Date Published

Written / Edited By

Nikhil Shah


Naira Mattia


Jun Matsui is a legend in the world of tattooing with a career spanning two decades between Tokyo & São Paulo. As a rising star in the Tokyo scene, Jun founded his own apparel brand THE LIFEUNDERZEN in 1997 and has since collaborated with the likes of Nike and Squaresoft. While his style can be seen echoed in streetwear throughout the mid-aughts, it can never be duplicated.

In his tenure he’s navigated tattooing’s rise to ubiquity while tackling obstacles unique to his practice, including fatigue and burn out. Nevertheless, he comes off open and in-tune when divulging the obstacles that have shaped his perspective, and very much seeks harmony between his personal life and work. Whether recalling moments that provided a shoe-in, or chance opportunities that turned into a way out, Jun stays attuned to the ebb and flow of his own cycles.

Do You Speak Japanese?

Like a kid, like a little kid.

Do You Ever Think Of Going Back To Japan, Or In The Least Leaving São Paulo?

Both situations sound equally absurd. To live in a city like São Paulo by choice, or anywhere in Japan is just too much. I think Polynesia is the only place I would leave Sao Paulo for. It’s not European, it’s not American, it’s not Asian. In my fantasy that’s the next place where I would live.

What Brought You To São Paulo In The First Place?

I only came here by chance. In 2007, while I was living in Japan, I started having a personal crisis. So I left everything; my friends, my shop and the lifestyle I had created.

It all started when I took on a financier for my clothing line. He helped me launch the first collection and ended up playing a type of godfather type role in my life. It was a bit weird and the relationship turned into a situation where I couldn’t say no to him even if I didn’t believe in what he was telling me. I would often think in the back of my head “I’ll listen only because you’re letting me set up my business.”

When I look back, I'm kinda amazed that it actually lasted that fucking long. At the end, I couldn't even wear my own stuff. I went through a real identity crisis, reflecting on everything. I was 36, and I thought if I can stop this now, then I might have a chance to re-organize myself and start a new life.

Nothing changes. There's an Iranian saying, “The fact that you speak the same language doesn't mean you come from the same country.”

How Did You Eventually Get Out?

Well, the guy from Final Fantasy used to buy at the store. My manager convinced him to let me do a tattoo for one of the Final Fantasy characters. Next thing I know, my manager talked him into an order of 150,000 shirts with the same design. Then the cash came in, and I paid all our debts.

I then went to my partner, and I said, "I want out.” He, of course, was fucking pissed. Somehow each time he convinced me to stay, and It took me two years to actually quit and leave.

No one could understand why I’d want to move from Tokyo to São Paulo. I thought I’d only be here for about three years, reorganize my life and then make my next move. Then I got married, had two kids, and at that point of my life I felt like I was very clearly at the end of a cycle.

Anyways, there are interesting things happening in São Paulo, especially in the suburbs, so I don’t mind sticking around for now.

What Interesting Things Are You Talking About?

Compared to the more central São Paulo urban scene, the kids in the suburbs are way ahead.

They don’t really have the resources, but they’re making their own clothes, their own tattoos, their own music and this is pretty new in Brazil. It wasn’t like this before. It’s a vibrant movement that is making its way whether you like it or not.

But then there is the other side of it, the press agencies. These guys have all the money and yet they have no fucking clue. These agencies become this wall between the creatives and the clients, and they have ideas that aren’t based around actual experiences. It’s always, “Oh look here, let me show you what we are going to do with your brand and how we are going to make it great.” All I can think is, “who the fuck are you and what do you know about me? Have you ever been behind a counter in a store trying to sell a t-shirt?”

I Know Exactly How You Feel

It's really hard to talk about today’s culture. It’s gotten to this point where its too manipulated and its impossible to take anything seriously. Everything is a money game.

The other day I looked on Instagram and I saw this tattoo studio in London looking for a Media Strategist. Why the fuck does a tattoo studio need a Media Strategist? What is this guy going to do? He's going to do what the owner doesn't have time to do. But then what’s the difference between the creative and corporate world? What's the point of it?

That’s what ends up happening when you are running outside of the box. Then everyone wants to run with you. The problem is eventually everyone starts doing that same run and it’s no longer different. And that one thing that everyone wanted is only good for Facebook, for Instagram, and for making people think you live that unique lifestyle. That’s about it.

If everything is different, then nothing is different.

Exactly. you know, there was this artist named Nelson Leirner back in the early 60’s, and a reporter went to him and asked, "What would be your advice to the young people today?” He then looked very seriously into the camera and said, "Age quick, and grow up." That was his advice.

I'm not saying whether that’s valid or not, but he was 20 years old. How many people can think like that at that age? Especially somewhere that is so small like São Paulo.

São Paulo doesn’t seem that small.

São Paulo is small, I'm talking Tokyo small. People think Tokyo is bigger than it is but that’s only because there is so much in that tiny space. Once you know everybody and you see how everything happens, its just like any other city.

People here just don’t make interesting things when compared to Japan. When you see a company like Sony or Shiseido, they get crazy underground artists to make illustrations for an invisible part of a video game. In Sao Paulo, if you see a shampoo commercial on TV, you'll watch the most sad, non-creative, boring thing you can ever imagine.

It's not wrong. Actually, it’s right for what sells to people here. They know who they're talking to and that’s the problem. It’s the people that make these things boring. Especially for the wealthy. They know exactly who they’re talking to, and they have no desire to expand that. They don’t want to appeal to the outside world. Inside you have a high class and a higher class, and all they do is buy and sell to each other. Everybody buys from each other and the money and ideas circulate and inside this small privileged group.

So nothing changes?

Nothing changes. There's an Iranian saying, “The fact that you speak the same language doesn't mean you come from the same country.”

My expectations of São Paulo are very realistic. There are so many different types of people here from different cultures and yet we are still stuck in a different time. Brazil is a country of 200 million people that doesn't have his own car. Does that make any sense to you? Of course not. Then again we have the most respected, high-end aviation industry.

Lets more about your experiences in Japan. Did you experience any prejudice while you were there?

Of course. But honestly, that's not native to Japan. It’s everywhere.

I know people in Japan that have the intellect, the money, the lifestyle, all the makings of an asshole, and somehow they're not. You see people in São Paulo that act in such ugly ways to each other because they have wealth and arrogance. If I had to choose who's going to talk down to me, I might as well go to a guy I find superior.

There is also a lot of pressure in Japanese society and in order to be brilliant at something you have to be able to go crazy for it. That’s why you get so much brilliant art and design that comes out of Japan. You either make it or you burn out.

But Isn’t This What Gives Them A Strong Sense Of Culture?

Of course. When you come to a country like Brazil, we have the chance to do something new because we are new to these forms of media, but the problem is, we don’t. Unless perhaps you’re talking about the music, whether Popular Brazilian music or the era of Bossa Nova. When I think of Bossa Nova, that's one contribution that we, as Brazilians, made to our own culture and to the world.

Go listen to some music from the 60-70’s and it will make you want to know what kind of lifestyle created this, what made it all possible. Where our culture is at right now is a strange situation - one minute it’s futuristic and another and you’re 80 years behind. It gets a bit complicated.

You took some time off from tattoo work. Do you feel like you lost part of who you were?

Some people mess it up, make a mistake and give up. For me I think there's this process, and you already know in your head that when something is done, it’s done even though it might take more time to actually get out.

With tattoos I never felt that tattoos were supposed to be my main source of income, because of that reasoning. If it was going be my main source if income I would have to charge, four, five, ten times more in order to make it sustainable. That would be the only way, and its not that it’s impossible. I mean, I just haven't tried.

The reason why I like the idea of a clothing store is because, it's group work, collaboration of different people trying to do one thing. Tattooing is very solitary, which can be good, but I’m more of a social person, and I miss working with people.

It can be complicated, but I like to deal with people every day and find ways to have the best relationship. To be treated well, and to treat others well, as well. Haha.

Any Final Thoughts?

I remember talking to a friend about work back in Japan around 2012, and he said something that has stuck with me my entire life, “Okay here’s the situation: from 20 to 30 a man uses his body, from 30 to 40, he uses his head, from 40 to 50 he uses others, and then he uses his name.” That's the sequence. Looking back, this makes total sense.

Thank you Jun sharing your experiences and home with us. As you transition into the next portion of your life we know that your creativity and passion will continue to inspire the generations to come. We are excited to see what comes next for you and your endeavours.