The tattooed hipsters of 18th-century Japan

Tattoos are by nature fleeting, a living art form that dies with the body which serves as its canvas. But a new book manages to pin down the Japanese practice of irezumi, or traditional tattooing, by drawing on an unlikely source: 19th-century woodblock prints. “Tattoos in Japanese Prints”, by Sarah E. Thompson, curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, charts the history of tattooing in Japan and, with full-page colour prints capturing beautiful tattoos of breathtaking complexity, demonstrates why the Japanese tradition is considered to be the best in the world.

Simple tattoos were first used, in the Edo period (1616-1868), to punish criminals who were marked on the face or arm to indicate their involvement in petty crimes such as theft, a practice Thompson believes may have made tattoos a “perverse status symbol in underworld social circles”. They became popular first with bandits, then labourers, then courtesans, then finally with stylish city dwellers. The most elaborate tattoos transformed almost the entire body, extending from the neck to the elbows and knees. They often featured designs drawn from colourful woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, which abounded with dragons, demon masks, ghosts and monsters from Japanese popular culture and mythology.

As the practice of irezumi grew, it developed an inter-dependent relationship with ukiyo-e. It is thought that the first professional tattoo artists were trained as block cutters, the artisans who carved artists’ drawings into the wooden blocks used for printing – both were known as horisihi or “masters of carving”. Many artists were, in turn, inspired by irezumi and, with their prints, contributed to its popularity. Between 1827 and 1830 the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi made a series of woodblock prints to illustrate a Chinese martial-arts novel. Depicting 108 heroic outlaws battling corruption, the prints – the focus of Thompson’s book – were so in demand that she speculates they may in fact have inspired the fashion for large, pictorial tattoos. Whether they started this trend or were themselves influenced by it, the striking tattoos in Kuniyoshi’s illustrations quickly became – and continue to serve as – the templates for real-life tattoo designs in Japan.

In the late 19th century, during the Meiji era (1868-1912), tattooing was made illegal. The new rulers deemed the practice old fashioned and felt it conflicted with the image of modernity and civilisation they wished to project. The records of the tattoo parlours established during the Edo period were destroyed by police, shrouding the trends and artists of the period in mystery. The outlawed art form came to be associated with yakuza – gangs involved with organised crime.


“Onitsutaya Azamino and Gontarō” (A Man of the World, circa 1798-99) by Kitagawa Utamaro I

During the early Edo period, tattooing was associated with the licensed “pleasure quarters” of Japan’s larger cities. Courtesans would tattoo the names of their preferred clients on their upper arms, followed by the word inochi – life – with the last stroke of the word elongated to convey eternal devotion. Their clients sometimes followed suit. In this print by Kitagawa Utamaro I, a courtesan named Azamino tattooes her name onto the arm of her lover Gontarō. Her calm face and pursed lips convey a sense of concentration, while her lover’s face is contorted in pain. He clutches a long-stemmed pipe in one hand as he submits to this test of his devotion.


“Ruan Xiaowu” (The Short-Lived Second Son, circa 1827-30) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

One of the most popular of Kuniyoshi’s 75 illustrations for the Chinese martial-arts novel, “Water Margin”, this print depicts a scene from a story about a former fisherman and smuggler named Ruan Xiaowu who, with his two brothers, joined the bandits of Mount Liang. His tattoo of a fierce leopard, which is described in the original novel, is shown here peeking out from under subtle monochrome patterns that evoke the animal’s pelt and cover the hero’s entire back, as he engages in a dramatic underwater fight with an enemy general intent on capturing the bandits.


“Zhang Shun” (The White Streak in the Waves, circa 1827-30) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In the original novel on which Kuniyoshi’s illustrations are based, four of the 108 outlaws are described as having tattoos, but the artist invented some for a further 11 rebels. Here, the hero Zhang Shun – renowned for his strength and skill as a swimmer – breaks into a fortress through the water gate. Although he is not described as having tattoos in the book, Kuniyoshi covered his body, having undressed in preparation for the swim, in a complex tattoo featuring a coiled snake, thick clusters of ivy and a mountain waterfall.


“Konjin Chōgorō” (1866) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

This illustration was created by a student of Kuniyoshi as part of a series of warrior prints entitled “A Water Margin of Beauty and Bravery”, a title intended to evoke his mentor’s famous series, though in fact the stories are unrelated. Here, he captures a legendary sumo wrestler famous for his strength. One night, so the story goes, he stopped to rest at a ruined temple. When darkness fell, the figures of the guardian gods came to life and challenged him to a match. Yoshitoshi depicts the ultimately victorious wrestler engaged in battle with a grotesque green god, his enormous body blooming with vivid red peonies which seem to cascade down a waterfall.



“Actors Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Asahina Tōbei (right), Nakamura Shikan IV as Washi no Chōkichi (centre) and Sawamura Tosshō II as Yume no Ichibei (left)” (1868) by Toyohara Kunichika

Made to appeal to a mass audience, many woodblock prints featured likenesses of popular kabuki actors. This one is based on a scene from a play in which one man tries to break up a fight between two others after a sumo wrestling match. Though the play is set in the past, Toyohara Kunichika’s design shows contemporary actors dressed in fashionable clothing and covered in ink. One actor is decked out in peonies, another shoulders an eagle and the third turns his back to reveal a dragon and a tiger battling each other, in an echo of the human aggressors. Unable to discover any record of these actors performing this play, Thompson thinks that the artist probably invented the scene to please the actors’ fans.



“A Roof-Raising Ceremony on an Auspicious Day” (1860) by Utagawa Kunisada I

The fashion for large, elaborate tattoos was most popular among manual labourers: construction workers, porters, grooms, palanquin carriers and firemen. In this colourful woodblock print, Kunisada depicts construction workers in the middle of a roof-raising ceremony, traditionally used to mark the completion of a new building’s framework. One of the six carpenters gathered for the ceremonial placement of the ridgepole has removed his jacket, revealing the elaborate floral tattoos draped over his shoulders and arms. In an attempt to boost the appeal of the print, the artist has given each carpenter the face of a famous local actor.

Tattoos in Japanese Prints Sarah E. Thompson (MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), available now


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