Perseverance takes shape in many different contexts. We attach certain personal experiences to such a word — experiences that exude an unyielding level of tenacity and determination. For artist and photographer Kip Fulbeck, the word is closely tied to the art of Japanese tattooing.

In Richmond, we’re lucky to have such a forward-thinking, nationally-acclaimed museum of art within walking distance of, well… mostly everything. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is currently hosting Fulbeck’s show dedicated to the art of Japanese tattoo titled Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition, curated by Takahiro Kitamura, also known as Ryudaibori. In an interview with VMFA, Fulbeck talked about the dedication and respect people have for their tattooer in this particular niche of tattoo culture. “That’s kind of an old school tradition. It’s about gaman — or perseverance. That’s why the word is the title of the show."

Tattoo by Yebis. Photo by Kip Fulbeck.

In Japanese culture, tattoo was traditionally reserved for criminals and the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Much of this stigma is still attached to tattoo in Japan, making it a regular occurrence to see folks wearing long sleeves, even on the hottest days, in order to cover their art. The master tattooers featured in the show — Horitomo, Yokohama, Horiken, Junii, Miyazo, Shige, Horishiki and Ryudaibori, among many others — are revered as artists in essentially every country other than their own. This contrast in cultural acceptance, in tandem with the contrast of Japanese tattoo being accepted as fine art, are two key reasons why this type of exhibit is so attractive to VMFA.

We spoke with several folks from VMFA about the exhibition, including Lee Anne Chesterfield, Interim Deputy Director for Art and Education and Head of Exhibitions. When asked about the criticism associated with the exhibition, her response was quite winsome, "It’s another part of art history; it happens all the time. It opens up the discussion, the dialogue — which, in my mind, is the perfect opportunity. This is something that we should be doing. It’s part of our mission to bring these things in and then have discussions about them, so I welcome all comments and questions, and critiques."


Several years ago, Richmond was ranked as third most tattooed city in the U.S. As anticipated, the response to VMFA’s latest exhibit has been extremely well-received in the community. The exhibition features large-scale images of people with full suit tattoos in the Japanese style, smaller photographs of tattoo details, as well as tools and relief carvings. In tone with VMFA’s progressive approach, sketching and photography is allowed, and they have several hashtags to help promote the exhibit on Instagram — #JapaneseTattoo, #Perseverance, and #VMFA.

Suzanne Hall, a personal friend of many Ledbury employees and now retired Chief Communications Officer at VMFA, said so eloquently about the exhibition, "In an interesting way, this exhibition is a symbol of what VMFA is to the world - this is synthesizing some complex cultural iconographies and delivering them in a very fresh, new way.” We couldn’t agree more.JANM-Perseverance-Shige

Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition is showing at VMFA through September 27, 2015. Follow VMFA on Instagram @VMFAmuseum, and share your photos from the gallery using hashtags #japanesetattoo, #perseverance, and #VMFA. If you can't make it to Richmond anytime soon, check out the audio tour component online, featuring commentary with many of the artists themselves.

Tattoo Artists Featured Above: Miyazo, Yebis, Stan Corona, Shige, respectively. Photos by Kip Fulbeck.

June 11, 2015 — Mel Calabro