You can read every book about Irezumi and even get a bodysuit of your own, but the only thing that will give you a true understanding the art form is seeing ukiyo-e next to Japanese tattoos. Nothing illustrates the link shared by these kindred mediums quite like looking at a back-piece by Horiyoshi III hung alongside an original print by legendary artist Kuniyoshi. When confronted by images of the Edo period’s “floating world” and 21st-century body art, one can’t help but appreciate their shared lineage. One of the only places you can experience this eye-opening comparison is NYC’s Ronin Gallery, which owns one of the largest collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world.
The Ronin Gallery has been family owned and operated since it was founded in 1975. Over the last 40 years, it has become the premier destination for ukiyo-e collectors. “The idea behind the gallery was started by my grandfather, who was a merchant seaman in the south China seas on old steamships. He was a radio officer, and one of the things he brought back with him from Japan was woodblock prints,” says David Libertson, the president of the gallery. “He didn’t have a large collection, but it was enough to inspire my father. He and my mother started traveling the world collecting rare and unique works of woodblock art and eventually decided to transform their avocation into an evocation by opening our doors to share the art with the public.”
In 2015, the Ronin Gallery hosted a show about the history of Japanese tattooing and the state of the art form in the new millennium. The exhibit was titled Taboo: Ukiyo-e and the Japanese Tattoo and featured work by print masters such as Kunichika, Kunisada, and Yoshitoshi, art by Horiyoshi III, and Masato Sudo’s photographs of individuals with Irezumi. Though the exhibit’s been over for quite some time now, the gallery still possesses many of the pieces, which are open to by the public upon request.
All of the artwork that the Ronin Gallery showcases is masterful, but for tattoo enthusiasts, the works by Horiyoshi III are by far the most compelling. They’re collection of his work includes rough sketches — which reveal his creative process — mind-blowing bodysuit designs, and elegant paintings on silk scrolls. They even own a few illustrations of namakubi (severed heads) rendered in the famous tattooist’s own blood.
Collectively, these pieces paint a strikingly clear picture of Irezumi’s evolution. Through them, viewers can see how the merchant class of the Edo period developed a style of art that represented their lives. The compositions show the art form’s growth in popularity throughout the 17th-19th centuries, when literary heroes and actors in Noh theater started sporting tattoos. These works also demonstrate the ways Irezumi preserves the values of woodblock printmaking in the age of mechanical reproduction. Most importantly, however, the gallery’s holdings are a testament to the fact that traditional Japanese tattooing has persevered through hundreds of years of stigmatization.
To see more of the Ronin Gallery’s vast collection of ukiyo-e and contemporary East Asian art, peruse their website. If you want to learn more about the connection between ukiyo-e and modern Japanese tattooing, the gallery is located at 425 Madison Ave and open from 11am-6pm Monday through Saturday and from 11am-4pm on Saturday. They currently are showing an excellent collection of Shiko Munakata’s expressive woodblock prints, so if you’re in the city, drop by to take a look, and maybe even purchase a Horiyoshi III original while you’re at it.