Tracing An Indelible Mark

Tracing An Indelible Mark

Joe Udell
Vol. 29, No. 19, Oct. 3, 2008

Decades before sweeping art galleries, trendy bars and hip restaurants revitalized O‘ahu’s Chinatown, the area was a gritty mid-century Mecca for tattoo enthusiasts, connecting the mystic art of the East with the rugged images of the West.

The rough-and-tumble harbor district earned that reputation after tattoo pioneer Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins traded his homemade pigments for the prints of Japanese artists, making Chinatown the only place in the world where customers could receive either classic Americana artwork or a traditional Japanese design.

“This was that hub branching Japan to the United States,” said Mike Ledger, owner of the McCully-based Mike Ledger Inc., and the modern-day torchbearer of Hawai‘i’s Japanese tattoo legacy.

The 36-year-old Ledger specializes in Japanese bodysuits, a painful and expensive neck-to-ankle process that costs thousands of dollars and takes nearly a decade to complete. While he will occasionally ink an arm-sleeve or a back-piece, full-body designs are the reason Ledger has a four-year waiting list and is one of just a handful of American artists who have tattooed in Japan.
“Actually doing bodysuits on Japanese, that was the biggest honor to me,” he said. “It was like, alright, you’re actually doing it right. A Japanese person, being so meticulous in knowing what they’re looking for, if you’re not doing it right, they’re not going to have you do their bodysuit.”

Whenever Ledger, who moved his practice to Hawai‘i in 2000, takes on a client interested in full-body work, he begins by tattooing their arms and chest first, then moves on to their back, ribs and legs. Each session lasts three to four hours, with several weeks between each sitting. The idea is to grow mentally as the body undergoes physical change.

“It’s not an easy process getting the bodysuit done in painful areas,” he said. “You’re getting it done and you’re going through it in your own mind — you’re conquering a lot within yourself.”

Blue-collar workers such as laborers, carpenters and firemen often copied the images directly from the prints and had them tattooed on their skin in a display of masculinity and national pride. (Photos courtesy Hui No‘eau Visual Art Center)

Blue-collar workers such as laborers, carpenters and firemen often copied the images directly from the prints and had them tattooed on their skin in a display of masculinity and national pride. (Photos courtesy Hui No‘eau Visual Art Center)

Formerly stereotyped as the mark of the yakuza, or Japanese Mafia, customers are now embracing the Japanese tattoo for its uniqueness. The vivid motifs, which range from lotus flowers and cherry blossoms to dragons and samurai warriors, are based on a centuries-old mixture of mythology and history that has been passed down and protected from generation to generation. Before the rise of the Internet, that information was largely unavailable to the public and, even today, knowledgeable Western artists like Ledger are in high demand.

“In the beginning, there wasn’t any books that you could get,” he said. “You had to go to Japan to buy the books.”

When he first began tattooing in New York as a teenager in the late 1980s, the only reference materials he could get his hands on were written in cryptic kanji characters. As it turned out, one of his clients was fluent in Japanese, so Ledger — much like Collins did decades earlier — traded ink for access to the mysterious culture.

 

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