Dragons with snarling nostrils enveloped in flame, light pink cherry blossoms floating in the wind, Hannya’s leering and geisha’s smiling….these are the icons of Japanese tattooing, Irezumi. A tradition with ancient roots in human history, Japanese tattoos are some of the most revered artworks within the tattoo community. In this guide to Irezumi, we go into the chronicles of time to expound upon the history, imagery, legality, and artists who practice this incredibly important cultural art form.
The lineage of Japanese tattooing can be traced back almost 5,000 years ago to primitive clay figurines who were decorated with tribal tattoos and found within archaic tombs within the continent. There are also some ancient Chinese texts, the first from about 297 AD called Wei Chih, that speak about the Japanese tradition of tattooing, and mentioned that men of all ages would have designs on all parts of the body, including the face. Although it seems that this was an expressive folk art, tattooing quickly became perceived as a negative practice. Criminals, rather than be put to death or receive long sentences, were branded with tattoos. These were often bands, symbols, Japanese characters, or dots on the arm or forehead.
However, at this time, there are also indigenous tribal peoples like the Ainu who are well-known for their mouth tattoos that were created from rubbing birch ash in small incisions. These pieces were only for Ainu women, and were started from a young age at the hands of a priestess. Not only were these tattoos seen as a way to distinguish social status and coming of age, they were also deeply sacred and religious. It was said that demons and disease would be kept away because of the ritual. Very similar to this practice are the tattoos of ancient Okinawans, or rather Uchinanchu peoples. Again, only reserved for women, these Japanese tattoos were indigo in color and done mostly on the hands, called hajichi, to symbolize the onset of marriage, womanhood, or social status. They were also thought to ward off evil and bring security within this lifetime. But again, as time went on, the Japanese tattooing tradition was observed with negativity, and in the late 1800’s was officially banned.
There were many reasons behind the ban. Hopes to be viewed as a sophisticated country by European states, as well as a wish to repress criminal activity, created a foundation for making tattoos illegal. In connection with the Uchinanchu women in Okinawa, Alexis Miyake explains. “The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses. According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki — the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.” Destroying culture and religious affiliations also meant more control and power to the government, and the perception around Japanese tattooing continued to evolve.
Of course, many people persisted in their practice of the Japanese tattooing tradition underground, and mainly they were within the lower casts of society. Firemen, laborers, and gang affiliated members, those who fought against government control and laws, all continued to be enamored with tattoos. The ink was a symbol of courage and bravery, not only due to the illegality of it, but also due to the intense pain of the lengthy process. For fireman, and others involved in dangerous exploits, they were also a protective element. Perhaps one of the main reasons outlaws were so captivated with tattooing, however, was a Chinese novel by the name of Shui Hu Zhuan, or Water Margin; a story about 108 outlaws and their exploits. The lengthy tome described how many of the characters had intricate tattoos illustrating legends and folkloric creatures, all of which were greatly influenced by the woodblock movement called Ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e prints were to drastically shape the aesthetics and design iconography of Japanese tattooing.
Ukiyo-e, which translates to Pictures of the Floating World, are perhaps the most well-known art form from Japan to the Western World. Depicting beautiful nature scenes, daily life for courtesans and peasants alike, fashion plates, stories of war, ghosts, animals, and even erotic episodes like those within Shunga, the style of Ukiyo-e is very particular due to the way they were created with blocks of wood, several depending on the intricacy of the design. Wonderfully colorful, flattened perspectives, graceful illustrative linework, and a unique use of negative space were all to inform not only European painters like Monet and Van Gogh, but also craft movements like Art Nouveau, and even Irezumi, Japanese tattooing, itself.
It is no wonder that all of the imagery within Japanese tattooing has great meaning. Due to the history of sacred and ritualistic tattooing within Japan, this has continued to be a revered and important aspect of the tradition. Perhaps the most iconic image is that of the dragon, thought in Asian culture as a wise creature with strength to wield the universe in their favor, and to bring blessings to the bearer. Koi, Japanese carp fish, are also a popular theme within Japanese tattooing. They are found to be elements in many legends and folk tales, and to possess a great amount of courage, work ethic, and the ability to flow, like water, through the hardships of life. There is the story of Kintaro, however, that shows that koi can also be stubborn and dangerous. Fu Dogs, or Chinese guardian lions ‘shishi’, are another well-known image. They are protectors, and bring the wearer stability in wealth and health during their lifetime. As with with many aspects of Irezumi, the meaning behind the work is dependant on colors used, placement, and other images surrounding the main concept.
No matter the depth in meaning, the high quality in artistic skill, nor the important cultural and historical aspects of Japanese tattooing, there is the point of legality to be noted. With contemporary affiliations to gang members, Yakuza, and criminal activity, tattooing is still being waged against by government officials and mainstream society. In 2012 the Economist did an article on Irezumi mentioning that Toru Hashimoto, the then mayor of Osaka, “is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere”. This is a sentiment shared by much of the professional world of Japan, and indeed, most of society. In fact, the law states that the only people who can put ink into the skin with a needle are those with the sufficient medical license. In 2015, Taiki Masuda, a tattooist in Osaka, had his studio raided by police and he was fined $3,000 for tattooing without a medical license. Still fighting against the charges laid against him, his case continues to be open in 2018.
Due to the illegality of Japanese tattooing, many artists practicing in Japan have been pushed underground, and their studios are often difficult to find. However, tattooing thankfully still continues, not only through traditional Irezumi artists such as Horiyoshi III, Horitomo, Horimasa, Horikashi, and Horitada but also through non-Japanese tattooists who practice in Japan and other parts of the globe. Chris Garver, Henning Jorgensen, Ami James, Mike Rubendall, Sergey Buslaev, Lupo Horiokami, Rion, Brindi, Luca Ortis, Dansin, and Wendy Pham are all artists who either follow the guidelines of traditional Irezumi, or merge Japanese tattooing aesthetic with their own personal stylings. Neo Japanese is a name for when artists merge Irezumi with Neo Traditional, Illustrative, or New School techniques to create a whole new look within the genre.
Japanese tattooing is an incredibly important cultural art form that needs to be preserved, supported, and cultivated with understanding and respect. It’s beauty lies within the vast historical and symbolic aspects that make is such an awe inspiring artists outlet. From brightly colored kimono, water lilies of the floating world, Buddhist deities, and compelling, dynamic dragons of ancient folklore, Irezumi is one of the foundations of modern tattooing worth complete reverence and admiration.
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