People frequently mistake the tattooed warriors featured in traditional Japanese sleeves, bodysuits, and back-pieces as samurai. They’re actually the heroes from the Suikoden — a Japanese translation of the Chinese vernacular novel the Shuihu zhuan — which tells the story of 108 outlaws who band together to resist an oppressive government. This tale of courage and camaraderie grew in popularity throughout Asia during the several hundred years prior to the Edo period (1603-1868), at which point ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) artists started depicting its characters in their art work.
The most famous ukiyo-e featuring these warriors are those created by Ichiyûsai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), whose work not only influenced his contemporaries and disciples but continues to inspire the traditional Japanese tattooists of today. A considerable portion of his original prints have been preserved over the the last century and half, and they now hang in museums and personal collections around the world, but thanks to the curatorial efforts of Inge Klompmaker, you can enjoy most of Kuniyoshi’s series, Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, in a single book — Of brigands and bravery: Kuniyoshi’s heroes of the Suikoden.
“An in-depth discussion of this series of seventy-four prints as well as the inclusion of extensive background material on the Suikoden narrative make this publication a valuable addition to the study of nineteenth-century Japanese warrior prints (musha-e) and to our knowledge of Kuniyoshi’s work in this genre,” writes Willem R. van Gulik in Of brigands and bravery. “Of particular significance is the fact that this monograph is the first of its kind in the English language."
The scholarly examination of Kuniyoshi’s musha-e is enlightening, but from the perspective of a traditional Japanese tattoo enthusiast, the most thrilling aspect of the book is comparing his art large-scale works by contemporary Irezumi artists. Flipping through its pages, you’ll likely find yourself thinking, “I remember seeing almost that exact same image on so-and-so’s Instagram the other day.” This is because tattooers still look to Kuniyoshi’s compositions for inspiration and reference. Chances are they even have a copy of Of brigands and bravery on their shelves as well.
If you want to pick up a copy of Of brigands and bravery to learn even more about Kuniyoshi’s depictions of the heroes from the Suikoden, you can order it and tons of other awesome tattoo-related publications from Kintaro Publishing. Also, check out their spectacular prints by tattooists while you’re at it.