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Tattoo Style Series: Japanese Traditional

Tattoo Style Series - Japanese Traditional


In the vibrant world of tattooing, there are a plethora of unique styles to choose from. However none are more universally recognizable than the style of irezumi, or traditional Japanese.


You may have seen some examples yourself; a bright koi, a serpentine dragon, a snarling mask with tusks, or even perhaps a full body suit where several themes are incorporated. These are all classic concepts of this beautiful style, and its history is just as intriguing.



Irezumi, to carve or engrave, is traditionally performed with an instrument called a nomi, which is a long stick of either metal or wood with several needles attached to the end. The number of needles will vary depending on whether the outline or the shading is being done.


The tattooist supports the nomi between the thumb and index finger and uses quick jabbing motions to insert the ink under the skin. Many masters of this technique can go just as fast as a tattoo machine! This process is called tebori, the art of creating tattoos by hand and originated from the artform ukiyo-e, the carving of wood to create a relief print with ink.


To understand this particular connection it is crucial to learn of the extensive history of Japanese tattooing, which goes back thousands of years.



Jomon Period (roughly 10,000 - 300 BC)


Clay figures from this period were found near the city of Osaka with scarification and tattoos represented on their faces and bodies with ink. These artifacts are among the first evidence of tattooing in Japan.


Also during this period, the indigenous Ainu women of Hokkaido saw tattoos as more than just body art. They were a crucial rite of passage before marriage, protection from evil, and assured the individual's place in the afterlife. Starting at a young age, a small dot would be tattooed above the upper lip and more ink would be added until a large design around the entire mouth was formed. Intricate braiding patterns on the hands and arms were common as well.


Body art of this kind was exclusive to Ainu women, both in application and in wearing, and a woman was not considered ready for either marriage or the afterlife without them.



Yayoi Period (300 BC - 300 AD)


One of the few sources of information regarding the history of irezumi is from the writings of Chinese travelers as they visited Japan.


In their journals they described the tattooed bodies of Japanese men and women and thought the designs held spiritual significance or were seen as status symbols. One explorer told of the decorative markings the men bore; they believed the designs protected them while they dove for fish.


Kofun Period (300 - 600 AD)


It wasn't until the Western world began taking notice of Japan that tattoos took on a negative connotation. At this time the Japanese government wished its people to appear civilized and educated to the Western tourists and travelers, therefore the practice of tattooing criminals was started.


Those found guilty of non-violent crimes such as theft were tattooed on their foreheads so everyone would know they were lawbreakers. This practice was known as bokkei. Their first offense would earn them the first stroke of a character, usually a demeaning term such as 'dog,' and repeat offenses would add marks until the word was complete.


Other punishment patterns included a cluster of three dots, lines, or other characters tattooed onto the face or forehead to represent their misdeeds. This made it very difficult for these individuals to secure employment and instantly labeled them as miscreants in society.


Thankfully a law that passed in 1872 stopped the practice but the criminal associations with tattoos has remained to this day.



Edo Period (1603 - 1868)


The Edo Period is as much a time in history as it was a place; before Tokyo became the capital of Japan, it was known as Edo. During this time tattoos were still used as a form of punishment, but small trends began developing among those who still saw the practice as an artform. One in particular was a design of two lovers and the piece was only finished when their hands touched for the first time.


However, it wasn't until the publication of a particular Chinese novel Suikoden by Shi Nai'an that the irezumi revolution exploded. It was a tale of bravery, courage, and illustrated with woodblock prints of heroic men adorned with impressive tattoos. The book was a huge success and demand for that specific type of body art rose with it. People became fascinated with the beautiful dragons, lions, koi, and samurai etched in the characters' skin and wanted their own.


The woodcarvers of the time saw this movement as an opportunity and transferred their craft to tattooing. In fact, tattooists and woodcrafters alike were known as horishi. The same tools used for creating prints were utilized to create images in flesh, including gouges and chisels, making this new form of body modification both painful and time consuming. Even so, this practice became immensely popular especially among firemen who considered the designs as forms of protection, both physical and spiritual.




It's difficult to discuss irezumi without mentioning the yakuza, as their histories are very much intertwined. The yakuza refers to the Japanese mafia and the gang members themselves, with the term being synonymous with either. The organization is an old one and is still alive in Japan today.


Their culture was heavily influenced by the practice of bokkei, and initiation included receiving full body irezumi which sometimes took years to finish. Great respect is shown to yakuza with completed body suits, as it shows the level of dedication and patience needed to endure the process.


Irezumi is meant to be worn under clothes to prevent unwanted attention, and this is especially important for the yakuza. Many establishments in Japan will still refuse entry to anyone sporting visible ink, showing that the reputation of bokkei still precedes itself.


Irezumi designs are cut off at the wrists, neck, and ankles and a strip of bare skin is usually left down the chest so the images will remain hidden even if the shirt is unbuttoned.


Popular themes in these pieces include stories of the wearer's life, images of protection and defense, and mythological tales with wonderful beasts.


The creation of a full body suit can take years. Great respect is shown to yakuza with completed body suits, as it shows the level of dedication and patience needed to endure the process.


Irezumi is a sacred and private part in the lives of yakuza. Only close friends and family are permitted to view the artwork. In fact, irezumi artists only tattoo clients through word of mouth; they do not advertise their services and usually tattoo out of their own homes.


Subjects - Dragons


The themes and subjects of traditional Japanese tattooing are numerous and fascinating, and what better place to start than with the dragon.


The oriental dragon, or Ryu, differs greatly from the Western beasts we're familiar with. They have the attributes of many different animals; the ears of a cow, eyes of a rabbit, stag horns, and the sharp talons of an eagle.


Whether or not the dragon is tattooed in color depends on its age - creatures 500 years or older are seen with colored scales and younger ones are not, as they have yet to earn them. Ryu represents strength, wisdom, good fortune, and are believed to protect the wearer.




One of the most symbolic creatures in Japan, koi are widely revered for the courage, bravery, and ambition they represent. According to legend, a school of koi were swimming in the Yellow River and attempting to jump over the waterfall at the other end. Demons watching decided to raise the height of the waterfall out of spite, and many koi failed in ascending it. However, one fish tried harder than the others and made it over the top. Rewarded for its efforts, the gods transformed it into a golden dragon.




Japanese theatre, called Noh, is highly stylized and tells the stories of popular myths and legends. The actors wore masks to portray the intense emotions of the people they were playing, with hannya masks used specifically to symbolize a vengeful woman consumed by anger and jealousy. Her negative energy transformed her into a demon with large fangs, horns, and agonized eyes. Tattooed hannya masks are often colored according to which story is being represented; the tale of unrequited love may be a milder color while a more violent, passionate tale would be depicted in bright red.


Foo Dogs


Foo dogs, otherwise known as Chinese guardian lions, Komainu, or Shishi are a common theme found in art, sculpture, and irezumi. They are actually stylized lions and often appear in pairs. The left is considered female, yin, and the right is seen as male, yang. They are protectors and defenders, usually seen guarding Buddhist temples, homes, restaurants, and businesses. Having the two together is essential in keeping balance - you would never see just one half of the yin yang design.


Other irezumi subjects include cherry blossoms, samurai, maple leaves, phoenixes, and tigers. For full body irezumi, it is the combination of images together that defines the overall meaning or story of the piece.




If one has the desire to learn how to perform irezumi, they must be prepared for a rigorous and difficult apprenticeship. Reaching back to the 18th century, these learning periods are known as deshiiri and only the most dedicated students complete the training.


It is common for the apprentice to live with an irezumi master to learn the trade, usually for five years. During this time they are not permitted to tattoo, only watch the master as he works on clients. There are no stencils in traditional irezumi - designs must be established from memory and the apprentice is expected to learn the lore and myths of the characters being tattooed.




While modern day Japan still frowns upon tattoos because of past criminal affiliations, they are steadily becoming more accepted and tolerated. This is in great part due to influence from the West; people are fascinated by the beautiful, meaningful designs of irezumi and travel many miles to receive their own.


This article is merely a brief outline of the history of irezumi - further research is encouraged to learn more about this amazing and secretive style of tattooing.

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Leah Hervoly
January 23, 2020
show Leah's posts
Samantha A
September 20, 2018
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