Hagezumi (HESO Magazine)


Tattoos leave an impact, both literally and figurative. People are as drawn to them as they are repelled by them. In this dichotomy, the world of tattoos has either been pulled behind a veil, as in the case of Japan, or it has taken its own shirt off for all to see. Whether you have one (or several) or none, there is no denying that tattoos capture the imaginations of those who admire them, those who are disturbed by them, and those who wear them. By scratching the surface of their conflicted history in Japan, we may come closer to appreciating their austere beauty and their contextual importance. Hopefully, we may also unravel the taboo surrounding them.

Japanese Ink

Tattooing has been practiced worldwide and may date as far back as Paleolithic times. It wasn’t until the Edo Period in Japan, however, that the Japanese tattoo truly came into being. Ukiyo-e, the art of Japanese wood block printing from which Japanese tattoos originate, emerged during this period. Ukiyo-e tried to capture the “floating world” or the fleeting and ephemera pleasures of life. It represented a time when art was becoming accessible to the working class. In this way, tattoos were one of the first forms of art which were more widely accessible to the public. During the Edo Period, the heroic persona of the samurai began to wane. Corruption within the ruling class grew, as did the popularity of Ukiyo-e. An emerging Ukiyo-e artist of the time, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, made an artistic breakthrough by popularizing musha-e (warrior portraits). Using Japanese pictorials, he conceptualized the heroes of the Chinese classic, Suikoden. His heroes were decorated with tattoos of evocative images including dragons, tigers, cherry blossoms and fish.

Kuniyoshi’s depictions paid tribute to increasingly forgotten heroes of Japan’s feudal history, as well as their animal personifications. The images of valor and fortitude, discipline and patience illustrated in these Suikoden prints galvanized not only the warrior figure but also the tattoo itself. Edo citizenry were instantly drawn to those heroes and many went so far as to pledge themselves to their legacies by way of tattoo. Those who chose to adorn their skin with these images–the vast majority of them working class carpenters, laborers, and firefighters–hoped to embody the forgotten values. In fact, Edo firefighter brigades were comprised mostly of tattooed men who, on occasion, would strip down and strike menacing poses when confronting a blaze. They did so not only to dazzle rival brigades, but also to embody the courage of the samurai. Sometimes they sought to invoke the speed, agility and ferocity of the tiger, or the all-powerful dragon, which was said to live in both air and water and symbolically protect the wearer from death.

As people increasingly criticized the government for its alleged corruption, these warrior images fortified the growing belief that a restoration of the moral codes of years past was not only desirable but imperative. At a time when the government was attempting to instill strict Confucianism, Ukiyo-e and the tattoos they inspired represented a threat to the ruling class. They unsurprisingly outlawed both the pictures and the tattoos at various times for various lengths. Tattoos were further stigmatized when the government began using them as irezumi (criminal tattoos) to brand convicts. Compounded with the frequent bans, tattoos began to carry less of their heroic symbolism. Horimono (artistic tattoos) and their artists went underground where they have remained, relatively elusive and entirely private, until recently. Impeding wider acceptance, Japanese tattoos became an informal part of the Yakuza initiation process in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, in their various incarnations Japanese tattoos have persisted in the national imagination while being admired all over the world for their dramatic images, poetic and forbidding beauty, and attention to detail. Japanese influences in the western tattoo can be found as far back as the mid 1960s when famous tattoo artists like Ed Hardy hoped to elevate western tattoos to the aesthetic stature of the Japanese tradition. In turn the popularity and brazenness of the western tattoo has helped to legitimize the historical significance and unparalleled exquisiteness found in the Japanese tattoo. Tattoos continue to be an object of both veneration and contempt. Their popularity has gained momentum and their place in society has become ever more visible and pertinent. Whether you think highly of them, or have endured the pain of one, one thing is for certain; tattoos are here to stay…permanently.