A History of Japanese Tattooing

A History of Japanese Tattooing

The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan was found in the form of clay figurines that either had their faces painted or even engraved to represent tattoo marks. The oldest figures or figurines of this kind were recovered from tombs dated 5,000BC or older. However, tattooing for spiritual or decorative purposes is thought to extend back to at least the Jomon or Paleothic periods (approximately 10,000BC.)

In 297AD the first written record of Japanese tattooing was discovered when a record of Chinese dynastic history was first compiled. According to the written record that was found the text read; “Men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.”

During what was known as the Yayoi period (300BC – 300AD), tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such tattoo designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol.

Japanese tattooing is also mentioned in other Chinese histories but usually – or almost always – in a negative context as the Chinese considered tattooing to be a sign of barbarism and only used it as a form of punishment.

Later, in the Kofun period (250AD – 600AD) tattoos began to assume negative connotations and instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in Ancient Rome, where slaves were known to be tattooed with mottos such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master.”)

By the beginning of the 7th century, the rulers of Japan had adopted much the same attitude as the Chinese – and as a result, decorative tattooing fell off the radar.

The first actual record of Japanese tattooing used as a punishment was mentioned in history in 720AD. But by the 17th century it was very accepted in society that tattoo marks were used to identify criminals and outcasts in Japan. Often the latter were tattooed on the arms, e.g. with a cross or a straight line.

Criminals were marked with a variety of symbols, that usually drew attention to the place the crime was committed. In one part of Japan the pictograph for the word “dog” was tattooed on the criminals forehead. Other marks included patterns such as bars, crosses or circles on the face as well as the arms. However it is important to note that tattooing was only reserved for those who committed serious crimes and individuals who bore these marks were often ostracised by their families and friends. People such as these could not participate in general community life.

In Japanese culture tattooing was a very severe and highly embarrassing form of punishment.

By the end of the 17th century the tattooing of criminals and outcasts was fading and was being replaced by other forms of punishment. Around this time, decorative tattooing also became popular so many criminals decided to cover their negative markings with large, more beautiful tattoos. Some think of this period as the origin of the association of tattooing with organised crime or Japanese gangs.

Until the Edo period (1600AD – 1868AD) the role of tattooing fluctuated somewhat. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos – some featuring tattoo designs that would only be completed when lover’s hands were joined – also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art for that it is today. Compare this to European tattoo history where one of the oldest documented tattoo artists, George Burchett was prevalent in 1884 when it was recorded that he was expelled from school for tattooing his classmates.

Throughout the 18th century, pictoral or decorative tattooing flourished in Japan as it was directly connected with the popular culture of Edo, as Tokyo was then called.

Early on in the 18th century, a popular Chinese novel – Suikoden – stimulated the popularity of tattooing with its many illustrations by various artists. Many heroes in the novel were heavily tattooed. This novel and its illustrations influenced all Japanese art and culture at the time and continue to influence them to this day.

By 1867 the emperor of Japan was restored to power and laws against tattooing were strictly enforced, as the new ruler feared that Japanese customs would seem barbaric and ridiculous to Westerners. Ironically, under the new laws Japanese tattoo artists were not allowed to tattoo other Japanese but could tattoo foreigners.

Some of the best tattoo artists established studios in Yokohama and did a lot of their tattoo work on willing foreign sailors. Their skills were so great that they attracted a number of very distinguished clients including King George V, Czar Nicholas II and other European dignitaries.

These tattoo masters continued to tattoo Japanese clients illegally, but after the middle of the 19th century a lot of their themes and techniques remained the same. However, classical Japanese tattooing is and was limited to specific designs representing legendary heroes and religious motifs, which were combined with certain symbolic flowers and animals. Often these were offset against popular backgrounds such as waves, clouds and lightning bolts.

The designs that were used by original Japanese tattoo artists were created by some of the best – they were called ukiyoe artists. The tattoo masters who followed adapted and simplified these designs to make them suitable for tattooing over time but didn’t invent them on their own.

Traditional Japanese tattooing does differ quite significantly from tattoos in the West. Japanese tattoos often consist of a single major design that covers the back and extends onto the arms, legs and chest. Designs such as this require major commitment in terms of time and money, as well as the emotional energy required to under-go such a piece.

During most of the 19th century an artist and a tattooist would work together, with the artist drawing the picture with a brush directly onto the customer’s skin, and the tattooist just copying it.

In the 20th century a lot of fighting broke out in China so almost all men were drafted into the army. People with tattoos were often thought to have possible discipline problems so they weren’t drafted, and the government passed a law against tattooing. From then tattooists had to work in secret. After WWII General MacArthur liberalised the Japanese laws and tattooing became legal again in 1945. Many tattoo artists continued to work privately by appointment and this tradition still continues today.

Although tattoos have gained popularity amongst the youth of Japan due to Western influence, there is still a stigma on them amongst the general consensus. There are even current political repercussions for tattoos in Japan. In 2012, the mayor of Osaka (Toru Hashimoto) started a campaign to rid companies of their employees with tattoos. According to an article written about Hashimoto “He 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.” Hashimoto’s beliefs were fairly well received by the public as well, with many large companies who were already against tattoos, siding with him.

Modern tattoos in Japan are done similarly to western ones. Unlike traditional irezumi, where the majority of the tattoo decision making is left up to the artist, customers bring in a design of their choice or can decide on what they would like at the shop. Many Japanese artists are well-versed in multiple styles besides traditional Japanese tattoos, giving customers the ability to select from a wide assortment of options, anywhere from tribal to new age styles. Modern tattoos are done via an electric machine, in which the ink can be inserted into the machine or the needle tip can be dipped into ink for application

Despite the majority of modern tattooing being done by needle gun, irezumi is still done traditionally. The ancient tattoo style is still done by specialist tattooists, or Horishi’s, who might be difficult to find. Unlike Western style tattoo artists, the majority of Horishis aren’t located in the Tokyo area. It is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take one to five years of weekly visits to complete and can cost in excess of US$30,000. The process is also much more formal than western tattooing. Whereas western tattoo artists tend to do exactly what you request, traditional irezumi artists tend to go back and forth with the customer and discuss what they would like the tattoo to look like as well as reserve the right to refuse service. It is important to note that the Horishi is always referred to as Sensei or Master, and it is completely his decision whether to go through with the tattooing and as the meetings progress everything remains extremely formal (bowing and showing respect towards the Horishi is very important). Rather than electric guns, the tools used in this process comprise of wooden handles with metal hari (needles) attached by silk thread in bundles varying from two to ten depending on the thickness of the line. These days, Horishi use tools with metal clips, rather than silk thread so that the needles can be easily removed and then the implement can be sterilized to prevent the spread of infection or disease.

When the process actually begins the tool is held in the right hand, a brush loaded with sumi (ink) is held between the ring and little fingers of the left hand and the hari (needles) are dipped first in the ink and then inserted under the skin. Once the outline is complete, then the shading begins – this process is called bokashi. There are several techniques in this process, the first is known as tsuki-hari or imo-hari in which the needles are merely jabbed in and pulled out. This technique is relatively simple in nature but it cannot guarantee a constant depth so is only usually used for filling in large areas of colour. To gain a more gradual shading effect and good control of the depth of the needles a technique called hane-bari is used where the needles are inserted at an angle and a sort of jumping movement is used. There is a certain amount of blood, which appears on the surface of the skin and is repeatedly wiped away but in general it is considered bad for more than a small amount of blood to be seen – however, some people do bleed more than others.

The complete process of irezumi can take up to a year (or in some cases even several years) and the client usually goes back every week or so whenever he has the time and/or money. It can be an expensive and time-consuming process but the price varies for different hiroshimi – generally, as it stands even now, the better the tattooist, the more expensive.

Kanji symbols are a widely popular choice among those seeking Japanese style tattoo designs. Kanji, one of the three scripts that make up the Japanese language are in fact Chinese characters introduced into Japan around 500AD. They are in a calligraphy-style and the characters are ideograms – meaning that each one has its own meaning and translates into words like happiness, wealth, love, lovers, laughter, sadness, beauty, duty and loyalty.

Often, expressions are built up by combining the number of kanji used, making it possible to create and display any number of messages. There are thousands of characters and an infinite number of combinations. It is very important that the artist (and you) know exactly which meaning or message you wish to convey so you don’t end up with something far from what you want tattooed on your body.

With traditional Japanese tattooing certain design elements are often paired together, the dragon and the phoenix, or lions and demons with various flowers. In effect this creates a delicate balance of power with beauty. A peony for example, or boton, is a flower symbol that is traditionally paired with a Japanese lion, or shishi. This pairing is called Karajishi and the ferocity of the lion, is tempered by the beauty of the peony. Rather than merely being a simple symbolic example of something such as yin and yang, the peony flower is a powerful tattoo design element in its own right.

Tattooists in Japan were considered extremely highly skilled craftsman who underwent a rigorous apprenticeship, living with the master for five years. He was called horimono to distinguish him from the carvers of wood, who were similarly called hori, which means ‘to carve, scrape or inscribe’. The most important skill acquired through apprenticeship was a full understanding of the meanings of the traditional designs.

The untrained tattooist may not appreciate the importance of expressing all four seasons on the skin. He might reveal his ignorance for example by incorporating both a snake and a cherry blossom in the same scene because at the time a cherry tree blooms, the snake is hibernating underground. Integral to designs were an elaborate system of symbols that, combined with the principles of yin and yang, and the use of negative space within the art, an aesthetic appreciation for the lines of the human body, and the art of telling a story through the use of specific images, was meant to reveal the individual’s character through the tattoos.

Although nowadays, some younger people may consider tattooing “trendy” or “cool”, the majority of the Japanese population still considers it as something connected to the underworld of mafia gangsters (yakuza) or a bad low class trend at best. Younger people who consider tattoos as iki – a minority among Japanese youth – tend to use partial tattoos in Western style on their upper arms where it is not directly visible.

It is no doubt that throughout the centuries, Japanese tattoo art was carried out in an almost secretive ‘underground’ manner and was virtually outlawed by the majority of governing authorities.

From the Edo period onward the Japanese foundational tattoo art images have not changed and this timeless nature is one of the key reasons why here at Zealand Tattoo we have adopted oriental art design as one of the main focus points of our business vision. On a professional level, Zane is the most passionate about this tattoo art form and has excelled in this genre to the point where he is recognized as one of the very best oriental tattoo artists in New Zealand.