Crez interviews Brian Kaneko

I’ve had the chance to meet Brian a couple of years ago. I was following his works from long time, he’s a humble and very smart colleague, I’ve enjoyed working side by side with him at true nature tattoo in Arcata Humboldt county northern California, he really gives the customer a great experience, like it should be. I love his perspective on tattooing, and the true love for the craft.

Tattoo by Brian Kaneko
Tattoo by Brian Kaneko

When and how did you get started in tattooing?
When I was about 15 my mom started dating a ceramicist. I was a kind of punk teenager and didn’t want much to do with them. One night he was trying to break the ice with me and ended up showing me a good sized koi tattoo on his thigh. It totally blew my mind. I had no serious interest in tattoos at that point, but I had been raised in a family of art appreciation and always loved to draw, and could tell that it was a really unique piece. He said a friend of his he went to school with at the Art Institute in San Francisco had done it. Then he showed me one on his arm that they had even done as a demonstration in class… turns out his friend was Ed Hardy.
I was totally captivated, and the next day he brought me all the Tattootimes to check out. I had no idea how lucky I was to have the first tattoo I really saw up close be a Hardy piece from the first year at Realistic, and the first tattoo publications I ever saw to be Tattootime.

From that moment on I knew that I’d be getting tattooed and my interest just kept growing.

I moved to a small town in Northern California to go to college in 1995, and ended up finding a local studio that kind of had art and designs that were similar to some of the things I had seen in those Tattootimes. I started getting a few tattoos, and eventually around 1997 got an apprenticeship and dropped out of college. Turns out the guy I started under had apprenticed with Bill and Junii Salmon at the Diamond Club in San Francisco. They came to guest while I was apprenticing, and that had a major impact on me. I felt a very strong connection with them and eventually started to go to SF as often as possible to get tattooed and hang out. Then that morphed into working there a a few times a year, traveling with them, and really getting taken under their wing and having my tattoo education kick into high gear. My view of the tattoo universe (and universe as a whole) was blown wide open, and my mind totally expanded.

How long did it take to get the first proper results?
I feel like I’m still trying to get proper results. Although it is so much less stressful to tattoo with the types of machines and supplies that are available now as opposed to the 90s. I certainly didn’t have it as rough as previous generations might have, but in a lot of ways you did have to be much more resourceful than these days. I actually think a lot about how grateful I am to be in the last generation of tattooers that got into it before the internet. Ordering supplies from one of like three supply companies, buying machines from builders via phone calls and letters, etc. Even drawing wise it’s so much easier now. Any reference you need is a click away. No more going to the libraries or used book stores to try and find reference for certain projects…

Do you consider painting a part of your learning process? Tell us about your drawing and painting routine…
I personally don’t consider painting part of my own personal learning process. If and when I get a chance to paint, its more of a reflection of the tattoo process. A way to create a tattoo image in much looser head space, with none of the stress and emotional involvement of doing it on skin. Drawing to me is the most important part, and if you can throw some color into it and make a print or whatever, that’s certainly a cool and fun bonus. But I feel like I almost need to save all my energy for the actual tattoos themselves. Where I live and tattoo, there isn’t much of walk in culture, and even the smaller tattoos have almost always been custom drawings. I’ve never had much down time to do paintings for myself, and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to tattoo most of the subject matter that I’m interested in. I guess since all the drawing I do is tattoo related imagery, I’d rather just tattoo it…

Tattoo by Brian Kaneko
Tattoo by Brian Kaneko

Before you’ve started tattooing were you involved in any subculture (punk, dark, metal, rock and roll, rap)?…
No specific subculture… But from pretty young age I knew that I didn’t relate to or believe in the mainstream culture I grew up around. It always felt very foreign and fake to me. I guess tattooing was my first real subculture. A world where I was finally meeting folks who I could totally relate to and were basically on the same wavelength. There’s so many amazing people I’ve met and friends I’ve made through tattooing. One common theme has been that it takes little effort to get to know them and there really seems to be a shared trust and respect from the get go.

If you have to pick three tattoo artists that inspire your work who would you mention and why?
1- Junii Salmon. She is without a doubt the strongest and most thoughtful person/tattooer I have ever met. She is the actual embodiment of the traits we associate with Japanese tattoo imagery (strength, wisdom, perseverance, compassion etc). Her understanding of Japanese tattoos and the etiquette associated with them, combined with having a truly visionary and poetic mind has been by far my biggest influence as  tattooer and human.
2- Horitoshi 1. In my opinion, the greatest living tattooer. His style has resonated with me since I very first saw it, and obviously it is the cornerstone of what I base most of my work off of. The immediate impact of viewing his work hits me in the gut every single time…it’s the ultimate mix of strength and finesse.
3- There are a handful of other tattooers that inspire me heavily based on their tattooing, work ethic, natural artistic abilities and overall quality as people (and that I am very grateful to call friends), but as far as inspiration directly on my work, I’ll keep it simple and stick with Junii and Horitoshi…

From when you started, how has the business evolved in your country?
I’m not really sure if I feel the business has “evolved”… tattoo culture has certainly gotten much bigger, but it seems like mostly fat and very little muscle. I think in a lot of ways the 70s-90s was the real peak for modern tattooing… a time and place thing that will never be repeated. Every generation will always most strongly connect with the music, books and art of their teens and twenties, so I’m definitely biased towards the artists and work I was exposed to when coming up. I think most people subliminally feel like there’s more soul or authenticity in the experience we had to the one the current generation is having. I can’t lie. It’s definitely inspiring to see so much amazing work on Instagram. But it’s kind of like eating candy all the time. This thing that used to be a real treat (getting turned on to new and amazing tattoo work) is now just part of the daily routine. Not quite the same as stumbling upon some amazing tattoo in an old book or magazine… or best of all… real life! Some of the most awe inspiring moments of my life have been viewing large scale tattoos up close in person. No picture will ever come close to that experience or do it justice. I do worry that a large segment of tattooers is coming up much more concerned with “getting the photo” than actually thinking about their relationship with the client, and how right the tattoo you’re making is for them. Curious how may people would still be into it if you couldn’t take pictures of your work… just did it with the satisfaction that you put real effort into making a nice tattoo, and the client is happy with it because ultimately it was a commission for them.

Tattoo by Brian Kaneko
Tattoo by Brian Kaneko

Machines (rotary or coil),Tebori (hand tools) or both? What’s your choice? Why?
Rotary. For the style of tattooing I do, a solid consistent hit with no variations works great. The logic when I started using them, as explained by friends of mine, was that the rotary hit was better to mimic a tebori look and feel. I’m also not a very mechanically inclined person, so removing all of the coil machine variables from my head space has been great. I use the same machine for lining and shading…fixed stroke length, no give, and the simplicity that provides really frees up the mind. There might be better tools for very certain applications, but for probably 90-95% of the tattoos I do I use the same size liner and shader and am doing a consistent style of background and color. I was reading recently how the famous samurai Musashi, at a certain point in his life just used a wooden sword for all of his duels. If his spirit and technique were in harmony, then it didn’t matter what weapon what he used. I’d like bring that idea into my tattooing…that the headspace and energy I bring to the session will show through in the tattoo regardless of what brand of machine I might use, or how polished the technique is. Too many choices and variables isn’t always the best thing…

Tattoo by Brian Kaneko
Tattoo by Brian Kaneko

Can you list a Top five of your favorite visual Artists of all eras? What is attractive of their work in your opinion?
No favorites. I’m honestly happy anytime I see any art that I connect with, or think is good.

How do you feel about the “ban” of tattooing in Japan?
I don’t live in Japan, so I couldn’t really say. I am obviously worried for friends of mine who tattoo there and who’s livelihoods might be a risk. Tattooing has always been looked down upon in mainstream Japanese culture, and I can’t imagine its been easy for Japanese tattooers over the years. But they’ve persisted this long, and hopefully will continue to do so. I think if you are meant to do something, you will find a way.

What’s the most challenging subject for you and why?
Human figures. Wrapping my head around human anatomy and how to make it look dynamic is a real challenge for me. There is much more room for interpretation and exaggeration with imagery from the natural world (flowers, animals and background elements). These types of things are also more open to interpretation I think, where as a human figure, in Japanese tattooing, is usually connected to a specific story. As much as I appreciate and read a lot of those stories, the appeal of Japanese art and tattooing to me really centers more on movement, composition and capturing a feeling of the natural world.

Brian Kaneko

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