MORALE AND ANCIENT ARMOR
Our challenge here was to better the GRX1’s patch. A patch designed by Dan Matsuda and laser engraved by Marc Mummert on titanium. It would be no small feat, but the result is something we’re incredibly proud of.
We wanted a Japanese tattoo artist to create the design for this project. I posted to all of my personal social media accounts, casting the widest net possible. I even asked my Kyoto-born Austinite tattooed rockstar chef friend Yoshi Okai, who tried but couldn’t come up with a connection.
After weeks of searching and feeling pretty defeated, another Carryology community member came to the rescue. Mike Maceda, a softgoods designer, personal friend, and rad dude, dropped me a line and connected me with the name of his tattoo artist. I was told he speaks good English but his first language is Japanese. But he warned me that this gentleman doesn’t accept just any projects. He’s particular. Just our kind of guy, I thought.
Jiro Yaguchi was born and raised in Japan, is now a Los Angeles resident, and is an incredibly talented artist to a level of fame, and resident tattooer of Onizuka Tattoo. Wanting to adorn his inkwork on your body? Prepare for many months to wait for his first availability. Possibly even longer than a year.
At first, Jiro-san politely declined the project, stating something along the lines of this project was “a bit too basic for him.”
“Okay… I like this guy”, I thought, while smiling from ear to ear. Quickly, I messaged back with a more detailed pitch, including all the intricacies as well as the name of the craftsman patch maker (we’ll get to that next).
Immediately he replied.
He loved it and he was all in.
It took a couple of weeks, but Jiro-san sent over his final design. It was bold. A red background with a fierce black silhouette. He went on to explain the many different references he included in his small but impactful piece of art. First, his overall inspiration came from samurai movie posters from the 1950s-1970s. He specifically mentioned posters for films made by Akira Kurosawa, who is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Sanjuro, among many, many more).
For the character himself, he blended two of his favorite samurai warriors. The most eye-catching element on the design for most is likely that wild-looking helmet. For folks who know their samurai history, yep, you guessed it, that’s Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s iconic helmet. Known as the man who unified Japan, he came from a simple peasant background and eventually became the de facto leader of Japan and acquired the prestigious positions of Chancellor of the Realm and Imperial Regent by the mid-1580s. Jiro-san has a particular fondness for Toyotomi, with a replica helmet of his located in his tattoo studio, which he showed me when I visited (bottom right of the image above).
The other samurai inspiration, none other than Miyamoto Musashi. He was not officially a samurai as he never held his own lands or served a lord as a formal samurai, but as a duelist, none can compare to Musashi. Arguably the best swordsman to ever walk the face of the earth. Undefeated across at least 60 duels, he founded multiple schools of swordsmanship and, later in life, wrote The Book of Five Rings, which is still read today for insight into his tactics and philosophy.
The visual element that represents Musashi is the iconic dual swords he is wielding, as he was the first to invent this method of swordsmanship.
In 1612 he fought his most famous duel, which was against Sasaki Kojiro, known as “The Demon of the Western Provinces” and considered the greatest swordsman of the time. Musashi aggravated his opponent by intentionally arriving at the tiny island of Funajima, the mutually agreed-upon battleground… nearly three hours late. In the course of a fierce but brief duel, he struck his katana-wielding enemy dead using nothing but a wooden sword he’d carved from an oar on his way to the island.
This part still gives me chills. Every component of the GRXC2 Samurai was in place, but we were missing the final critical element… who would physically bring this artwork to life? And how would they do it? It had to be a method that paired with the concept.
At first I thought, let’s find a craftsman in Japan who would brand the design into a leather patch. My imagination ran wild with the visual imagery. The iron brand sitting in glowing hot coals, the flames and smoke rising when depressed into the leather, I could smell it. But I took a step back. This was all just romanticized in my mind. It had nothing to do with samurai.
Over the coming days, something drew me to the samurai armor, the craftmanship, the tradition.
I began searching and discovered several options: some were movie prop designers, most were generic Halloween costume companies, and a few were actual makers. And then there he was… Tatsuhito Imamura-san of Kyoto Armor, located in Kyoto, Japan.
Tatsuhito-san is recognized by the government of Japan, officially certified by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a Traditional Artisan. His craft has been passed down from generation to generation, a lifelong dedication to doing things the old way. Let me put it in a way that puts some economic value on his works. If you’re interested in purchasing one of his miniature scaled-down (about 3 feet tall) full sets of samurai armor it will run you ¥2,000,000 (approximately $15,000 USD).
They’re all currently sold out on his website. He is considered the best living samurai armor maker in the world. And that was the problem. I knew his name. It’s like knowing Michael Jordan’s name when you’re at the local park and thinking he’d like to join your pickup squad. Just because you’re aware of them, does not mean you’ll get to call upon them.
A third Carryology community member to the rescue. This time, a dear friend, Daniel Yeoh, who resides in Japan. Daniel knew what I was up to, as I reached out to him for some help. Luckily, by pure chance, he had personally put together a small group buy in our Carryology Classified community for some samurai armor amulets made by Kyoto Armor. I honestly didn’t expect much to come of my request. Yet, he came back a few days later with news that struck me like a thousand bolts of lightning. To my bewilderment, Daniel told me we had a video meeting scheduled with Tatsuhito-san the following week. Jaw, meet floor. Floor, meet jaw.
I pinched myself to make sure this is real. On my screen, Daniel (acting as translator), myself, and Tatsuhito-san. He’s wearing a faded indigo kimono, seated in his Kyoto Armor workshop, 7,000 miles away from my Carryology home office desk in Austin, Texas. Soft-spoken and incredibly friendly. He bows sincerely to his laptop camera, a respectful greeting. I describe the project to him via Daniel and express my extreme honor to simply be speaking with him, with the possibility of working together. He replies, delayed as Daniel repeats to me in English. Tatsuhito-san says that he deeply appreciates my interest in his work and thanks me for helping bring his dying art into the eyes and hands of a new group of people, located around the world, who will now get to own a piece of his craftsmanship.
Pitching the specifics of the size constraints, Velcro-backing, and deadlines, I think that there’s no way this will work. He goes on to explain how he will make them by hand, using 2”x3” raw iron plates and then coat them with an epoxy-like coating which that is hand-harvested from the sap of the Japanese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum). If this sounds somewhat familiar, this is the traditional urushi-e method. Urushi-e (or Japanese lacquerware) offers a finish that is very durable and resistant to water, acids, and heat. While it might be primitive, this genius process was centuries ahead of its time, as there is some deep science behind it. The tree sap actually has a chemical reaction with the iron, permanently bonding to it and making the iron stronger. This artform is incredibly difficult and requires many slow meticulus steps to perfect. But the end result? Vibrant reds that tricks your eye into thinking you're holding a digitally Photoshopped image in your hand. And an infinitely rich and deep black that goes on forever.
Tatsuhito-san goes on to explain this is the exact method by which samurai armor has been made for centuries. And funny, our 2”x3” patch sizing is even the approximate size of a single scale of armor, which would be overlapping other small armor scales, attached together via braided silk rope. Essentially, it would be the same as a piece of samurai armor.
It only took one round of samples. They were perfect. Handmade samurai armor morale patches, made by the world’s best samurai armor maker, Tatsuhito Imamura-san of Kyoto Armor.
Note: While this traditional handmade in Kyoto armor scale has extremely high strength properties, it has a highly hand-polished gloss surface that will show scuffs and marks if rubbed up against hard/textured surfaces.
Safely store it away or put it on display behind glass to keep it in perfectly mint condition. Or let it develop a battle-worn patina from your worldy adventures. The choice is yours.