Shaped by centuries of controversy, the Japanese tattoo embodies the forbidden and the dissonant. Simultaneously representing both belonging and non-conformity, they are complicated cultural symbols. The Ronin Gallery's exhibition Taboo: Ukiyo-e and the Japanese Tattoo explores the verboten world of irezumi (japanese tattoo) across history and medium. The works of ukiyo-e masters Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, Kunisada and Kunichika celebrate the world of tattoo during the Edo and Meiji periods, while the original paintings and drawings of the acclaimed master of tebori and tattoo art, Horiyoshi III, offers a current interpretation of the centiuries-old tradition. The contemporary art photography of Masato Sudo continues the conversation, while the mixed-media work of American artist Daniel Kelly speaks to the universally inspirational power of the Japanese tattoo.
Holding the skin taut with the left hand, the artist threads a brush, wet with sumi, through his left fingers. Dexterous and practiced, the fingers of the right hand control the hari, or tattooing needle(s), in the technique of tebori. As lines and dots form curling dragons and fierce warriors, these designs come alive. Though vibrant and enthralling, theirs is a forbidden beauty.
Through the lens of social psychology, tattooing leads a double life: one of initiation, community and membership, but also one of loneliness, rebellion and autoeroticism. As Donald Richie explains in The Japanese Tattoo, “we have a paradox...a man beauties himself for himself and yet does so at the expense of the favor of society.” As one rejects societal norms for subcultural identities, masochistic connotations arise from the ready acceptance of physical pain and a conscious violation of the social contract.
One of the oldest forms of body modification, the tattoo is a complicated cultural symbol simultaneously representing both belonging and nonconformity. In Japanese, tattoo translates to irezumi, referring to the actual insertion of ink into the skin. While the popularity of traditional irezumi soars worldwide, attitudes in Japan are far more complex. Shaped by centuries of controversy, the Japanese tattoo embodies the forbidden and the dissonant. Whether forcibly applied or willingly received, the union of ink and flesh initiates a lifelong membership to lifestyle, a secret and an idea. Engaging in the expressive potential of the body, irezumi allows the wearer to not only reflect his or her individual values, but also remark upon society. The deeply personal nature of the tattoo is furthered by the ephemerality of the artwork: the life of the tattoo is no more than that of its wearer.
The exhibition Taboo: Ukiyo-e and the Japanese Tattoo explores the verboten world of irezumi across history and medium. The works of print masters Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi and Kunichika celebrate the popularity of the tattoo in Edo, while the original paintings and drawings of today’s preeminent tebori artist, Horiyoshi III, offer a current interpretation of this rich tradition. The art photography of Masato Sudo continues this conversation between past and present, as the works of Daniel Kelly reveal the intersections of irezumi and contemporary art. From Edo’s “floating world” to modern Japan, Taboo traces the world of tattoo as it fluctuates between immoral pleasure and illegal indulgence. From cultural practice to punitive measure, a rally of class consciousness to a declaration of criminal devotion, “the tattoo is a refusal to bow to authority and convention,” tirelessly asserting a subcultural identity earned through pain and artistry.
Pre-Edo: From Cultural to Criminal (10,000 BCE - 1603 AD)
At its origin, the Japanese tattoo confirmed community. Reflecting cultural values or social order, irezumi indicated belonging. Several scholars suggest that Japanese body modification began as early as the Jomon period (c.10,000 – 300 BCE). These scholars link the designs on the face and body of clay dogu figures to a desire for, if not a reality of, tattooing. However, this theory is inconclusive. The first accepted record of Japanese tattooing dates to 265 BCE. The Chinese chronicle Wei Chih describes how the Wa, the people of ancient Japan, decorated their bodies and faces with designs, each marking’s specific placement and size denoting social rank.
While mainland Japanese rejected this practice by the 7th century, tattooing remained integral to cultural identity in some indigenous minorities. In Kyushu, coal miners adorned their bodies with dragon tattoos to protect themselves from the dangers of the mine, while in Okinawa, women wore tattoos on their hands to ward off malignant spirits. Amongst the Ainu in Hokkaido, women began the tattooing of their lips and arms at age twelve. The completion of these tattoos signaled the beginning of womanhood and conveyed eligibility for marriage. Outside of these minority groups, associations of community and tradition were overshadowed with the arrival of Confucianism in the 7th century. According to Confucian theory, the body is an inheritance from the parents, thus, to modify or harm the body is an act of disrespect and violation of filial piety. As this philosophy soaked into the Japanese consciousness, tattoos became taboo.
At the close of the Kofun period (300 - 600 AD), mere philosophical dissonance turned to indisputable evidence of immorality. Bands of ink encircled the arms or the Chinese characters for “dog” or “evil, bad” glared in midnight blue from the foreheads of Japan’s criminal class. Following elaborate systems to denote type and severity of crime, these punitive cyphers may have differed regionally, but were united in their brutality. Crudely executed and popularly reviled, irezumi entered the Edo period as an involuntary inscription into a subculture, no longer a celebrated and voluntary expression of belonging.
Edo: Ink as Art, Art as Resistance (1603 - 1868)
Despite prevailing attitudes at the start of the 17th century, irezumi grew along with Edo’s newly emergent middle class. By 1700, the traditional Japanese tattoo had developed, signaling a shift from punitive to decorative tattooing. Just as ukiyo-e print designs and kimono patterns became more complex throughout the Edo period, so did irezumi. Amidst the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara, the tattoo became an inextricable facet of life, intertwining with woodblock printing and theater to generate a creative cycle. For example, a tattoo could serve as an important narrative device in a popular play and inspire woodblock prints. In turn, these prints could become the visual inspiration for new tattoo designs, which could then spark costumes for new kabuki performances. As the century progressed, tattoos increasingly became an act of resistance against the Shogunate, onceagain making the tattoo a willful declaration of one’s values.
Following irezumi’s shift from punishment to art form, tattoo artists adopted fresh terminology. While irezumi refers to the insertion of ink into skin, the Edo period term horimono translates to “carved object.” With this retitling to “horimono,” artists emphasized the skill and creativity behind tattooing, insisting its status as an art form. Referring to themselves as horishi, tattoo artists were often initially trained as woodblock carvers or other craftsmen. Through this new terminology, horishi not only asserted their identity as artisans , but also the parallel nature of the cherry woodblock and skin. While largely accepted as the term for tattoo in Japan today, irezumi retains derogatory connotations amongst modern tattoo masters. Though the days of punitive ink are long over, Japanese masters continue to associate this term with crude and unskilled tattooing.
Applied discreetly behind closed doors, horimono began with irebokuro, literally “engraved moles.” These vow marks began in the pleasure districts of Osaka and Kyoto but became exceedingly popular in Edo’s Yoshiwara. A pair of forbidden lovers would clasp hands, inserting a small black dot on their hand where their dearest’s thumb would end. As the Edo period continued, emboldened couples moved to tattooing each other’s names alongside the symbol for life, inochi, on the underarm (see pg. 30). In both cases, the mark remained hidden, its pleasure derived from its secrecy. For the enterprising courtesan, such discretion was crucial. As her clients would die or shift, the courtesan would use moxa to cauterize her irebokuro off the skin, making room for the next declaration of devotion. Other forms of early decorative tattooing were kisshobori, or pledge marks to Buddha, and irozumi, playful tattoos done in lead white, so as only to be visible when the skin became reddened through drinking or blushing.
Beyond the Yoshiwara, decorative tattooing reached grand proportions amongst Edo’s lower class males. Irezumi bodysuits, traditionally ending mid-calf and mid forearm, decorated gamblers, firemen (hikeshi), street knights (otokodate) and laborers. Raised to near heroic status in Edo, firemen wore tattoos of carp and dragons to protect themselves from the dangers of their profession.
The street knights saw themselves as champions of the common people, whether or not this always rang true. Pitting themselves against corrupt samurai and “general injustice,” these street knights identified and adorned themselves with the heroes of the hugely popular Suikoden. Translated from the Chinese classic Stories of the Water Margin in 1805, this tale of 108 bandit warriors inspired many kabuki plays, ukiyo-e prints and irezumi alike.
Throughout the Edo period, sumptuary edicts attempted to constrain everything from paper size to kimono design, yet, as scholar Willem Van Gulik states, “the mere fact that they were issued so many times indicates their ineffectiveness.” From the bathhouses to the streets, tattoos enjoyed incredible visibility during the Edo period. Laborers often worked in very little clothing, showcasing their vibrantly beautiful bodysuits despite Shogunal policy (see pg. 20). Whether bearing images of the heroes of the Suikoden, a blatantly antigovernment tale, or a hidden vow mark, wearing a tattoo was a fairly safe and enormously popular way to criticize authority, express dissent and proudly declare membership to the floating world. Blossoming in Edo’s celebration of the popular arts, irezumi returned to its roots in community, establishing class consciousness and a vital sense of belonging in a newly formed middle class.
Meiji Period - Allied Occupation: (1868 - 1952)
With the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ships in 1853, the Japanese authorities urged rapid modernization in an effort to avoid colonization. As well as pushing Western dress and banning the traditional samurai topknot, Meiji officials outlawed tattooing in 1872, followed by harsh crackdowns in 1880 and 1908. The Japanese government feared that irezumi would be perceived as barbaric, yet Western opinion proved quite contrary to their expectations. While tattoos remained illegal for Japanese citizens, Western enthusiasm for the art prompted the Japanese government to allow the inking of foreigners, if only in Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki. From Prince Alfred of England to Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, Westerners flocked to these ports to receive tebori tattoos. As irezumi publicly entranced the West, the art continued only privately within Japanese culture. By the start of World War II, Imperial persecution of irezumi had reached a high point. Perceived as nonconformists by the governmental authorities, inked Japanese were barred from the armed forces. Many Japanese men rushed to quietly get tattoos in order to evade conscription, flouting existing laws against irezumi and avoiding the national call to arms. United in their nonconformity, these would-be soldiers voiced their dissent to the war effort through ink.
In 1945, war gave way to occupation and a critical exchange between Japanese and American tattoo artists. While Japanese artists dismissed the simplicity and poor placement of American style one-point tattoos, Western artists realized the true potential of tattooing through tebori. American GIs, such as the famous Sailor Jerry, Modernization and the Barbaric devoted themselves to learning the art form, trading Western pigments for the designs of tebori masters. In 1948, this rampant ardor for the Japanese tattoo led General Douglas MacArthur to lift the ban on irezumi. For the first time in seventy years, tattooing was completely legal in Japan.
Yakuza to Olympians (1952 - Today)
Despite newfound legality, irezumi did not enjoy a renaissance of Edoesque fervor. Though no longer against the law, tattoos remained firmly pitted against popular opinion. A history of negative associations became a frightening reality with the rise of the Japanese crime syndicate, the yakuza. Proliferating in the wake of WWII, the yakuza dealt in the sex industry, extortion, weapons smuggling, as well as some legitimate businesses. While forcibly applied punitive tattoos identified criminals in Japan’s past, yakuza use ink to willingly pronounce their membership to the criminal class. Within the yakuza, a tattoo served four roles: initiation, proof of perseverance, commitment to the criminal world and declaration of their particular branch of the larger syndicate (Kumi). Reaching a high point among yakuza members in the 1970s, irezumi quickly became synonymous with crime and intimidation. Through the mere act of rolling up a sleeve, revealing the ink beneath, one could get whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
Since the 1990s, economic recession and the implementation of the Act for the Prevention of Unlawful Activities have spurred tattoo clientele to shift from 99 percent yakuza to 50 percent average citizen. Today, American one-point tattoos flourish amongst Japan’s younger generations, but the general Japanese attitude towards irezumi remains conflicted. Though an estimated 3,000 tattoo artists work in Japan today, as opposed to approximately 200 in 1990, the traditional tattoo remains tied to its history of dissent, criminality and fear, rather than its rich past of community, belonging and cultural identity. Even so, Japan’s contemporary tattoo culture maintains a small and dedicated community of appreciative customers and connoisseurs. Traditional tebori masters are considered to be fine artists worldwide.
While the art of irezumi no longer breaks the law, this art form continues to face discriminatory policies. Tattooed persons are regularly banned from public baths, hot springs and swimming pools, regardless of whether one wears a full tattoo bodysuit or a small one-point. In 2013, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto announced that he would move any tattoo bearing civil servants from positions requiring regular contact with residents. Not authorized under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, irezumi occupies a legally ambiguous space. Tattooed Japanese cannot donate blood, can only enroll in the most basic of health insurance policies, and face incessant discrimination when applying for loans. Irezumi master Horitoshi explains, “socially we might be respected as artists or tattoos might be seen as a kind of fashion, but within the establishment, it is really difficult.” In the summer of 2020, Japan will play host to the Olympic games. With more tattooed athletes, officials and visiting fans than ever, this imminent influx of Olympian ink has raised some concerns about Japan’s reception of these guests after a recent incident of discrimination. In September 2014, a Maori indigenous language scholar was turned away from an onsen, or hot spring, in Ishikari, Hokkaido for her tribal tattoos. In response to international outrage and growing concern, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, explained, “private facilities have the right to run businesses by their own rules,” though he later encouraged Japan to take measures to make their visitors feel welcome. Despite changing clientele and international popularity, it is clear that the tattoo remains entangled with taboo in Japan, but perhaps this is the inherent nature of this art form. In the words of tattoo researcher Osamu Matsuda, “tattoos are something that is outlaw or counterculture in nature, they shouldn’t be socially acceptable as that would be sacrilegious.”
Irezumi in Ukiyo-e
Irezumi: Literally ‘to insert ink’ and is the term commonly associated with traditional Japanese tebori, or hand tattooing, both in technique and imagery.
The aesthetics of the Japanese tattoo are due to the intimate and inseparable relationship between ukiyo-e and irezumi. By the height of the Edo period, the public visibility and narrative inspiration of both the tattoo and the woodblock print indicated one’s allegiance to the exciting, chaotic and rapidly shifting conditions of the urban “floating world.” These ephemeral arts developed as parallel forms of expression, each drawing inspiration from religious imagery, Japanese mythology and folklore, traditional symbolism, historical episodes and popular literature. Released in 1805, Takizawa Bakin’s Shinpen Suikogaden (“New Illustrated Edition of the Suikoden”) incited mania in Edo and served as a key point of intersection between ukiyo-e, irezumi, and kabuki theater. As irezumi and ukiyo-e flourished, the tattoo and the woodblock print became increasingly referential, melding shared motifs into a common iconography. Even when ukiyo-e prints do not illustrate irezumi, they consistently reveal this shared visual language. From the bandit heroes of the Suikoden to the fiery scales of a carp, these ukiyo-e prints present on paper the same iconography inked into skin.
Kunisada (1786 - 1864) aka Toyokuni III
One of the most active and popular ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century, Kunisada was born in the Honjo district of Edo in 1786. At the age of fourteen, he was admitted to study under Toyokuni, the current head of the Utagawa school. Many of his works, particularly his actor prints, became overnight successes and he was considered the star attraction of the school. He signed his works Kunisada until 1844, when he began using the signature of “Toyokuni.”
Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861
Kuniyoshi will always be remembered as Japan’s greatest master of warrior and historical prints. Born in Edo in 1797, Kuniyoshi was the son of a silk dyer. At the age of fourteen, he was accepted to study woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and would become one of his most successful students. In 1827 Kuniyoshi designed the dramatic series, 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, inciting a popular hunger for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Known by the nickname “Scarlet Skin,” Kuniyoshi carried this bold spirit into his own life, adorning himself with a tattoo that stretched across his shoulders and the expanse of his back.
Kunichika (1835 - 1900)
Born the son of a public bathhouse proprietor in Edo, Kunichika began his ukiyo-e training under Toyohara Chikanobu before apprenticing under Utagawa Kunisada. Kunichika, a leader in the actor print genre, represents one of the last great ukiyo-e artists working in a rapidly modernizing Japan. Often depicting roles from the Suikoden in half-portrait form, Kunichika presents his actors in dramatic poses set against vibrant backgrounds, or bursting with activity within an exciting theatrical scene.
Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)
Working in a Japan straddling the domains of the old, feudal systems and the Meiji era, Yoshitoshi is considered to be one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e. At the age of twelve, he began to study under the renowned artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, refining his skills in observation and drawing. As modernization pushed ahead, Yoshitoshi suffered a nervous breakdown in 1872, driving him to poverty. A year later, he resumed working and fulfilled his creative potential. Yoshitoshi suffered his final mental breakdown in the spring of 1892 and was committed to the Sugamo Asylum. On the 9th of June 1892, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-three. His work is known for its eerie and imaginative component.
Horiyoshi III (b. 1946) is Japan’s preeminent tebori master, whose work is indebted to traditions of apprenticeship and skill. While the world of tattoo remains one of secrecy and exclusivity in Japan, Horiyoshi III has transcended taboo, achieving national and international fame. Interestingly, the most famous tattoo artist worldwide, Horiyoshi III’s studio continues to operate discreetly and unmarked. Born Yoshihito Nakano, Horiyoshi III received his current title from the late tebori master Yoshitsugu Muramatsu, also known as Shodai Horiyoshi of Yokohama. Beginning at age sixteen, Horiyoshi III served as Shodai Horiyoshi’s apprentice for ten years. By age twenty-eight Horiyoshi III’s body suit was complete, hand tattooed by Shodai Horiyoshi. In the future, Kazuyoshi, Horiyoshi III’s son and apprentice, will carry on the family line and become Horiyoshi IV.
Though ukiyo-e officially ended in 1868, Horiyoshi III carries on the spirit of these “pictures of the floating world” in his work, simultaneously incorporating his own style and a contemporary perspective. This sensitivity to tradition extends beyond his tebori. In recent years, Horiyoshi III has concentrated on traditional kakejiku (scroll paintings). Rendering Japanese folktales, calligraphy and religious subjects in sumi (black ink) and traditional mineral pigments, Horiyoshi III interweaves past, present and future. In addition to painting and drawing, Horiyoshi III tattoos full time, publishes numerous books of his drawings, and is the founder with his wife, Mayumi, of Japan’s only tattoo museum in Yokohama. With over forty years of experience, he is the foremost authority on traditional Japanese tattooing.
Horiyoshi III explains that his work embodies a commitment to three points: shu (守), to succeed to a tradition, ha (破), to add new concepts and techniques, and ri (離), to develop ha further and create one’s own world. In Taboo’s collection of his paintings and drawings, this philosophy shines through. Whether portraying the brave heroes of the Suikoden or a frightening slew of oni, Horiyoshi III captures the vital energy of his subjects across needle, pencil and brush. As he explains, “I heavily felt the burden of my creative desire not to make drawings by just following the established images...Observance of tradition is definitely important, but it is also important to open doors to further development.”
Introduced by Dutch merchants in Nagasaki Bay, photography flourished in Japan at the close of the Edo period. Artisans and local officials ordered cameras from the merchants and slowly began to learn daguerreotype and wet plate photography. With the start of the Meiji period and the promotion of Western modernity, photography became a newfound passion in Japan. Photographs of this era mirrored ukiyo-e’s representational relationship with the Japanese tattoo. This rapport persists today, as evidenced by the surreal and striking art photography of Masato Sudo. Focusing on tattoo and the human form, Sudo invites cutting edge technology into a four hundred year dialogue.
As an art student, Masato Sudo (b. 1955) concentrated his photographic work on long haul trucks lavishly decorated by their drivers. While working on one of these studies, Sudo encountered a driver with designs on his body outdid those of his truck. Enamored by such individualized, bodily expression, Sudo built his career capturing the beauty of the Japanese tattoo and its dynamic human canvas. In 1985, Sudo released Ransho: Japanese Tattooing, a photographic exploration of tebori (hand tattooing) done by Horiyoshi III, Horijin and Horikin. In 2010, his work was featured in the exhibition Seeing Beauty at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and can be found in collections worldwide.
Combining large format photography with the archival fresco pigment printing process, Sudo generates not only stunning, but also long lasting studies of the inked form. Originating in Japan, this new technology draws upon ancient innovation to create images that are heat, light and moisture resistant.1 Printing onto thin sheets of plaster, the archival fresco pigment process not only removes the pixelated feel of digitally printed images, but also enables a greater sense of depth than traditional methods can offer. Furthermore, this technology allows an incredible smoothness of texture close to that of human skin. Just as traditional fresco technique preserves Michelangelo’s pigments in Sistine Chapel, archival fresco pigment printing captures Sudo’s photographs within a soft layer of plaster, guarding his photographs for centuries to come.
The traditional Japanese tattoo and its associated aesthetics are hugely popular outside of Japan. Masters of the traditional tebori (hand tattooing) technique command enormous respect in the contemporary global tattoo community. Though exceedingly popular abroad, this popularity does not equal cultural acceptance in Japan. In the United States, tattooing is still “other,” but gains legitimacy and exclusivity through the artistry, technical skill, time and subjection to pain. As a contemporary American artist based in Kyoto, Daniel Kelly (b. 1947) explores the perception gap between American and Japanese views of this art form. Through his photorealistic prints and mixed media works he captures the Japanese tattoo through the Western lens.
Born in Idaho Falls, Montana, Kelly is a painter, printmaker and mixed media artist. He studied at the University of Portland and Portland State University. Following graduation, Kelly moved to San Francisco, working in glass and mosaics before studying romantic-expressionist painting with Morton Levin. Upon seeing a book of woodblock prints, Kelly pursued the print medium with unyielding enthusiasm. He promptly moved to Kyoto in 1978 and began to study traditional woodblock technique under Tomikichiro Tokuriki. Over the next few decades, Kelly’s work became increasingly daring.
Combining his expansive knowledge of techniques with innovative amalgamations of media, Kelly challenges the boundaries of each individual art form, as well as the limits of his own expression. From concrete to paint, polyvinyl to old book pages, his works push visual distortion and a vital physicality. Kelly regularly holds exhibitions worldwide and his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. As expressed by contemporary author Banana Yoshimoto, “[Daniel Kelly] consumes and digests the beauty of an object, holding and appreciating it within himself until he has absorbed it.”