There was a time when not that many people cared about tattooing, and at that time, just a few tattooers from different corners of the world showed interest in Japanese bodysuit tattooing, some of them researching the craft and developing connections with Japanese tattooers.
In the early nineties flying to Japan was still very expensive, there weren’t as many flights as there are now and it was pretty hard to understand how to get around towns. Google maps did not exist and directions were only written in kanji/hiragana/katakana. The world of tattooers in Japan was an underground realm. It was hard to get in touch with colleagues and share experiences. Those who had that chance were living the dream of exploring the world of a forbidden craft. Alex Reinke is definitely one of these tattooers, choosing to bring their art to another level, studying the craft in the country where it was born.
We met for the first time at the beginning of this millennium, at the Horiyoshi 3 museum in Yokohama. Here goes our interview.
When and how did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing in 1995, after being in touch with tattoos since 1988 through martial arts and painting. I was a Japan freak from the age of 12.
How long did it take to get the first proper result?
About 10 years. I was self-taught, and that was before the internet, or tv show era.
Do you consider painting a part of your learning process? Tell me more about your drawing and painting routine…
Yes, definitely! I used to draw up the designs well in advance and press through the stencil with a biro. Then the thermos copier came and I was in heaven. Big work is hard to press through by hand. I learned all that from Mick in Zurich. Today, after 24 years, I draw freehand on the body. Every ten years you feel another click in your head and you have some extra skills. I’m nowhere yet though, that’s for sure. I can’t wait to hit the 30 year mark to see what I’ll be blessed with then. Now with kids it’s hard to pre-draw. Luckily I don’t need to do it any more.
Were you involved in any subculture such as punk, dark, metal, rock and roll, or rap before you started tattooing?
I used to listen to 60s music since I was moved by the Vietnam war as a teenager. I did like one graffiti and I skated 48 hours. Then came rap music when I got older towards my 20s. Now it’s instrumental Metal. I was never in any group back in the days. I didn’t believe in those. I was a loner mostly and did my martial arts. It’s all human-made stuff. Everyone is wrong in the end. I guess I used to be more left, but now the left is kinda like the right guys. It’s confusing at best. I’ve always been able to befriend people from nearly all groups to this day. Super extremists are not my piece of cake.
The older I get though, the more I understand the value of Morals, duty and service to humanity.
And I am open to certain groups I believe can make a difference. But again even those are run by humans which means shit’s happening there too. I seem to be way more conservative (if you need me in a drawer) these days. I guess kids make that happen too. But fuck the kids, I like what i’ve found with or without having children. I think it’s more civilised and we would get on better if everyone would think a little more of values and others.
If you have to pick 3 tattoo artists that inspire your work who would you mention and why?
Old masters. Like Osen or Kurunuma and my former master Horiyoshi 3, he was a big influence during the 17 years with him. But Mick Zurich, Ivan Szazi and Filip Leu were a big influence as well. Why? Because they are masters in what they do. Today I rely on my book collection and sometimes the internet.
From when you started, how has the business evolved?
It went from: “Ok you will end up under a bridge!” to: “You’ll be rich and famous, bitch!” I never looked left or right and followed my course. Money was and still is never the goal but a side effect of dedicating your life to something bigger than yourself. The old tattoo family is still there but its small and scared and unorganized and grumpy. We all didn’t see it coming. It’s a new world. I don’t really like it at all, especially screentime. But I just do every day what I always did.
My master was always busy, pre everything, and so was I. And we will still be busy when it’s all gone. Because what we do is timeless. It’s based on tradition. And I always took that very seriously. I’m still a one man show in a street shop owners paradise. Maybe I’m just stupid. Because you know what? Holding moral high ground today is like polishing a turd. No one cares! If you drive a Lambo more people care. This is today. Sometimes I think we need a Nuke on that shit. I should just get filthy rich, or die trying.
Machines (rotary or coil),Tebori (hand tools) or both? What’s your choice and why?
I used to have lots and lots of coil machines. My hands couldn’t take the 10 hour tattooing with the heavy coils any more and I nearly had to quit. Then the rotary saved me. Tebori I built and sell and work with regularly. All of a sudden it’s a super fashion and people that didn’t even tattoo Japanese style before started doing it. Just that alone makes me want to not do it any more. It feels like they do it all for the wrong reason. Fashion, or it’s in demand. People always seem to get away with mounting the horse from the wrong side. Starting from the wrong end so to speak.
Can you list a top five of your favorite visual artists of all eras? What is attractive about their work in your opinion?
I love the old masters from Japan and Europe. I’m interested in all art. I used to do oil paintings and even pottery as well. It was Raku. Now tattooers do pottery and think it’s the next new thing. Well it isn’t. In any case I love da Vinci, Odd Nerdrum, Dürer, Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi ,Kyosai, Hokusai, Kunichika and so many more. I think they are all brilliant artisans, but their dedication to producing is fascinating. It’s the one thing I lack most! The discipline to produce. Especially art. For me creativity doesn’t come out of a happy place. It’s a battle and a struggle. And after its out, I’m so tired, but sometimes as well happy to look at the outcome.
How do you feel about the “ban” on tattooing in Japan?
It’s not a surprise. Look at the world: we’re falling back into the Meiji era. It’s the biggest bullshit ever. But concerning Japan I’ve found a lot of bullshit over there in my 46 visits so far. I went first in 1991. Stuff doesn’t make much sense a lot of times, at least to us westerners, for sure. But a lot of Japanese friends of mine agree too. It’s a controversial country with a lot of bias going on. I still love it nevertheless. Which is quite something I must say, after what I experienced over there. It didn’t really show itself from the best side a lot of times.
What’s the most challenging subject for you and why?
In tattooing? Everything. Because I’m lazy and its real hard for me to produce on command and I have to do it daily. It’s a hard job. With experience it gets a little easier, well you’d think, but then it’s a trick and you get sloppy. Its impossible not to, at least try and give your very best every second of the day. I love my bed. I don’t see it much. Got kids you know. And a lot of other projects next to tattooing on my mind. As beautiful as life is, it is a bankers’ world and a struggle after all.