Interview: Kanae Talks Inspiration and Japanese Tradition

Photo by Elvia Iannacone Gezlev

The most beautiful thing in tattooing, in my opinion, is the diversity of the many cultures involved, and the feeling that—even in different parts of the world—the language of tattooing can be shared and understood by many. 

Another thing I really love is the wave of talented women who have become involved in tattooing in a world that used to be the exclusive domain of men. 

So, as a woman and as an artist myself, I get really excited when I see beautiful tattoos—and even more excited when there’s a woman behind the art. 

It’s the feeling I get when I see London-based artist Kanae’s work, which can be categorized as classic, beautiful and timeless Japanese tattooing. It’s the product of years of practicing, respect, and passion. That is what is so special about traditional Japanese work—there’s always more to study and learn.

Kanae is the owner of Nine Tails Tattooin London, so not only is she a talented and respected tattoo artist, she’s also a skilled businesswoman. But, I meet up with her during one of her frequent guest spots in New York City, at Invisible NYC, where she completely at ease being the only woman in a studio packed with amazing male artists. 

FemaleTattooers: Tell me your story. Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?

Kanae:I was born in the small city called Shimizu, in Japan. It’s very, very countryside—it’s really in the middle of nowhere! All I saw growing up was mountains and farms.

My parents were always working, so I spent lot of time playing by myself. I think I was bored most of the time, but I had so much energy and I didn’t know what to do with it. It was frustrating, and it built up in me. So, when I decided to quit high school, everything just blew up! 

I always loved music. I started playing piano when I was 4 or 5. Then I started listening to rock and punk when I was in junior high school. It was natural for me to be in a band after leaving high school. I joined a band and moved to a different city for it. That was a real fun time for me.

I was a 17-year-old girl who left my parents’ house and lived by herself, with no money, playing in a band, drinking and partying! Some of the things I did in the past I am not proud of, but overall, it was a great experience. I learned so much from it.

FemaleTattooers: What was your first encounter with tattooing? When and how you started tattooing?

Kanae: Around that period, I started noticing people around me with tattoos. I went with my friend who was getting tattoos, and another of my friends also became a tattooer. I personally didn’t have any tattoos at the time, but it was feeling kind of familiar to be among tattoos.

I got my first tattoo was when I was 21. I went to Los Angeles to get it done. I wanted to get a tribal armband (haha…it’s so ‘90s) but I didn’t have any information on how to get one in Japan. I went to a bookshop and saw American tattoo magazines, and I thought I should go to America. 

There was no internet then, so it was hard to get to know tattooers. I only knew a traditional Japanese tattooer, but he wouldn’t do a tribal armband. So, I got three small tattoos. The year after I went back to LA again and got two more.

A few years later, I got to know Makoto (later to become my mentor) through a friend of mine in Shizuoka. I started getting tattooed by him. After a while, he asked me if I wanted to work at his studio as an assistant. He said he could tell I loved tattoos just by seeing my eyes. Of course, I said yes immediately!

I wasn’t pushing it to be a tattooer, but I was so happy to get a job related to something I loved! At that time, I was also working at a second-hand car company. After I finished work I went to the tattoo studio. I did the cleaning, making needles, organizing his diary and all of the errands. After a while I naturally started thinking I wanted to tattoo.

But it wasn’t an easy decision, especially at that time in Japan. It took me a couple of months to think, then one day I was like “fuck it!  I’ll just do it!” I was 28 and decided to never go back. The beginning of a long journey!

FemaleTattooers: Today you live in London where you own your tattoo shop. Was it a hard road for you to get to this point? 

Kanae: It wasn’t easy, but it was a natural process for me. Starting out a business is a lot of pressure. I had some sleepless nights. All of the paperwork with the council was frustrating. They are very strict in the U.K. about building regulations and licensing.

But apart from that, I had a clear vision for my shop, so it was fine. I’m very proud of what I built. 

FemaleTattooers: What was the most difficult thing you encountered being a woman tattooer and a business owner?

Kanae: It’s not much because of being woman, I think…

At the very beginning of my career, when I was in Japan, I had some hard times because of stereotypes and sexism (some people still think women shouldn’t tattoo), but I changed that into my motivation and energy to be a good tattooer and make them change their minds! I knew it was going to be like that before I decided to be a tattooer anyway!

Apart from that—just like every other tattooer—I work hard and try my best. Being a shop owner is hard, and I never imagined it was going to be like this. For me, managing people is the difficult thing. Being a tattooer and a shop owner are two completely different jobs.

FemaleTattooers: How are women tattoo artists seen in your origin country? 

Kanae: I left Japan 12 years ago, so I don’t know really what’s happening right now. But I feel like it’s better than when I started, 17 years ago. Far more women get tattooed and they tattoo today.

I was in a small town, so that might be also be the reason for the difference. But there has always been some kind of prejudice.

FemaleTattooers: Is tattooing ever going to be finally accepted in Japan in your opinion?

Kanae: Well, I hope so… but I can’t say yes or no.

At the beginning I liked tattoos because it was something underground, dangerous, unique—a minority’s culture. Now it’s so very popular in U.S. and Europe. So many people have tattoos and it’s not that special anymore.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good thing, and this brings me work. But I think it has lost something in the process.

Of course, a tattooer shouldn’t be treated as a criminal though…

FemaleTattooers: Where you get your inspiration from? Do you follow a particular school or rules?

Kanae:I usually get inspirations from Ukiyo-e genre, from all of my friend tattooers, and from all the master tattooers.

I like to take pictures of sculptures when I go to temples and shrines in Japan, to use as reference. I get inspiration from all of my books, and from nature. I try to see nature like people used to a long time ago.

There’s so much information on the internet and social media today. It’s really useful—and of course I use it too. But I want to try not to live in the small square world.

FemaleTattooers: Do you ever tattoo in traditional Japanese irezumi style? 

Kanae: No, I never tried tebori.

FemaleTattooers: Do you paint all your designs before tattooing them? How important is painting for a tattoo artist?

Kanae: No, I draw rough sketches for the main subjects and then freehand the background. It depends on the design though. I do all freehand quite often as well. But I used to do all drawings and color studies on the sketch pad.

Painting for me is more like fun, study, and experiment. I only paint for tattoo designs. I’m a tattooer, not a painter. And I love tattoo designs, so naturally that’s what I paint.

FemaleTattooers: Which female tattoo artists do you admire? 

Kanae: Since I left Japan and I’m now living in the U.K., I respect Junii from the Diamond Cluba lot. She did it way before I did. Thinking about that time in Japan, it was much more rare to go live overseas. All of her hard work and experiences…I have big respect for her!

And my friend Shion from Daruma-Goya in Japan. I have known her since I started tattooing. She is a great person and a great tattooer. I always get inspiration from her work and get inspired by her dedication as well!

FemaleTattooers: What’s your favorite thing to do when in NYC? 

Kanae: Tattooing! And meeting and talking to lots of tattooers. There are so many amazing talented tattooers in New York. I am inspired by them a lot.

FemaleTattooers: And finally…London or NYC?

Kanae: Can I take both? haha! London is my home. NYC is becoming my second home. And, of course, I love Japan!

Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev is a published tattoo and portrait photographer and a tattoo artist. This interview will appear in her next version of Ladies of Tattooing NYC. Photos courtesy Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev. 

All tattoo images are property of Kanae.

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