This year’s Ink for a Cause will include a very traditional approach to tattooing, tebori, the classic Japanese art form that entails intricate, hand-detailed pieces incorporating mostly Japanese and Eastern imagery known as horimono. Jiro and Hiroki, renowned tebori artists, will appear on behalf of Little Tokyo’s Onizuka Tattoo.

Tebori, specifically, is the method of inserting ink into the skin for which the Japanese word initially was irezumi. Permanent insertion of ink into the body began more than a thousand years ago in Japan. The type of art with which the public is most familiar, however, dates back 300 years, when Japanese prisoners, marked by their captors with irezumi, elected to camouflage the stigmatizing ink with elaborate designs. The artists were called irezumi-shi. Their horimono designs evolved into full pieces, covering large portions of skin, from full backs and arms to entire body suits. Shedding the criminal stigma, irezumi became known primarily as its method, tebori.


Eventually, several families emerged as the masters of tebori, among them the Horitoshi family. Unlike today’s trajectory of a tattoo career, where there is the possibility an artist can begin working professionally with relative speed, the apprenticeship process for tebori lasted until the masters were assured the students could produce superior work. The goal was to build character and discipline, going so far as to deny the novice access to needles for the first few years.

Labor-intensive, tebori pieces require immense skill and focus. Their beauty and allure attracted American tattoo masters “Sailor” Jerry Collins and later Don Ed Hardy, which effectively introduced the art form to the West. Traditional tebori horimono, however, is distinctly different than a koi fish scrawled hastily with a couple of hearts and stars. Each symbol has a distinct meaning that harmonizes Japanese folklore with the energy and goal of the person who commissioned the piece.


 Elaborate design by Jiro.

Artist Horitaka, who also works out of Onizuka Tattoo, provides some insight into the world of tebori, and feels this infusion of  Eastern tradition into Western society helps “introduce people to our old tradition [while] re-introducing Japanese-Americans to their culture.” He revels in his art form, noting that his favorite element of tebori is “how deep and bright the colors are, compared to machine work, and how long the colors stay that way.” Tebori colors of the primary horimono symbolism are rich with life, especially when framed by multitonal blacks and grays.

For those interested in commissioning tebori work, even tattoo veterans should be prepared for a few important differences. The pieces involve multiple sessions, with some work extending years before full completion. Tebori’s pain, while considered tolerable by many people with extensive tattoos, is a different sort of pain which some consider unexpected. Also, the old adage especially applies to tebori: cheap tattoos are not good and good tattoos are not cheap. Horitaka explains, “Tebori tattoos are a big commitment and take time and money.”

Tebori is but one of the many unique facets of the Ink for a Cause event. In its fourth year, the popular fundraiser selected School on Wheels as its beneficiary, a Ventura-based charity that tutors underprivileged children and provides them with much-needed school supplies and backpacks.

More than 100 tattooists and fine artists from across the country will participate, including Lyle Tuttle, another renowned tattoo artist and scholar of the medium. All of the proceeds of the fine art gallery will go directly to School on Wheels. Alongside the inundation of ink, the event will host a selection of unique vendors, bands, and even the L.A. Beard and Mustache Club. Founder Christina Diaz explains the purpose of Ink for a Cause: “I want to showcase the tattoo industry in a positive forum. By incorporating a charity, artists are creating gorgeous pieces of work at the event for a greater purpose, for the greater good.”

Watching Jiro and Hiroki in action will provide a larger sense of context and reverence for the popular convention. Plus, for those who have only seen tattooing from a Western perspective, the sight of tebori’s discipline is unbelievable. As Horitaka puts it, “Be prepared for a unique experience!”

Ink for a Cause, Friday, Sept. 14, 4-11 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 15, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 17, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. $10 per day for adults or $25 for a three-day pass. For details, visit