Chris Treviño, Tattoo Artist
Treviño, who has been tattooing for more than twenty years, is the owner of Perfection Tattoo in Austin. He is known for his traditional Japanese designs, which have earned him an extensive client base in the U.S. as well as in Japan, where he travels four times a year. He grew up in San Antonio.
I was introduced to tattooing by accident. I was fifteen, my family had just moved, and one day a catalog arrived in the mail intended for the previous tenants. It was a tattoo supply catalog, filled with thousands of designs. I was too young to appreciate them—my impression was that they weren’t very good—but I still remember one image, of a demon flying forward, its wings sticking out. It was beautiful.
My uncle had a small tattoo, and my grandpa had a Navy tattoo from World War II, but they were typical Americana—hearts and “Mom” kind of stuff. For the longest time, that was my only exposure: murky, sailor-looking, blue-spaghetti tattoos. But then I fell into the punk-rock scene in San Antonio, and I saw tattoos unlike any I’d seen before. They were sharp, perfectly drawn. One was by [cult artist] Thomas Woodruff. It was a skull with a half-torn face and horns, and it was green. That was striking—the bright lime green.
So a buddy of mine, Shawn Degan, and I began hanging out at the tattoo shop of a fellow named Bob Moreau. Tattoo operations were illegal in San Antonio at the time, but Bob got around that by calling his “art services.” I had decided by then that I wanted a tattoo, but I had to wait until I was eighteen, so I watched Shawn get his first. He was younger than me, but his parents okayed it. My first tattoo was a dagger, a snake, Venus flytraps, and a pinup girl whose face was half skull, half woman.
Bob showed us a few tattoo books, and what grabbed me was traditional Japanese imagery: the color, the composition, the stories. I’d had no idea you could use a tattoo machine like a paintbrush, and these designs were like paintings. America’s tattoo tradition, I learned, was sparked by Japan. Before the 1850’s, when Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to American trade, tattooing in the West was basically dead. But then Japanese tattooists made their way to Europe and New York to work on royalty and high-end clients, and by the early twentieth century, their designs had trickled down to the masses. You know the image of a screaming eagle, its talons coming down? It’s originally Japanese.
After high school, Shawn and I became Bob’s apprentices. I wasn’t the best student. A lot of what Bob taught me—about technique and bedside manner—didn’t sink in for a long time. But about three years later, when I was 23, Bob sold us the shop, and eventually Shawn and I also bought a shop in Austin. In 2001 I went to work in Japan, where after about four years, I was given a name by one of the country’s premier tattooers, Horiyoshi III. Hori means “engraver.” It’s a term that comes from the days of woodblock printmakers. You can’t give yourself the name. Horiyoshi III helped pick mine: Horimana.
To learn Japanese tattooing without being Japanese is to start from zero, because there are so many legends and myths behind the artistry that you’ve never heard of. It’s like not knowing about Mother Goose or Little Red Riding Hood; you have to learn the stories every kid in Japan knows by the time he’s five years old. A lot of them can be very complicated, with multiple scenes. For example, one popular scene is that of the Taira clan versus the Minamoto clan. The Taira clan has wiped out the Minamoto clan, and the only survivors are two baby boys, the sons of nobles, who stay hidden until they are teenagers and can avenge their clan’s massacre. The two become generals, Yoshitsune and Yorimoto, and they have a big battle at sea in which they defeat the Taira commander in chief, Tomomori. But Tomomori cannot surrender, so he ties a rope and anchor to himself and the royal family, and they drown, along with all their clan.
Basically I take a narrative and turn it into design. You pick the narrative, but then it is my job to make it period correct: the royal crests, the style, the way the figures are depicted. A lot of people have seen samurai with helmets and facial armor. But that doesn’t work. The early samurai did not usually wear helmets, and it’s not what you see in woodblock prints. So I won’t do that. Other times people want their tattoos shaped wrong. A Japanese tattoo on your arm should go down at least to the elbow and up to the chest, but they’ll say, “Well, I want it to be here and here.” If it’s not going to look right, I won’t do it.
I use a regular coil machine, a device patented in the 1890’s. Usually a client has an idea of what he wants, but we’ll always talk it through and look at books and photographs. Someone may want, say, a tiger and a dragon fighting, so I’ll explain the mythology of the characters together. One customer wanted some Texas merged with his Japanese artwork. So on one side I drew a rattlesnake with a “Come and Take It” flag, a dagger going through a yellow rose, and a cactus. On the other side I drew a roadrunner, a boar skull, and a bluebonnet. All in Japanese fashion.
The longest I’ve taken with a tattoo is about ten years, but on average, a decent-sized project will take multiple sessions, each a couple hours, spread out over two or three years. The pain? I’d say it’s relative. It’s always temporary, and it makes you feel stronger for what you’ve accomplished. If it were easy, you wouldn’t appreciate it in the same way.
Barbed wire, dolphins—to me these aren’t classic designs. They’re fads, images that won’t be cool in twenty years. Or take tattoos like Dennis Rodman’s. Those just look like a mess to me. It’s interesting that he has them, but they don’t have any historical continuity, no tradition. It’s like putting stickers all over your car. On the other hand, a military tattoo with a swallow with a banner that reads “Mother,” that will always be cool. It doesn’t lose its luster. It sounds terrible to say that getting a tattoo in the small of your back or choosing something like the yin and yang symbol is cliché, because those people are stuck with their choices. But they should have maybe looked a little harder.