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Japanese Tattoo Art

Japanese tattoo art has several names - irezumi or horimono in the Japanese language. Irezumi is the word for the traditional visible tattoo that covers large parts of the body like the back. Japanese tattoo art has a very long history.

Since the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on the Japanese culture, tattoo art has a negative connotation for the majority of the Japanese people. In the eyes of an average Japanese a tattoo is considered a mark of a yakuza - a member of the Japanese mafia - or a macho symbol of members of the lower classes.

Early History of Tattoo Art

Archaeologists believe that the early settlers of Japan, the Ainu people, used facial tattoos. Chinese documents report about the Wa people - the Chinese name for their Japanese neighbors - and their habits of diving into water for fish and shells and decorating the whole body with tattoos. These reports are about 1700 years old.

For the higher developed Chinese culture, tattooing was a barbaric act. When Buddhism was brought from China to Japan and with it a strong influence of the Chinese culture, tattooing got negative connotations. Criminals were marked with tattoos to punish and identify them in society.

Tattoos in the Edo Period

During the Edo period - 1603-1868 - Japanese tattoo art became a part of ukiyo-e - the floating world culture. Prostitutes - yujos - of the pleasure quarters used tattoos to increase their attractiveness for customers. Body tattoos were used by laborers and firemen.

From 1720 on, the tattooing of criminals became an official punishment and replaced the amputation of the nose and the ears. The criminal received a ring tattoo around the arm for each offense or a character tattoo on his forehead. Tattooing criminals was continued until 1870, when it was abolished by the new Meiji government of the Japanese Emperor.

This visible punishment created a new class of outcasts that had no place in society and nowhere to go. Many of these outlaws were ronin - masterless samurai warriors. They had no alternatives than organizing in gangs. These men formed the roots of yakuza - the organized criminals in Japan in the twentieth century.

Tattoo Prints

In 1827 the ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi published the first 6 designs of the 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. The Suikoden were something like ancient Robin Hoods - honorable bandits. The story is based on a classic Chinese novel - Shui-Hi-Chuan, that dates from the 13th and 14th century. The novel was first translated into Japanese in 1757 by Okajima Kanzanion. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century the story was published with illustrations by Katsushika Hokusai. The novel of the 108 honorable bandits was very popular in Japan and caused a kind of Suikoden craze among Japanese townspeople.

Kuniyoshi's Suikoden ukiyo-e designs show the heroes in colorful, full body tattoos. Japanese tattoo prints and tattoo art in general then became stylish. Tattoos were considered iki - cool - but were restricted to the lower classes.

The richness and fantasy of the Japanese tattoo prints designs shown by Kuniyoshi are used by some tattoo artists up to this time.

The Meiji Restoration until Postwar Japan

In its strive to adopt Western civilizations, the Imperial Meiji government banned tattooing as something considered a barbaric relict of the past. The funny thing was that the Japanese irezumi artists now got new clients - the sailors from the foreign ships anchoring in Japanese harbors. Thus Japanese tattoo art was spread to the West.

During the first half of the twentieth century, horimono remained a forbidden art form until 1948, when the prohibition was officially lifted. Some say that this step had become necessary to legalize the demand by soldiers of the American occupation forces for horimono and irezumi.

Tattoo Art in Modern Japan

Although some younger people may consider tattooing as trendy, the majority of the Japanese population still considers it as something connected to the underworld of mafia gangsters or a bad low class habit at the best. Younger people who consider tattoos as iki - a minority among Japanese youth - tend to use partial tattoos in Western style on their upper arms, where it is not directly visible.


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Tattoo Print by Kunichika

108 Heroes of the Suikoden by Kuniyoshi

Tattoo print by Hirosada Utagawa

Tattoo print by Tadamasa Ueno

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