"It was necessary to invent what did not exist..."

October 22, 2015

Full interview for DOC.Arq magazine from Juiz de Fora-MG

By Wendell Guiducci

It's half past four in the afternoon on April 30th when, driving to work, the phone rings. On the other side, a gentle voice asks if “Vendell” is speaking, and I, used to the phonetic confusion that my name causes, say yes. It was Jun Matsui, one of the most prestigious tattoo artists in the world. Adept at silence, little used to interviews, he would return, by phone, an e-mail that I had sent to his assistant asking to talk. Jun, owner of a very private subscription, wanted to know what the report would be about, and we spent 20 minutes talking about various subjects. Finally, it was agreed that I would email the questions and he would get back to me without delay. And that's what happened.

Jun Matsui has already tattooed Rihanna and designed a signature sneaker for Nike. He painted the body of Alinne Moraes for the cover of “Rolling Stone” magazine and tattooed the Italian photographer Mario Sorrenti. And a member of the Korean mafia and another of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia – the latter, on the penis. And he launched, still in Japan, a book, “Hari”, now a rare article, with a collection of photographs of his work. But we didn't talk about any of that. As if we were sharing a teapot under the blossoms of a cherry tree, we tackled time, life in the metropolis, Japanese culture, the future of his multidisciplinary work and, obviously, tattooing.

A schedule to wear the skin with a work by Jun Matsui, father of a couple of young children and living in São Paulo since returning from Japan, where he lived between 1990 and 2007 and started tattooing, has become increasingly difficult. He has been dedicating himself to the art of making jewelry, designing clothes for his own brand, Life Under Zen, and the store of the same name that opened at the end of last year at Galeria do Rock, in São Paulo. In an exclusive interview with DOC.Arq, this 43-year-old dekassegui craftsman, passionate about skateboarding (“I never stopped walking... inside”, he guarantees), who still intends to dedicate himself to literature, talks a little more about his origins, his arts and his new projects, making it very clear that, for him, “personal and professional are one and the same thing”.


What is your first memory of a tattoo?

​I always tell the same story, divided into two parts, although I don't trust my memory very much. The scene in the first part is a group of boys on the street, maybe in Rio de Janeiro, but I doubt it, because I had to be under 5 years old for that to have happened there, and, of all my childhood, this period in Rio is the darkest, I don't remember anything. Anyway, I have this image in my head, of having seen a drawing on the body of one of these boys. Even today I pay attention when I witness the way a child reacts to his first contact with a tattoo and I think: will the same thing happen to me? I believe that, like me, many adults who decided to get tattooed or even become tattoo artists "made" that decision in childhood... the first meeting with a tattooed person was enough. The second time the tattoo appeared in my life I was already 13 or 14 years old and I saw an image in a surfing magazine. Imagine my happiness at being able to look and study the image... imagining how that could be done. My first impulse was to lock myself in my room with a sewing needle and an ink pot and "tattoo" the design on the inside of my forearm. It was a pyramid with an eye in the center and flames around it... I managed to do just the eye. I finished and I thought: "I'm fucked!!". I spent the rest of my teenage years in disarray, trying to hide the tattoo from my parents and everyone at home and on the street, ashamed of what they would think. Today it exists, it has never been covered and for me it means the beginning, the tattoo in its purest state.

How did your relationship with drawing begin?

I don't know. In yet another of those childhood memories, I remember sitting in the dirt, when we moved to Mato Grosso do Sul, drawing the image of a sun using small stones. I take this memory seriously and I think it's beautiful, maybe that's why I ended up choosing this moment as the "first" drawing. Maybe that was one of the first times I felt pleasure in being alone and concentrated, bringing out what only I saw inside. I remember my first school in São Paulo, I spent most of my time drawing in class. Any free space in a notebook or book was enough. I styled my initial with a colored drop on top, as if the J were on the floor and I dropped a cup of ink straight down the center of the letter. Someone saw it, and I soon had other students' notebooks on my desk. I wasn't popular, I didn't have friends, and I saw drawing as salvation. Without it, it would remain invisible. I soon realized how knowing how to draw had a meaning, that the important thing was not knowing how to draw, but knowing what to do with the finished drawing. I understood that it was important to draw for others, it made my life at school better and more complete. To this day I still don't understand people who say they do something for themselves and don't care what others think. That must be the difference between hobby and work. Work, however lonely it may be, always ends up in the collective. In the end, my feeling is simple: this is the only thing I know how to do well, and I'm glad people like it.

You moved to Japan at the age of 18, disillusioned with the situation in Brazil, and worked there for 16 years. How did this experience affect your training?

I remember seeing an article about Hillary Clinton's visit to the Zumbi dos Palmares University in São Paulo. A student asked about the differences in opportunities between whites and blacks in the United States, she replied that "talent is universal, that is, it springs spontaneously over the entire planet, all generations produce natural talent regardless of geography and socio-economic-cultural profile. Opportunity, no". Some societies are more committed and careful not to waste the individual talent that is naturally born in them. Obviously this results in progress, innovation, prosperity and culture. I always think about this when I compare Brazil and Japan. An unfair comparison, true, but the only one I have. I believe that the greatest impact comes from the experience of having spent the most important part of my education in a society in which the collective precedes the individual. I don't have any utopian expectations for Brazil, nor have my feelings of revolt changed since I returned...they are simply less immature now. I feel and see the same things that disturbed me and made me leave when I had the chance. In Japan, I saw a different world for the first time, a world I didn't believe existed. I learned that it's no use if you like the place and the place doesn't like you... I learned that, as in the classroom when I was a teenager, I had to show what my contribution was to the place before taking something away from it. I learned that it is possible to feel at home even being so far from yours. I learned that far from the comfort zone is where I feel most comfortable. I learned that personal and professional are the same thing.

And from the northeast, do you keep anything that shows in your work?

​The ability to get emotional, music, literature and crafts. It's all present. From high culture to the street.

You were born in Recife, lived in Mato Grosso do Sul, but lived for a long time in São Paulo, then Tokyo, got to know Los Angeles, returned to São Paulo... What is your relationship with the big cities?

I don't think I have a direct, contemplative relationship with the "big city" today as I had earlier in my life. The truth is that today I give more importance to being in the right "time" than in the right "place". The first and only time in my life that I felt that in a metropolis was in Tokyo in the 1990s, the feeling of being in the right place at the right time was real, and whoever was there knows what I'm talking about. Nowadays, if I go to a big city, I don't go in search of opportunities, but driven by feelings I have for people who live there and whom I miss. This may seem radical, but I don't see why a person should live in a big city if the main purpose is not material prosperity, especially in a big city in Latin America. The only thing that would justify living in a dysfunctional and inconvenient city like São Paulo would be the cost of living here being much cheaper than in other metropolises in the Northern Hemisphere, which is not the case. Obviously I say this from a middle-class point of view. Wealth and poverty (knowing that nobody "is" rich or poor, but "is" rich or poor) are very similar around the world. The difference from one place to another appears in the lifestyle and opportunities for advancement for those in the middle. But I think the wisest thing would be to choose the place where you want to live (when that's possible) by the way the people who live there treat each other.

You became known for having a very specific work method as a tattoo artist, a time that does not match the speed of contemporary times.

I don't consider my method "mine". I'm a craftsman, and like any craftsman, the impact technology has on my work is limited and even practically irrelevant. A master shoemaker today takes the same amount of time to make a well-made shoe as it took a master 80 years ago. And a craftsman does not compete with the clock, the spirit of the thing is exactly the opposite. When I'm working, time ceases to exist. But I try not to be too fast or too slow. This is the difference between haste and speed. Baltasar Gracian said that the only thing that everyone really has is time. And the question should always be this: what are you going to do with yours? Sometimes I imagine that if it were possible to know how old we would be at birth and candles appeared on cakes in a decreasing order, maybe life would be different, calmer, more natural.

How did fashion and jewelery come into your life?

I've always liked the street and I believe I got a little bit of the phase when it was still possible to immediately know where the ideas that appeared in magazines came from. Today it is no longer known whether the magazine feeds on the street or the street from the magazine. In the late 1980s, we needed to invent what didn't exist if we wanted to dress differently. Today everything is in some catalogue, including lifestyles complete with clothing, gastronomy, architecture, literature and music... an app helps you to be you. Its only job is to consume. I remember starting to make t-shirts in Tokyo because I always had an idea that would show up later somewhere. I thought: “if I do it, people will like it”. A simple account, and once again my drawing takes me. The right person came along, and I had my first chance in life to have my own business outside of the tattoo artist universe. It was my Japanese "father" who believed in the potential of the idea as a business and financed the project. Gold has always been a passion, more linked to superstition than style. I believe that gold brings me luck and it is the material that best matches my designs. Wax modeling ended up being so important as a job that I came to think that the tattoo was part of the path, and the sculpture the end point. Finally I was alone again, me, the block of wax and the tools, content.

And now you're opening a store. Tell us a little about her, please.

The store was another one of those things in life that wasn't on the list. I had a daughter in early 2013, Hari, and I planned a trip with her and my wife for 2014. The plan was to spend a season in Japan, six months or more, to see where life would take us. Turns out my wife got pregnant again, and that changed everything. We canceled the tickets and prepared as much as possible for the Nui's arrival. In my view, a baby's first year requires the whole family in the nest, and it is during this time that the "glue" dries. Every day together for a year, quietly, not touching things until the glue dries. Nui arrived in a house very different from the one Hari found when he was born, but despite the fact that the house routine is more intense, I don't want it to be different with him. The shop had always been in my head, and during these last few years, everything looked like Tokyo would offer me a second chance to leave the tattoo parlor and hit the streets again. I needed to start a new cycle of work in my life, and the arrival of my second child helped me to pursue this here, despite never having intended to open a store in São Paulo. I decided to look for the perfect place, for a place that only existed here, for a place that made me happy, like someone who opens a store on a street that he is passionate about and not just thinking about the "point" from a commercial point of view. Wanted a place that couldn't be found in any other city, but what's the fun? I've been going to Galeria do Rock since I was 15 years old and I take all the Japanese friends who visit me there, they all leave saying it was the most genuine and vibrant place they visited in the city. I started to carry out my plan to open the store there myself, without telling anyone or asking for advice. I did exactly what and how I wanted to do it, my wife Júlia being my greatest partner and accomplice. My only rule was that if things didn't go my way, I wouldn't force it, a mistake I've made a lot throughout my life. Over the course of three months, I experienced an unbelievable and emotional sequence of episodes that led to the opening of the shop on November 24, 2014. Despite the fact that I regularly need my moments alone, the big difference between the tattoo and the shop is exactly this: the possibility of working in collaboration with other people, of being part of a team and working in a group. This also interests me and makes a difference in my life. Tattooing is a solitary job by nature, and the shop allows me to show my work to more people. During this process I met and worked with people without whom none of this would have been possible and I started a new life cycle certain that I am doing what I have to do, feeling more part of the city and the country.

Is the body more creative or more space for creation?

It depends on who this body will meet along the way.

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