Eiko Brown: Portraits on the page and on the skin


DALTON -- It's midway through a bright Monday. The sun is giving us a preview of the summer to come, and a slow gentle breeze floats refreshingly. On a day like this, it is easy to see why someone would return to build a home and raise a family in Dalton, warmed by the feel of a safe and close knit community.

Red-Karpet Tattoo on Depot Street holds the pleasant aroma of candles. The walls are decorated with portraits inside ornate bronze and antique gold frames. Burgundy velvet rope barriers section off the tattooing area. The same burgundy velvet, outlined by intricate bronze back frame, covers an antique settee where Eiko Brown sits during the interview.

Brian and Eiko Brown moved to Dalton in 2012. Brian is a native of Dalton, but Eiko comes from a small town in Japan called Tsu, in the Mie prefecture, close to Kyoto and Osaka. Eiko's family was open-minded, she said, and appreciated the benefits of travel and adventure. Eiko's father was a member of a group who did volunteer work in countries worldwide. Eiko was drawn to the openness, the freedom and the artistry in the U.S.

"I loved the language and the music and knew that was where I wanted to go," she reflected.

At 15, she came to America for the first time as an exchange student in Chicago. She immersed herself fully in learning English. When she came as an exchange student, she remembers filling out the form and checking off not wanting to be in a large city where she would run the risk of falling into a specific community.

"I chose a place with very few Asian people," she said. "I wanted to make it possible for me to learn the language and practice only English. I find it's the best way to learn a language: to be completely immersed in the culture."

When she returned to Japan to finish high school, she felt differences between the U.S. and Japan.

"In Japan they teach you to work in groups, and there is less of a focus on individual performance. If you fell behind, there was an entire group to support you," she said.

Eiko has always been artistic, but when she came to the University in San Francisco for business management she began more and more to practice drawing the world around her. There she met her husband, Brian, who inspired and encouraged her to practice the photorealistic style she'd been using and to consider portraiture.

When she and Brian moved to Dalton, they opened their tattoo parlor. He is the tattoo artist. She draws portraits at the shop.

She spends hours focusing on all of the miniature details, down to each hair on the customer's head. She said a lot of the work she does with portraits is memorial, so accuracy is the highest priority for her.

She also designs tattoos.

Eiko's own tattoos are exquisitely detailed. While her family is open-minded and expressive, Eiko said there was not much acceptance of tattoos in Japan.

"There are still places out there where you cannot use the public pool if you are tattooed," she said.

In traditional "old-school" Japan tattoos were very large and some were associated with the Yakuza (originally peddlars, traders and gamblers, now criminal organizations).

But that has changed.

Now more people have tattoos, she said, and they hold deep meanings and in many ways reflect the person who wears them. A lot of detail and precision goes into custom tattoo work, she said.

"In Japan, each tattoo covers the full body and tells a folk story," Brian said. "The tattoos are not selected by the client beforehand but determined by the artist after long conversations."

Symbols carry intricate meanings in Japanese language and writing, Eiko explained: The pictogram for one word may hold a story.

"In Japanese, when we write the Kanji for the word ‘person,' we know it is a simplified version of a much more traditional piece of art," she said. "The traditional symbol for person resembles a man standing, being held up by another man, and the reasoning behind that is, you can't have just one person. We, as people, hold each other up. So every time we write this word, this is what it means."

Though Brian was raised in Dalton, both Brian and Eiko experienced culture shock returning to the Berkshires after time in such a diverse place as San Francisco. Eiko said the Asian community in the Berkshires often feels comparatively disparate and small. It is strange not to have easy access to certain shops she might see in Chinatown in a larger city, such as Asian clothing stores, or hair stores, or Ramen bars. The numbers are growing, but the group tends to stay in its individual subgroups (Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.), and she sees less unity here among them than she found in the city.

Reflecting on her experience, Eiko said, "When I first arrived, I was pretty sure people knew me mostly as ‘Brian's Asian Wife', but as time went on, people got to know me through Red-Karpet and through my art. The Dalton community is very supportive, but I would love to see more diversity."

In the future, Brian and Eiko hope to start a family, and they hope to raise their kids in an environment that embraces many languages and diversity. They look forward to spending more time in the Berkshires, celebrating the various cultures that exist around them.


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