Recently I received a book in the mail that reaffirmed my faith in blogging – namely that if I continued to blog I would occasionally receive free stuff. What do you say when someone emails you and asks if you would like to review their tattoo book? If you are me you say yes! and secretly hope they send a check as well. But like that birthday card from my Grandma that always had extra love – but no money – this book is so great it doesn’t need to come with cash to be appreciated.
The book in question is, Japanese Tattoos – History, Culture, Design by Brian Ashcraft with Hori Benny. There are many books about Japanese tattoos – ( I have recommended a few in my short list of great tattoo books) – but this one is different. In Ashcraft’s and Hori Benny’s book we are not only treated to lush photos of gorgeous Japanese tattoos that make me wish I was born with extra limbs so I could get more ink, but also a significant amount of information about the symbology and images used in traditional Japanese tattoos.
The book is broken down into clearly defined chapters that make it easy to get answers quickly. Want to know the difference between a Chinese dragon and a Japanese one? Head to Creatures Living and Mythical under Dragons (spoiler alert – Japanese dragons are skinnier and they only have three claws to the Chinese dragons four or five). I don’t know how big of a nerd you are but I am a massive one (just take a look at my Instagram) and being able to geek out on the proper representation of a Japanese dragon is very cool in my book.
Not into dragons? What about nature tattoos or Kanjis? I don’t think you should be allowed to get a Kanji tattoo unless you have read Mr. Ashcraft’s and Hori Benny’s deeply informative chapter on the subject. Not only does they give us fascinating background and historical references (something you will find in every chapter) but carefully explain the five steps needed to get a good Kanji tattoo (and not be the next tattoo fail on one of these sites). Seriously. If you want a Kanji tattoo buy this book.
Interspersed between all this information are features on various tattoo artists and their personal stories – and not just the well-known legends. Artists like Stace Forand – a young Canadian no less – who at 19 had his life changed by Kuniyoshi’s 108 Heroes of the Suikoden and began a lifelong commitment to learning everything he could about irezumi (tattoo) culture in Japan. Other artists include Horimasa whose traditional style features vividly detailed animals and Horiyoshi III – Japan’s most famous tattooist.
I especially like the chapter on Gods and Guardians, Heroes and Demons. With this book in hand I can finally decode some of the complex, beautiful, and frequently terrifying imagery seen in many traditional Japanese tattoos. Big red baby clinging to a giant Koi? That’s Kintaro the Golden Boy – Japan’s version of Hercules. How about the bad-ass cranky looking Buddha with a scowl and a sword? Say hello to Fudo Myoo AKA “Immovable Wisdom King” – and according to Ashcraft and Hori Benny, “…one of Buddhism’s fiercest defenders “. Of course my personal favorite is Jigoku Dayu – the Courtesan of Hell – literally “Hell Courtesan” – new twitter account anyone? And don’t even get me started on the wicked delights of the Fearsome Demons section – ogres, severed heads, vengeful spirits – so cool.
Every time I flip through this richly detailed book I find another tattoo image to read about, another tradition or legacy to learn about. I know the world of Japanese tattooing could fill multiple volumes – and indeed it does – but I don’t think your collection would be complete without this gem. And in all seriousness – if you are considering getting a Japanese style tattoo do yourself a huge favor and read this book first. It will give you a solid understanding of the motifs and what they mean and how they work with other symbols. It will also undoubtedly give you a million ideas, and hopefully instill in you an appreciation for not only the beauty of this style but the history and importance as well.