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Legendary Artist Horiyoshi III Confronts Japan's Tattoo Stigma

Legendary Artist Horiyoshi III Confronts Japan's Tattoo Stigma

Stories3 min Read

Horiyoshi III believes that the stigma brought on tattoos by the Yakuza cannot overshadow Irezumi's vibrant history in Japan.

Horiyoshi III is not only a living legend in the world of traditional Japanese tattoos, he is also a visionary artist and thinker who has some provocative opinions about the stigmatized state of tattooing in his homeland. He argues that although oppressive social forces are attempting to devalue the cultural capital of tattoos in Japan, he's seen firsthand how the public reception of the art form is actually improving. 

A more recent photo of Horiyoshi III, handsome as ever. #bodysuit #destigmatization #Horiyoshi #Japanese #legendary #master #traditional

Though tattooing has existed in Japan since roughly 10,000 BCE, the traditional Japanese style — or, more succinctly, Irezumi — that we now see in contemporary tattooing arose during the Edo period (1600-1868 CE). In that era, tattoos evolved from being markings of punishment into beautiful works of body art. Since then, the style has spread throughout the entire globe. Many practitioners have left their mark on the genre, but few have contributed to the growth of Irezumi the way that Horiyoshi III has. Although he is a septuagenarian, Horiyoshi III still tattoos and is just as active a proponent of the art form as ever.     

A freehand body suit by Horiyoshi III done in the mid 1980s. #bodysuit #koi #destigmatization #freehand #Horiyoshi #Japanese #legendary #master #samurai #traditional

Unfortunately, as was with Japan before the Endo period, in the wake of the empire's crackdown on tattooing during the Meiji period (1868-1912), tattoos became associated with criminal activity due to the fact that members of the country's mafia — the Yakuza — get Irezumi as a symbolic gesture of belonging to the crime syndicate. For many Japanese the art form is now synonymous with gang-related activity, and because of this, some individuals and organizations are unabashedly discouraging Japanese citizens from getting tattooed. Tattooed people are frequently discriminated against there. Businesses will refuse service and many employers won't hire people with visible body art for instance. Though Irezumi will never disappear due to its widespread diaspora, this stigmatization of tattoos in Japan has come dangerously close to displacing the style from the place of its birth.  

Hiroyoshi is devoted to dispelling this false association between Irezumi and crime, and from an intellectual standpoint, his argument in favor of the art form is air-tight. He claims with conviction that this time-tested and only recently controversial style of tattooing extends far beyond the advent of the Yakuza. His convincing argument uses history as part of its logic, correctly asserting that Irezumi existed long before what is merely one in a never-ending series of criminal organizations. In a video produced by Al Jazeera, Horiyoshi III declares his desire for change in how tattoos are thought of in Japan:

"I want Irezumi to be seen as part of culture, history, and customs here. It has been continuing all this time, and I want to preserve it."

Horiyoshi III doesn't just tattoo and speak out against the stigma on Irezumi as a way to promote its cultural standing. In a museum near his studio, he also displays artifacts that document the long history of this traditional style. This sort of historical preservation is fundamental for resisting the suppression of this traditional tattoo style that sprung out of Japanese culture. Like Horiyoshi III's tattoos, these artifacts contain the power to remind his fellow citizens of the importance tattooing has in their shared history.

More recent machine work featuring a fearsome tiger by Horiyoshi. #bodysuit #destigmatization #Horiyoshi #Japanese #legendary #master #peonies #tiger #traditional

Interestingly, though Horiyoshi III recognizes the danger that this stigma presents to Irezumi, he says that he's noticed an increase in clientele from younger generations in Japan. Many of these more open-minded individuals have been frequenting his famous shop and others around the country. For tattoo enthusiasts, this observation on Horiyoshi III's behalf is truly inspiring. It implies that regardless of the century-and-a-half-long effort to snub the art form, Irezumi is thriving in the seat of its creation.

Another masterful freehand from Horiyoshi done sometime between 1982-1984. #bodysuit #destigmatization #dragons #Horiyoshi #Japanese #legendary #master #traditional

If you found this article thought-provoking, check out this other post of ours about Horiyoshi III. Also, if you would like to see him in the aforementioned interview, here's the link. He also has a fantastic website, where he even blogs about subjects surrounding Irezumi and its sociocultural significance. This man is an amazing person and artist, and here at Tattoodo, we consider him a hero. Never leave us, Horiyoshi III.   

Ross Howerton
Written byRoss Howerton

BA in Literary Studies from The New School. MFA in Creative Writing from NMSU. Staff Writer for Tattoodo. I love art, books, movies, music, and video games. Hit me up on Twitter @Powertonium

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