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The Severed Head in Japanese Iconography


Among the different motifs of the Japanese iconography used for tattoo, the namakubi – or severed head- has become a classic chosen for its strong visual impact. Tattoo artists nowadays overdo it with blood in order to emphasize the atrocity and its badass strenght ; but how many do really catch the feeling and the meaning behind it ? If it is hard to determine the exact origin of the design, it goes however through the Japanese history as master Horiyoshi III explains, after originating the revival of this motif when consecrating a book 10 years ago.

–Pascal Bagot


Horiyoshi III

Does the namakubi has a particular status in the Japanese iconography ?

In the past, the namakubi was a quite common design and often tattooed. It was a motif worn by a certain type of people -ones working in height, on the roofs or scaffoldings for example, the yakuza too- because it was hated in the general opinion. These people were doing dangerous jobs or wanted to show their strenght ; they would choose this motif because of the belief attached to the superstition that would say it protects the wearer against evil, accidents and injuries. I don’t know where this information comes from but these are things said in the tattoo world for a long time.

Nowadays this motif has become a classic…

Since I published a set of drawings in the collection « Namakubi zushû » (2004), it became very popular again. The word « namakubi » has now entered the common language. I am very happy about that, it confirms the popularity of the traditional japanese tattoo – irezumi. Nowadays, anybody can choose this motif but nonetheless, people in general usually don’t know the correct meaning. Tattooists don’t know also how to draw it and send a proper message to the viewer. Personally I have never seen any that really impressed me. Technically, it is a difficult design to work on.


A head can be cut since a couple of hours or a number of days, but when you talk about the namakubi, it has to be related to a freshly cut head. A dead head is simple to do, you only have to make it very pale, white as a sheet. The term « Namakubi » is written with the character « nama » that means « fresh », between life and death -while« kubi » refers to the head, the neck. It doesn’t have anything to do with the head of a cadaver. It should represent a living life, without being alive itself, and without light in the eyes. They should be vague, empty and not focus. In the mean time, these eyes should be able to catch the viewer’s attention. Working on this motif is a bit like a challenge. I have a respect towards it. The most difficult design after the namakubi is the yûrei ghost. It represents the soul of the human being that can not go to heaven and then takes a shape. It is at the same time alive and dead.

Sometimes the head has a sword across the cheeks…tumblr_lswjvwINfw1qby53lo1_500

It represents war. It is also used in order to give more realism to the drawing or also to signify that the one represented is really hated and killing him is not enough, you have to hammer a knife through is head too.

Has this motif been a privileged subject for the Japanese artists in the past ?

As I said, for illustration it was a common design. The namakubi can be traced back in the Japanese culture from the Edo period (1603-1867). Many Japanese artists, excepted the ones that were close to the imperial palace as the Kanô and Maruyama schools, have worked on it. Katsushika Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, even Kitagawa Utamaro, and then later Ito Seiu (in the Showa era (1926-1989), he was a student of Toyohara Kunichika). In one of the prints done by Yoshitoshi – « The battle of Sannô shrine » (*1), he represented a warrior with a severed head designed on the back of his jacket (jimbaori). It stands for his determination and the philosophy thats says : when you are at war whithout fear of loosing your life, the way opens automatically. But the theme of the severed head can also be found in the western art world, I’m thinking of the Salomé’s story or in Christianism. In Japan however, it evokes something mysterious. Hokusai really dig the subject and his severed heads are amazing : nobody has ever done something better since.

Reality inspires artists. Is decapitation part of the Japanese history ?

Yes. Punishment, war, jealousy, personal resentment… In the past, during the civil war period of the 14th and the 15th centuries, you would get a promotion if you would cut the head of the enemy chief. In this way, there was some kind of competition between the warriors to be the first to do it. Until its abolition in 1869, decapitation as a punishment has been done in Japan during more than 1000 years. During the difficult times of the end of the Edo period, there has been a lot of murders and violence, the severed heads were visible in the daily life of the commoner, they were part of their ordinary life. Heads were exposed to scary the population but also to shame the condemned, even after their deaths. The respected persons were buried and the other ones were let rot in 2004, you publish the book « Namakubi zushû » with only designs of severed heads, why?

4373A lot of artists have worked the namakubi but nobody ever did a book about it. I want to do what other people don’t do, otherwise it’s a little bit like a copy. In that way, the work of Hokusai inspired me. It is the artist for who I have the most respect, he is beyond the sky. In a philosophical matter, according to me, death and life live together. It is something not to be forgotten.

How did you work on its representation ?

When I choose one of them I think of the history of this head had or may have had. It can be the one of someone that robbed an other guy’s wife or that have been punished by « god » (tenchû), the sky… I try to create a story otherwise it stays superficial. The ones that I have chosen are related to jealousy and vengeance.

Why did you use real blood in your illustrations ?

For the drawings to be real. That is a feeling you can not achieve with painting on its own. It is my blood that I used. I didn’t want the one of an animal or an other person. When I go to the hospital and do a dialysis, I pick up a little bit of it. Its colour changes when it ages and then becomes black. It stays alive, in a certain way, it’s then alive and dead at the same time. Blood is beautiful and also grotesque. Right after the decapitation the head is cleaned and the blood is not flowing very much. Using my blood gives it this grotesque feeling to the severed head but also enables to extend the atrocity of the picture. While creating his set of drawings called « 28 murders with verse » (1866-1867) the artist Yoshitoshi would have asked the printer to add some gelatin (made from skins, bones and animal intestines) in the red colour paint in order for the blood to be real.

You were talking about the power of the namakubi, that would work like a talisman…

Yes, the design was used as a talisman to prevent injuries for instance. See the Yoshitoshi’s print « Battle of the Sannô shrine » I was talking about earlier, it is quite representative in the sense that having it painted in the back would prevent the warrior against any calamity. It is hard to believe that this kind of character would hold with them any bad-luck item… Very few motifs hold that talismanic power or could be related to superstitions, otherwise you can not combine a lot of motifs in your composition. Among these superstitions, we say that tattooing the name of someone -called « kirezumi »- separates two people in love. Also, if you get tattooed the design of a woman, she will get jealous and the wearer will not have any more success among other women.


Written by Baxter

February 7th, 2015 at 9:50 am

Posted in Guest Bloggers

Tanya Magdelena—Above the Pearl, Portland Oregon


studiopanocopy_wTanya Magdalena is a well-rounded artist, working within many mediums and disciplines. Award winning tattoos, drawing, painting, graphic, web and publication design, sewing, bellydancing, stained glass, and stained glass pattern-making, jewelry, leather working and Zen-Art of motorcycle maintenance. Tanya earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications/Graphic & Publication Design, from California State University, Chico in 1994. In 1997, she moved to Portland, Oregon, and make quick work of the corporate ladder, rapidly earning herself a position as a Senior Designer at Xerox. In 2003 Tanya “lost her taste” for the corporate culture, and has since devoted her passion and talent, to operating a successful tattoo business, other artistic pursuits, and strives to bring happiness to herself, and those her art touches.

Tanya’s love affair with tattoos began in 1986, at the age of 14. Tanya got her first tattoo in 1988. After going to college, and spending 15 years in the graphic design field, she was ready to pursue her childhood dream. In 2005 Tanya got her tattoo education/apprenticeship from her teacher and mentor, the infamous Rio DeGennaro, learning the art and craft of tattoo, along with the strictest tattooing and sanitation regulations in the world. Rio has been tattooing since 1962. Like his father before him, he worked down on the Pike in Long Beach, California with Bert Grimm, among others. After a year in a street shop, Tanya opened Above the Pearl Tattoo, LLC in NW Portland in September 2007. After 7 years in downtown Portland, Tanya moved the studio to a new light, bright, private location, in charming Historic Milwaukie, just 10 minutes south of the old location. Above the Pearl Tattoo, LLC was awarded Best of Citysearch: Tattoo Portland 2009 and 2011, was published in Bob Baxter’s and Mary Gardener’s Tattoo Road Trip : The Best of Oregon, National Tattoo Association’s Friends, Family and Faith – a tribute to Tony Edwards, and various online publications. Tanya continues to gather rave reviews from her clients.

Note: Click images to enlarge.

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Written by Baxter

January 23rd, 2015 at 2:19 pm

American Eagle Tattoo—Tulsa, Oklahoma


With over twenty years in the business, American Eagle‘s Maj Mathhews  is updating her Tulsa, Oklahoma, tattoo shop, including the wallpaper and the staff. If you are looking to work alongside Maj, click HERE for her contact information.


Note: Click images to enlarge

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Written by Baxter

January 8th, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Tattoos that Protect You from Harm!


IMG_1004_oBy Kimberly Bryant

Here’s an informative and well-written guest post about a subject we are fairly familiar with. But Kimberly adds some insights and facts that make her posting worth the time to read.

Do you believe in magic? The folks that tough it through the pain of getting a bamboo tattoo just might. Or, here’s another question for you: would you let another person — a stranger, no less — pick out a tattoo design for you without even speaking to them? Again, the brave people who opt to be marked forever with a magic Sak Yant tattoo do.

I was first introduced to Sak Yant tattoos when I saw Angelina Jolie’s hah taew magic tattoo. I thought it looked quite beautiful, but I was curious what it meant: I’ve heard so many horror stories of people getting tattoos in foreign languages that mean something completely different than what the person wanted. (One of the many reasons for scouting out a reputable tattoo artist before taking the plunge!) …More

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Written by Baxter

January 8th, 2015 at 10:27 am

Posted in Guest Bloggers

Help Wanted—Crucible Tattoo—Kent, Ohio



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Written by Baxter

January 2nd, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Help Wanted

Photos from 10th Annual London International Tattoo Convention


Our reporter across the pond is longtime friend and contributor Tim Coleman. Although Tim has been spending the last few years making videos about extraterrestrials and voices from beyond, Tim has produced numerous images and stories that have raised eyebrows and surprised many readers back when I edited Skin&Ink.  Always a top-notch photographer, Tim was kind enough to send along some snaps from the 10th Annual London International Tattoo Convention.


First held in 2005 the London International Convention has morphed into the largest and most spectacular tattoo convention in the world. Originally located in the Old Truman Brewery in London’s ultra trendy East End, the convention has hugely out grown its initial venue and was forced, in 2007, to find a far larger one. Now held at Tobacco Dock, which is only stone’s throw from one of London’s most famous land marks, Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge, although perennially popular with tourists from around the world, could not even begin to compete with the immense pulling power of the London Convention, which now attracts around 30,000 people over three days (Sept 26, 27 and 28.) The organizers of the convention pulled off a brilliant publicity stunt, when, in 2009, they were immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records. They broke the record for the largest number of people being simultaneously tattooed: a staggering 178.

I’m not sure if this record was again broken at the 2014 convention, but I wouldn’t be surprised since there were over 300 tattooists working feverously among the vast and cavernous Victorian architecture. Some of the best artists included Filip Leu, Nervio, Diego Mannino, Ching, Hua, Yang, Chris Crooks, Carlos Torrst, Brent McCown, Anna Paige, Bugs and many, many more. For a more complete list go to TATTOO THE LINE -1 LR

I was pleased to see that both Lal Hardy and George Bone also had booths and were busy working. Certainly Lal Hardy deserves a huge place of honor since it was his collaboration with three other British tattooists in the ’80s and ’90s that resulted in the first big U.K. tattoo conventions, held in Dunstable.

It’s astonishing to realize now, but before this tattooing in the U.K. was a completely closed shop and conventions were not open to the public. Dunstable changed all that and revolutionized the way the public perceive tattooing, dragging it out of the back streets and into the mainstream. It was the popularity of these initial conventions that laid the ground for the massive popularity of today’s London super conventions.

As well as hosting some of the best tattooers from around the world the convention put on a dazzling selection of performers and entertainers including: Lucky Hell, “The Sword Swallowing Painted Lady”; The Fuel Girls; The Nerdy Stripper, Burlesque performer Elegy Ellem; Les Soeurs Tribales, a Tribal Bellydance & Modern Urban Fusion Dance troupe from Italy; and pinup Sabina Kelley.

LON TATTOO WOMAN IN CROWD LRIn addition to this the convention hosted a number of fabulous art exhibitions including paintings and sculpture from a number of tattooists that had previously been exhibited at the hugely prestigious Courtauld Gallery in London. An event that in of itself carries great significance and shows how far tattooing has come in its containing effort to become a respected mainstream art form. There is no doubt that each year the London Convention continues to outdo itself, and its reputation as the world’s largest and most spectacular tattoo event seems certain to endure for some time.

Call me old fashioned and elitist, but I can’t help thinking nostalgically about my first tattoo convention organized by the Tattoo Club of Great Britain, in 1985.  It was small, a few hundred people. It was intimate; everyone knew each other. It was closed to the public, so no gawkers, and the standard of tattooing was, by today’s standards, dreadful. But it was also charming and magical. Perhaps today’s super conventions, in their efforts to attract ever-greater numbers, have lost some of this magic. Perhaps the innocence has been lost and the corporatization of tattooing has well and truly taken over. Either that or I’m just getting old.

For more information go to

—Text and Photos by Tim Coleman

 Note: Click images to enlarge

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Written by Baxter

December 30th, 2014 at 9:25 am

Posted in Events,Gallery





The winners of the Christmas Eve drawing for the fabulous Krampus tattoo machine from Infinite Irons  are:



What is a KrampusKrampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish children during the Christmas season who had misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair.redkrampus2 crop

Each specially-designed Infinite Irons Krampus tattoo machine features the ugly beastie’s image emblazoned on the side, to remind you to be extra nice during the holiday season.

Congratulations and thank you to all those who entered. More contests coming soon.

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Written by Baxter

December 22nd, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Posted in Contests

Marketplace Tattoos in Bangkok


Eli CropMy name is Eli, an experienced Israeli photographer. I’ve been shooting film then early digital, for years, but my passion went 5th gear, when I retired few years ago. I took few photography courses, moved from Canon a 350D to 5D Mark ii then to Mark iii. I used to travel a lot, mainlyI on business and always with a camera. Now retired, I still travel frequently.  In time, I noticed that, although I often shoot landscapes, architecture and animals, I’m much prefer shooting people, mostly with their consent.

I started shooting tattoo as an exercise – to see if and how I can communicate, especially in Asia where language can be a barrier – and then I got hooked on tattoo shooting, mainly at tattoo parlors that I visit in Israel. So far, I have shot in Thailand, Vietnam, China and Singapore, and, from time to time, I also shoot inked models.

—Eli Katz,

I decided to post this series of pics of the same  person /parlor. I think it’s much more interesting this way. The first is one from my first ink shooting at a market in Bangkok. I spotted the guy and made him remove his shirt. No money involved.

Note: Click images to enlarge.

Pentagram tattoo by Roey Pentagrm in Tel Aviv was the first parlor I shot at. I had the opportunity to witness Roey doing a long term Knight’s Armor, a great first time tattoo shooting !

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Written by Baxter

December 19th, 2014 at 9:54 am

Posted in Gallery

The Best Damn Convention Poster Jack Rudy Ever Made


The lettering is absolutely amaaazing!


Click for Jack’s “Most Influential” Tribute


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Written by Baxter

December 17th, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Letter from Incendiary Tattoo—Victoria, B.C.


Hi Bob!!

Happy holidays from western Canada!!  I am sending you some new pics of work I have done. As always… thank you for all the hard work you do and have done for the tattoo industry and the body mod industry as a whole!! You have helped get so many fantastic artists work out for the world to see! Thank you for everything!

Cheers and Happy holidays,

—Jim Carter, Incendiary Tattoos, Victoria, B.C.

Note: Click images to enlarge.

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Written by Baxter

December 17th, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Letters