Nick Wilson Talks Tattooing, Farming and Finding Love while living in Japan
Patrick Coste: Ohayō Nick! See, I did my research!!
Nick Wilson: Lol, good morning Patrick!
PC: Nick, we’ve got to tell people here that we’re chatting with each other but you’re not nearby! You’ve actually been in Japan for the last 3 years or so…
How on earth did you get over there? Lots of artists travel, but rarely settle! This is interesting, very interesting…tell us more.
NW: Yes, well… mmm.. let’s see… There’s the always wanting to travel and tattoo part. I was tattooing for about 7 years, then that brought me here. I liked traveling at large and wanted to tattoo at the same time. I really wanted to experience all of that at once!
PC: Wow, just wow! Is Japan still a “taboo” spot for tattooing?
NW: Japan at large is behind in tattooing a bit ... like 40 years. Not in the sense of art, but the mentality and the view of it. It’s not dangerous or anything like that, it was intimidating! A traveler is fine when you have tattoos and visit Japan, but finding a place to work is a bit hard. Imagine 40 years ago in Canada… Perhaps a bit of gatekeeping, you know? Closed doors and you need connections and to prove yourself.
I looked on Instagram and found @Ichitattoo_tokyo, who provides opportunities for travellers to tattoo in Japan, and I contacted him. He told me to get a holiday visa so I can work. I didn’t know what they were prior to that, and I applied. Anybody who’s under 35 can have those and stay in the country for 6 months to a year, and you’re able to work.
So, I went to Tokyo. They accepted me and I worked and tattooed for about a month or two, and then COVID started, so I was pretty much only tattooing tourists. The country was being closed and the next thing we knew, no more tourists were coming in. I was in Tokyo and I wasn't tattooing any more, so I was running, being healthy and making friends. I had a great, GREAT time…
I ended up finding work outdoors on a farm in the countryside in Okayama, between Hiroshima and Osaka. There’s a place called a peach prefecture, so I went there and there was a guest house where the owner was renting a bedroom and you could work at her friend's farm and get paid etc.
There were a bunch of other people from France, Australia, and Slovakia of all places, and people came and went. What I liked about the place was, sure it was international in the house, but the rest of the place was authentic Japan, like the real stuff. Countryside, oceanside sea town and fisherman going to fish every day, older women who’d never really met foreigners before… That experience of picking fruit and veggies with them I didn’t expect, but it was so great!
PC: HOLY! I just wanted to say that! Tell me more… That’s incredible!
NW: Lol! I really enjoyed it and after a while the guest house owner, who was 28 years old - about the same age as me, well… we started hitting it off. We were becoming a thing, you know? And well, after a year, we got married.
PC: That escalated quickly! Lol…
NW: Lol. You’ve got to know also, at that point I wasn't tattooing much. Well, I tattooed a few guys there but not really working it, you know? During that year I basically worked the farm and was drawing every day, painting… It was basically that.
My wife and I travelled a bit inside Japan, and at that time I found a tattoo shop in Okinawa, which is located between Japan and Taiwan in the Indian Ocean. They were devastated a lot during WW2.
Anyhow… I found that shop, called @avant_garde_design_japan, I sent them a message, went there for a guest spot for a couple of weeks and did pretty much only military, lots of them. I went there 5 times during the year. It was a great gig, it built a clientele and gave me an opportunity to mingle with Japanese tattooers who knew the tattoo backgrounds of Japan. So we’re 3 tattooers, they’re very open to share and I learn so much from them.
During that year, I spent time working at the farm being a “guest” at my wife's place, and tattooing at Avant Garde. After a while we decided to move to Okinawa! This is a cool place man. Okinawa is a tropical island in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of American military bases. I’d never felt that vibe before. Military people are cool to tattoo. They want cool tattoos and military culture, and American culture is more open with self-identity, and you can get a tattoo and you’re good, you know? Japanese culture is not like that. There’s a part of the younger generation who are a bit more open to tattoos, remembering what it felt like 40 years ago in America.
PC: Do you speak French with your wife at all?
NW: I swear now and then, you know, a good TABERNAK! Lol, they’re like, “Hoooo!!! Wooowww!!!”, lol…
PC: So exotic! Lol, I guess we should talk about tattoos a bit eh?
NW: Lol, I’m privileged to be here in Okinawa, which is like the mecca for tattooing in Japan. I’m lucky to be here and it’s fairly easy to make a living here as a tattooist compared to mainland Japan.
PC: What’s your clientele like? Who do you tattoo on a regular day?
NW: I would say my clientele is about 90% military. You know, locals are tempted to gravitate toward locals. They speak their own language. Although I’ve been studying Japanese for over three years, talking about tattoos is a hard thing for me to do. Lots of different meanings… Like, a line or outline would be a streak, if you follow me…
NW: I actually had to start online classes to learn more Japanese because I’m basically surrounded by English nowadays!
PC: Tell me, is there still a gnarly and ‘bad’ connotation associated with tattoos in Japan, you know… with bad dudes.. Wink, wink.
NW: I would say less and less. Again, imagine 40 years ago in America, lots of “bikers” had shops… but there’s still a reminiscence of that, and a master that you need to respect and everything. But as a foreigner you have a pass, you know? We’re not from there and so on…
PC: That must boost your tattoo skills to the next level, yeah?
NW: When you travel, you learn things, you get better and get more artistic and everything, but if you grow by yourself, nothing beats fresh air. I have to admit, my work started to change before coming to Japan but I was trying to mimic Japanese-style, you know? Not knowing much, but having the love for it! I love all that. What else should I learn to improve, and learn new skills? I still feel I need to learn so much. I want to let it become its own thing, instead of trying to copy. I don't want to be a Japanese tattooist, I want to do my own spin but always be respectful. Learn the basics and improve on that…
PC: Man, you must have fun digging into the mystic Japanese creatures and all that realm?
NW: Yes, I love it. People at large are so willing to share. It’s their folklore, it’s not religious, it’s mythology and that’s limitless. But if someone wants something that’s very traditional Japanese, I’ll be tempted to send them to my coworker!
PC: Tell me, you’ve been at it for about 10 years, and some people know but most don’t, but your father is also a tattooer; @donbouchard (Hi Don!). Tell us a bit about that part of your life, if I may ask?
NW: I was very fortunate to have a father who taught me the trade. I was an apprentice for him and then I was working alongside the guys around the shop. Obviously when I started, it took me a while to think that my tattoos were enough, but then I started to learn things and discover on my own and when I met the Japanese style it was definitely a rabbit hole.
PC: I remember you doing a bit more black and grey realism, now you’re full-tilt Japanese-style…
NW: Well you see, my father is a black and grey artist. He does a dark, realism style and I was really into that by default. Once I saw more tattoos in my career and when I started to see more and more Japanese tattoos, I took a more serious approach to it.
I grew up drawing realism and the high-contrast realism is very dope.
PC: I’d never be able to tell you did anything other than Japanese-style! I love it!
So, being in a military environment, and also being in Japan, do you get the chance to do large-scale bodysuits and stuff, or is it mostly smaller tattoos because of the traveling aspect?
NW: Thank you, thank you very much… Yes, that’s a very good question. I’m a bit stressed out these days because I have four bigger projects going; a few sleeves and bigger tattoos and so I need to finish them before they deploy. Okinawa teaches me to be fast and finish tattoos in a good, timely fashion.
It all starts with smaller projects and then you get known. But yes, they come and go. They do three years, sometimes they find you at the end of their tour, but it’s all good. They all understand. They’re usually sitting like right rocks…
PC: I would say that you’re living the dream my man… It’s like working in Sailor Jerry’s backyard!
NW: Exactly, feels like that! I do miss mainland Japan a bit. It’s more traditional. It feels good to be able to go back.
PC: I just realized that this was all during COVID too! WOW, you’re good.
NW: Well, because of that time I was able to meet my wife and so forth, so I‘m blessed. The one year break from tattooing was great for resources and learning new things. I also took time to be healthy and that break was just a great one, to learn, see and feel other things.
That comfort zone is nice, but when you travel, you break all that to get better and stuff. It’s good but nerve racking.
PC: Your story is amazing. I can't wait to see what you’ll do in the next few months… and it might be soon to ask, but what's next for ya Nick?
NW: Well, we want to travel Europe. With all the visas and everything, my wife has only until she reaches the age of 30 for many places, so next year would be the time for New Zealand, then Europe hopefully! We're gonna come back to Canada this August for a few months.
PC: That’s a LOT of traveling Nick, lol! Thank you so much for sharing all that good stuff and knowledge, really. To me it gives a great deal of courage to those who are willing to do the same! Arigatō