Skin Deep

The Art of Japanese Tattoos

Oniwakamaru and the Giant Carp, approx. 1830–1835, by Totoya Hokkei (Japanese, 1780 1850). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Oniwakamaru and the Giant Carp, approx. 1830–1835, by Totoya Hokkei (Japanese, 1780 1850). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.
An art form all its own, Japanese tattoos have both been influenced by the history of art, and shaped it.

An art form all its own, Japanese tattoos have both been influenced by the history of art, and shaped it.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Onitsutaya Azaminoand Gontaro, a Man of the World, from the series True Feelings Compared: The Founts of Love, approx. 1798–1799, by Kitagawa Utamaro I (early 1750s–1806). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

The exhibition Tattoos in Japanese Prints is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through August 28th, 2019.

Whether for fashion, religious, or social reasons, tattoos have been part of human history for thousands of years. In East Asia, the earliest evidence of tattoos was found on haniwa, a type of Japanese clay figurines that were placed on top of funeral mounds or outside tomb areas for protective purposes. The tattooed faces of the haniwa showed that altering one’s appearance by inserting pigments into the skin was a commonly accepted practice between the third and sixth century CE. Yet, across the centuries, Japanese society fluctuated between accepting tattoos, banning the practice, and using certain symbols as a way to brand and identify criminals. The history of Japanese tattoos is not only connected to Japanese art in various forms (theatre, woodblocks, and literature) but also to the socio-political changes that have occurred in Japan through the centuries.

The Japanese words for tattoo are irezumi, literally inserting ink, and horimono, to puncture an object. According to the scholar Willem R. van Gulik, irezumi and horimoto used to differ in meaning. The former used to describe the practice of tattooing criminals as a form of punishment (reported to be practiced as early as the fifth century CE by the Nihon shoki, The Chronicles of Japan), while the latter was used for those who freely decided to get inked. Traditionally, tattoos were made by hand (tebori) by piercing the skin with metal needles inserted into wooden handles. It was a time-consuming and painful process that could be performed only by a horishi, a tattoo artist. To become a horishi, one had to serve a period of apprenticeship, usually several years, with a master.

Gakkin

A traditional Japanese full-body tattoo, inked by Gakkin

During the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), the designs that were used by Japanese tattoo artists were inspired by traditional woodblock prints, the ukiyo-e, literally pictures from the floating world. These prints flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries and the subjects depicted ranged from warriors, beautiful women, and kabuki actors, to natural elements such as flowers and animals, and folk stories. The images were initially sketched by the artist, carved into a woodblock, inked, and then printed on paper. Characteristic of the ukiyo-e were the bold and flat colors, aerial perspective, and clear, stark outlines. The ukiyo-e not only influenced Western art by contributing to the birth of Japonism but also the Japanese tattoo culture that took inspiration from the prints’ designs and themes. Woodblock and tattoo artists began to draw inspiration from each other. While tattoos were exploiting the designs and colors of the woodblock prints, ukiyo-e artists began to portray tattooed artists, courtesans, and actors among their subjects. According to Taki Kitamura, a tattoo artist and owner of State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose, California, “the popular designs of today are the popular designs of the Edo period. I would tie this to the universal need for humans to decorate themselves evidenced in the earliest mummified remains and cave paintings as well as the lasting appeal of certain images and ideas over centuries. Some things just never go out of style.”

Despite frequent tattoo-bans enforced by the government, in the 19th-century tattoos became a fashion statement for the Japanese working class. Tattoos were a way to show a person’s commitment to a loved one by inking their name on the skin, to atone for past mistakes, or to ask the gods for good blessings or forgiveness. Firefighters, for example, would ask for protection from the dangers of their jobs by covering their bodies with water symbols such as dragons, snakes, and carps. The 1910’s novel The Tattooist by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô remarked that “visitors to the pleasure quarters of Edo preferred to hire palanquin bearers who were splendidly tattooed; […] Among those so adorned were not only gamblers, firemen, and the like, but members of the merchant class and even samurai.”

Du Xing, the Devil Faced, from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Du Xing, the Devil Faced, from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin, 1843–1847, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Kabuki Actor
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kabuki Actor, approx. 1920s. Japan. Collotype; ink on card stock.

Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as Mamushi no Jirokichi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as Mamushi no Jirokichi, from the series Photographic Mirror of Actors, 1870, by Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833–1904). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Bando Hikosaburo V for Pampas Grass
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Bando Hikosaburo V for Pampas Grass, from the series Matches for Six Selected Flowers, 1863, by Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III; 1786–1864). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Iwai Kumesaburo III as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Iwai Kumesaburo III as Benten Kozo Kikunosukefrom the series Toyokuni's Caricature Pictures, 1860, by Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III; 1786–1864). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

No. 6, Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as Oniazami Seikichi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

No. 6, Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as Oniazami Seikichi, from the series Flowers of Tokyo: Kunichika's Caricatures, 1872, by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Otani Tomoemon V as Danshichi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Otani Tomoemon V as Danshichi, from an untitled series of actor portraits, 1869, by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Takemon no Toramatsu
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Takemon no Toramatsu, 1863, by Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III; 1786–1864). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as Benkei Daemon
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as Benkei Daemon, from the series Legends of the Dragon Sword and the Thunderbolt of Absolute Truth, 1863, by Utagawa Kunisada II (Toyokuni III; 1823–1880). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actors Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Asahina Tobei (R), Nakamura  Shikan IV as Washi no Chokichi (C), and Sawamura Tossho II as Yume no Ichibei (L)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actors Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Asahina Tobei (R), Nakamura Shikan IV as Washi no Chokichi (C), and Sawamura Tossho II as Yume no Ichibei (L), 1868, by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Unity of Three Happinesses: Favorite Actors before a White Waterfall: Actors Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Takaramusubi no Gon (R), Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana Hishizo (C), and Nakamura Shikan IV as Sanba Jafuku (L)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Unity of Three Happinesses: Favorite Actors before a White Waterfall: Actors Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Takaramusubi no Gon (R), Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana Hishizo (C), and Nakamura Shikan IV as Sanba Jafuku (L), 1863, by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as the Wrestler Tomigoro, from the series A Modern Water Margin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as the Wrestler Tomigoro, from the series A Modern Water Margin, 1861, by Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III; 1786–1864). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

A Water Margin of Beautiful and Brave Women
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Water Margin of Beautiful and Brave Women: Actors Bando Hikosaburo V, Onoe Kikugoro V, Sawamura Tossho II (R), Otani Tomoemon V, Sawamura Tanosuke III, Iwai Shijaku II, Nakamura Shikan IV (C), Kawarazaki Gonnosuke VII, Bando Mitsugoro VI, and Ichikawa Kuzo III (L), 1869, by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Konjin Chogoro, from the series A Water Margin of Beauty and Bravery
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Konjin Chogoro, from the series A Water Margin of Beauty and Bravery, 1866, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper.

Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned, from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Water Margin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned, from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Water Margin, 1853, by Totoya Hokkei (Japanese, 1780–1850). Woodblock print; ink and color on paper.

Courier with Tattoo
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Courier with Tattoo, approx. 1880s-1910s. Japan. Photograph with hand coloring.

While in the West tattoos were, and still are, usually single pieces on different sections of the skin, the traditional Japanese style was a single tattoo that occupied most of a person’s body. This ink bodysuit became popular after the Edo period and the most common pattern, the munewari, resembled an unbuttoned shirt. The munewari covered the upper body aside from a strip that went from the collar line down to the navel. This part was left blank in order to avoid the tattoo being seen while wearing a kimono. The size of these kinds of tattoos was part of the commitment that both the tattooer and the tattooist had to show in order to achieve a unique, consistent result. To this day, for some traditional Japanese tattoo artists, the Western practice of having a single tattoo is difficult to understand. In a 2009 interview with Dr. Mieko Yamada, Horimitsu, an Osaka-based traditional tattooer noted that Western-style small tattoos were called tengo “in Osaka dialect, meaning ‘mischief,’ ‘a stain,’ […] Adults would regard this act as youthful inexperience.”

Gakkin

A traditional Japanese full-body tattoo, inked by Gakkin

Besides actors, firemen, and samurai, another group in Japan famous for its love for tattoos was the yakuza. This crime organization, active since the 17th century, is mostly known in the West for its secrecy, the practice of yubitsume (cutting off one’s finger as penance), extreme wealth, and tattoos. In the yakuza, tattoos are part of the ways in which a member can show his wealth, loyalty and commitment to the group, and his courage. For yakuza members, tattoos were deeply personal and the relationship with the tattooer crucially important. Some tattoo artists, such as Horiyoshi III, an irezumi artist in Yokohama, are known to have inked many yakuza members. In 2017, VICE asked Horiyoshi why the yakuza liked to be inked by him, and he replied: “Yakuza always want the best […] they want to look good, so they come here.”

The art of Japanese tattoos has been appreciated worldwide for many centuries. For instance, in 1881 during a visit to Japan, George V King of the British Empire had a Japanese dragon tattooed on his arm. Nowadays, bodies decorated with Japanese-inspired or traditional themes are a common sight in any city. When asked whether Japanese tattoos in the West are a form of cultural appropriation, Kitamura strongly believes that: “it all comes down to respect. Japanese tattooers have always tattooed non-Japanese [...]. I would hope that those who acquire and apply Japanese tattoos do so in a respectful manner and pay attention to what these images symbolize. [...] when tattooed with respect, I think Japanese tattooing is a wonderful way to share and appreciate Japanese culture.” Likewise, Horitomo, another artist at State of Grace Tattoo, skilled in tebori and famous for his cat-themed tattoos, thinks that “people all over the world getting and doing Japanese style tattoos is a great thing. It keeps the art alive and evolving.”

Among those who have been dedicating their talents to the art of tattoos is Gakkin, a freehand tattooer who moved from Kyoto to Amsterdam. When asked to describe his work, he said: “I use freehand skills, work[ing] directly on the body, conforming to and molding its curves and lines. […] My style is 21st-century, not following so many old boring rules.” His intricate and mesmerizing tattoos are not only inspired by traditional Japanese paintings and architecture, but also by modern art, such as manga. He is keen to avoid fashion trends and fiercely protects the originality and uniqueness of his work. “Some people use the word ‘inspired’ when [they] almost copy somebody's style. I really don't like and don’t understand why people spend their time [doing] it. […] But I think this is not only [in the] tattoo world but also everywhere.” Gakkin works almost exclusively with black ink and this allows him to create tattoos that retain a classical elegance while being contemporary and unique. The result is that each body transforms and is transformed by his art. Yet, his goal is not to “share Japanese tattoo culture to the world,” he says,“Tattooing is just a tool to enjoy my life and to express [myself].”

The strive for self-expression of both a tattooist and a tattoo artist is arguably what has made the world of tattoos fascinating for so many centuries. Whether to atone through a painful experience, to pledge loyalty to a lover or a criminal organization, whether visible or hidden, tattoos traveled the world. People, their hopes, memories, and cultures have been read, understood, and judged through the marks left by ink. For all these reasons, we can truly say that the history of our ever-changing world is deep in our skins.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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