities.

We chat to Kip Fulbeck, the photographer, artist and designer of Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World.

Thanks for chatting with us, Kip. You’ve done a lot of things in life: film-making, performing, photography. Have you always been drawn to the artistic side of life?
Yes, absolutely. As a child, my favourite thing to do was draw — I drew incessantly (and still do). By the time I was 9 or 10, I started putting firework shows together for our neighbourhood. I made my first short film at 12. Then music, writing, spoken word, etc. Some of these I’m better at than others, but I enjoy them all.

You have an exhibition titled Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in the Modern World. How did you come up with the name of your exhibition? What is significant about persevering in this tattoo culture?
Taki (Takahiro Kitamura, my friend and curator of the show) came up with the title. Perseverance is the closest translation to the Japanese concept of gaman — a difficult concept to define… akin to concept of patiently enduring. We wanted to show how traditional Japanese tattooing survived and persevered despite ongoing attempts to quell it, as well as honour the work and struggles of both tattooers and clients to achieve their goals.

What prompted your interest in the history of tattoo culture in Japan?
I’ve studied tattooing as an art form for decades. Amazing tattoo practices exist across cultures and worldwide, but nothing reaches the level of traditional Japanese tattooing – it is the art form’s pinnacle. And it’s revered as an art form throughout the world… except in the country of its origin. That’s not only ironic, it’s actually quite amazing when you think about it. Faced with continued legal, cultural, and societal obstacles, Japanese tattooing has persevered and thrived, and this is a testament to the practitioners as well as the people who choose to undergo this journey. Tattooing changes your life here. I can’t join a health club in Japan because of my ink – they won’t let me in. I can’t go to a public swimming pool. I can’t go to an onsen. The mayor of Osaka even tried to ban city workers with tattoos. It’s a fascinating dichotomy.

It’s also interesting how private the display of tattooing is in Japan. Westerners love to show their ink. Everywhere you go you see people’s tattoos. Yet in Japan, it’s kept very intimate. They’re not shown haphazardly. For example, when we travelled to Osaka to photograph Miyazo’s clients, Miyazo and his apprentice met us at the train station. It was mid-August, sweltering hot, and they both wore long sleeves. I personally find this attitude refreshing.

Tattoo by Miyazo, photo by Kip Fulbeck

Tattoo by Miyazo, photo by Kip Fulbeck

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learnt from photographing bodies tattooed with traditional Japanese symbolism?
Most westerners with large body pieces (myself included), have some “work arounds” on their bodies. They started with something smaller, decided to add to it later, cover it up, etc., before moving onto the larger backpiece or bodysuit. In Japan, the larger pieces were uniformly finished and consistent artworks. This is because the decision to begin this journey in Japan is so much more significant. They go all in when they go.

Do you have a favourite tattoo out of the ones captured for Perseverance?
That’s a hard one… so many great artists. Plus, I see the work interpreted with how the clients sit in their bodies, how comfortable they are in their own skin. And then I’m influenced by how the actual shoot went, how I interacted with the subject, etc. I’d say some of the large square photographs are my overall favourite images though — Horitomo’s turtle backpiece, Stan Corona’s Phoenix, and of course the classic OG tattooed by Yebis.

Traditional Japanese tattoo art is gaining popularity all around the world. What are your thoughts of other cultures embracing this art?
It’s positive — the art form should be shared and appreciated, so long as it’s done with conscious respect and acknowledgement.

What makes Perseverance a not-to-miss exhibition? What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?
Simple. They’ll never see another one like it. This isn’t a “photography show”; it’s a complete artwork — an artwork that features photography, but also includes installation, sculpture, and spiritual commitment. It was made by an artist committed to the art form. It was curated by a tattooer committed to the art form. It features the work of tattooers who have dedicated their lives to the art form, and clients who have pushed through physical, financial, and social barriers to wear this living art form.

My goal in designing the show was to utilise the entire gallery space with the same care and consideration that traditional Japanese tattooing artists utilise the whole body… to create an immersive experience for the viewer, one that not only pays homage to the amazing tattooing, but a show that itself sets a bar for what a museum can offer its audience. When I watch people in the exhibition — when I see them enter the center of the main gallery and slow down, and sometimes see them stop talking completely, I feel I’ve down that.

Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks runs until October 6 at the Immigration Museum. Tickets can be found via

Feature photo: Cropped. Tattoo by Stan Corona, photo by Kip Fulbeck.