I can only assume that the folks over at Inked Shop haven’t managed to read ALL my posts. Who would? Certainly not my husband (don’t get me started)…but I was flattered, touched (and a little confused) that they would want to borrow my blog space to share the following article they wrote about Japanese Tattoos.
It’s a great article – very informative and completely devoid of cuss words and improper punctuation so you can tell I didn’t write it. When your done check out their cool swag. Here is my favorite. (and no I wasn’t paid or compensated in any way for this share. Which sorta sucks actually. So maybe you guys can chip in and buy me that shirt 🙂
The Original Outsider Art: A Brief History of Tattoos in Japan
A brilliantly-hued koi fish “swimming” upstream on a bicep. An elaborate backpiece featuring a warrior and his katana blade. A lovely geisha clutching a fan in her graceful hand. There is no shortage of iconic imagery associated with Japanese tattoos.
Although they have ancient roots, Japanese tattoos are among some of the most intricate and popular styles of tattoos today. Historically, they were used as both beautiful ornamentation – and as marks for criminals to separate them from society.
The origins of tattoos in Japan date back to the 5th century B.C. Small clay statues from the 5th century B.C. bear painted faces that resemble tattoos. These statues were buried with the dead and the tattoos on their faces are believed to have had spiritual significance that would help to guide the dead through the underworld.
Writings from the 297 A.D. referenced tattoos in Japan, stating that many Japanese men of all ages were inked with designs on their faces and bodies. Although this form of ornamentation was a major part of tattoo history in Japan, this cultural practice fell out of favor when the Japanese began adopting some of the cultural norms of the Chinese, who viewed tattoos as the mark of social undesirables and criminals.
Between the 7th century and the 18th century, tattoos were doled out as a form of punishment for criminals. Specific tattoos on corresponding parts of the body were used to silently tell others what crime the wearer had committed. These tattooed individuals were barred from polite society and often shunned by their families.
Tattoos in Japan: 17th Century to the Present
During the 17th century, criminal outsiders began to cover the tattoos given to them as punishment with bigger, more colorful and decorative tattoos, transforming punishment into art. This trend toward more elaborate tattoos among criminals later gave way to the full bodysuits of ink worn by the Yakuza, a network of Japanese organized crime families scattered throughout the island nation.
Although tattoos were still illegal, this underground art became more popular in the 18th century thanks to Chinese novel, Suikoden (or “Water Margin”), which featured a plethora of protagonists with an abundance of ink. Despite this surge in popularity, tattoos remained illegal in Japan from the 1860s until 1948, shortly after WWII.
By the latter part of the 19th century, laws about tattoos had relaxed somewhat. Japanese tattoo artists came out from the underground and were allowed to tattoo foreigners – but not their fellow Japanese. In fact, many Westerners – including such prominent figures as the Tsar of Russia – held a fascination for Japanese tattoos.
Once again, during WWII, tattooing was outlawed, particularly due to the army refusing to draft anyone with a tattoo since they felt they may pose a disciplinary problem. As a result, the Japanese government issued a ban on tattoo artists and tattoos. Ironically, Westerners were responsible for the relaxation of Japanese anti-tattoo laws. Following WWII, during the American occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur removed the ban – mostly because he knew how many American soldiers were enamored with Japanese tattoos.
Since 1948, tattoos in Japan have been legalized, although some old cultural taboos are hard to shake. While Japanese tattoos are viewed as works of art and beauty in the West, in their homeland, ink is still met with prejudice. In 2012, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka declared a ban on tattoos for all government employees in his jurisdiction. He declared that all government employees had to disclose their tattoos and either choose to remove them or seek employment elsewhere.
Art is not always separate from the artist. Many modern Japanese tattoo artists have helped to keep the traditions of the past alive and well in the present – both in Japan and abroad. As many lawyers earn the title of “esquire,” the name “Hori” is an earned mark of distinction meaning “tattoo master” in Japanese.
Many great Japanese tattoo artists take on a new name that they use for their work as a tattoo artist and incorporate the “hori” prefix into their professional tattoo name. (Think of this concept as how a musician or actor takes a stage name, but with a more traditional twist.)
Japanese tattoo artist Horihide is viewed as the man who brought the art of traditional Japanese tattooing to the West following World War II. While Horihide was an apprentice, he “tattooed” his arms and legs with only needles. He didn’t use ink in his self-tattoos so that he could practice over and over again on a blank canvas. Today, he is keeping the tradition alive in the East. Now in his 80s, Horihide is teaching a new generation about Japanese tattoos and the art of tebori, or “hand tattooing.”
Horiyoshi III was born as Yoshihito Nakano and was a member of the Yakuza before he became an apprentice to the original Horiyoshi (Shodai Horiyoshi). Nakano was actually tattooed by Horiyoshi’s son, Horiyoshi II, before he was taken on as the elder’s apprentice.
One of the greatest living masters of Japanese tattoos – specifically, Irezumi full bodysuits of tattoos – Horiyoshi III founded the Tattoo Museum in Yokohama in 2000.
His own son, Souryou Kazuyoshi Nakano, will assume the mantle of Horiyoshi IV once he completes his apprenticeship under his father. In continuing the tradition of welcoming non-family members to the tattoo fold, Horiyoshi III also has another apprentice besides his son, Alex Kofuu Reinke of Germany who has been dubbed Horikitsune by his master.
Horitaka, owner of State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose, CA, was born in Japan but moved to the U.S. at a young age. He was very much immersed in Japanese culture throughout his childhood and had a fondness for tattoos. Horitaka was executing tattoos even before he was accepted as an apprentice by Horiyoshi II.
Horitaka has written several books on the art of tattooing and preserving ancient traditions for the modern age. Interested in learning more about the art and imagery of Japanese tattoos? Check out a companion piece on InkedShop that sheds some light on the symbolism behind the art form’s traditional visuals.