Inked AU/NZ – Authentink Article – March 2013
by Kian ‘Horisumi’ Forreal
I was talking with my young client the other day about his disbelief that in the ‘old days’ you’d just walk in to a tattoo shop and pick a design off the wall and get it done right there and then by some tattooer that you didn’t know, never heard of, or seen any of his work. It was a totally foreign concept to him that not so long ago… before the internet and digital cameras, social networking, tv shows and the tattoo explosion, that our little tattoo world was ticking over in a manner very different from today. Outside of Japan in those days you didn’t really see tattooed sleeves as you do now, the idea of a whole arm completely covered all connected and coloured in wasn’t being done in the west much at all, if any. The old traditional tattoos where sometimes joined together with ‘stars and space dust’ just background filler of dots and dashes.. but the sleeve, that we now know and love just wasn’t available to the everyday man or woman.
And that goes doubly for the backpiece, and I mean the proper correct backpiece; that starts just below the collar line of the neck to cover the buttocks and end at either just the top of the back of the thigh or more traditionally the bottom of the back of the thigh just above the crook of the knee. There are several types and styles of traditional Japanese backpiece from ancient times, and those are the archetypes used for most if not all of the full coverage backpieces you see done today in various tattoo styles.
The most ancient and classic backpiece style is the KAMENOKOGAKUBORI aka: the turtle shell. This is full back from neck to thigh completely covered with the rest of the body blank, no sleeves, no chest, no legs. Great look! And you can always have the original artist add to it later. It is very taboo to have other artists work on you after a master has started a body suit on you. Your canvas belongs to him and Japanese tattoo masters are very possessive of this.
The next most popular style is the MUNEWARI style, full back same as turtle shell but with both arms tattooed to elbow 5/10th sleeve, and chest and ribs tattooed down to lower thigh with a clean blank straight line running down the breastbone and belly. Aka: turtle suit. My personal favorite. Well hard. You can run this style with 7/10th sleeve or full sleeve as well. Legs can only be 5/10th or full, rarely 7/10th.
The other variation of this suit is SOUSHINBORI which is the same as above but with full coverage across the chest and belly, no straight clean line showing. The lengths of the sleeves vary from 5/10th to 7/10th to full sleeve down to the wrist.
I have done several full backs in my career and I love doing them, it is the pinnacle of what any great tattoo artist wants to create. I get asked to tattoo backs all the times, but not always like you may think, clients may want a koi tattoo on the shoulder blade with some splashes, or a dragon across the top of their back, or some flowers on their lower backs with a name or something. These are what I would call small tattoos that don’t do the back; your largest perfect canvas, justice.
I stopped doing anything but FULL backs several years ago, much to the dismay of some of my clients. Let me explain. A back tattoo looks great when it is completed all at once and in a manner that the composition flows with the body and its natural lines and creates power on the skin. If someone were to get a koi on his or her shoulder blade as a stand alone tattoo, and then a year later feels unbalanced so wants to ‘add on to it’ what is the artist to do? Where can you go from there so that it makes sense? These are the things I think about with every tattoo I make because I KNOW that every client comes back for more, ½ sleeve to ¾ sleeve, or to full sleeve… I tell people that this will happen to them and they don’t believe and before you know it they’re back in the chair getting an extension. The back is no different.. satisfaction only comes from full coverage in the traditional style, and so I draw the line at only doing this from the outset, extending a back is far more difficult and cumbersome than extending a sleeve.
Back tattoos that are created piecemeal do not posses this power or flow and tend to look very awkward and boring as well. Not good.
That’s not to say I do every backpiece with a full background because I don’t. But I do insist that the main motif or images takes up the full compositional space that their back/canvas has to offer including coming down on to the buttocks. The background can come later with many back designs… and usually does in my experience.
This coming on to the buttocks part seems to be the biggest sticking point for most people trying to wrap their heads around getting a backpiece. If your tattoo stops at the waistline like many people think they want it to, you will look less than complete and a little bit silly when naked, as your body in its natural form lends the buttocks area as part of your back when viewed from behind. It is an essential element in the compositional area of your back. This I do not ever negotiate or relent on. It is deal breaker for me and I stand by it. The ones who listened to me and trusted me… without exception, thank me every time for convincing them and some wish they had gone lower on the thigh or more coverage on the buttocks in the case of no background. This is what makes the difference between #realtattooing and the rest.