Best Guide To Japanese Tattoos History, Legality and Design

Dragons with snarling nostrils enveloped in flame, light pink cherry blossoms floating within the wind, Hannya’s leering and geisha’s smiling….these are the icons of Japanese tattooing, Irezumi. A tradition with ancient roots in human history, Japanese style tattoo design are some of the most revered artworks within the tattoo community.we go into the chronicles of time to expound upon the history, imagery, legality, and artists who practice this incredibly important cultural art form, In this guide to Irezumi.

traditional japanese tattoo method
traditional japanese tattoo method

History of Japanese Tattoos

To primitive clay figurines who were decorated with tribal tattoos and found within archaic tombs within the continent, The lineage of Japanese tattooing can be traced back almost 5,000 years ago. There are also some ancient Chinese texts, the first from about 297 AD called Wei Chih, that speak about the Japanese tradition of tattooing, and mentioned that men of all ages would have Japanese style tattoos designs on all parts of the body, including the face.

Tattooing quickly became perceived as a negative practice, although it seems that this was expressive folk art. Criminals were branded with tattoos, rather than be put to death or receive long sentences. These were often bands, symbols, Japanese characters, or dots on the Japanese tattoo on arm or forehead.

There are also indigenous tribal peoples like the Ainu who are well-known for their mouth tattoos that were created from rubbing birch ash in small incisions, However, at this time. These pieces were only for Ainu women, and at the hands of a priestess, were started from a young age.

They were also deeply sacred and religious and not only were these tattoos seen as a way to distinguish social status and coming of age. Because of the ritual, It was said that demons and disease would be kept away. The tattoos of ancient Okinawans, or rather Uchinanchu peoples are Very similar to this practice.

japanese style tattoo design
japanese style tattoo design

Again, only reserved for women, these Japanese style tattoo designs were indigo in color and done mostly on the hands, called hajichi, to symbolize the onset of marriage, womanhood, or social status. To ward off evil and bring security within this lifetime, they were also thought. But as time went on, the traditional Japanese tattoo method was watched with negativity, and in the late 1800s was officially banned.

Behind the ban, there were many reasons. Hopes to be viewed as a sophisticated country by European states, as well as a wish to repress criminal activity, for making tattoos illegal, created a foundation. In relation to the Uchinanchu women in Okinawa, Alexis Miyake explains. 

The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence. Women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called origami while men were called umiki — the rulers of the secular domain,  According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs. 

Hajichi functioned as  transmitters and signifiers of female power.” Destroying culture and religious affiliations also meant more power and control to the government, and the perception around Japanese tattooing continued to evolve, therefore.

Of course, they were within the lower casts of society mainly and many people persisted in their practice of the Japanese tattooing tradition underground. Labourers, Firemen and gang-affiliated members, those who fought against government laws and control, all continued to be enamoured with tattoos. not only due to the illegality of it, the ink was a symbol of courage and bravery, but also due to the intense pain of the lengthy process. 

For firemen, and others involved in dangerous exploits, they were also a protective element. Perhaps one of the main reasons outlaws were so captivated with tattooing, however, was a Chinese novel by the name of Shui Hu Zhuan, or Water Margin; a story about 108 outlaws and their exploits.

history of tattoos in japan
history of tattoos in japan

The lengthy-time described how many of the characters had intricate tattoos illustrating legends and folklore creatures, all of which were greatly influenced by the woodblock movement called Ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e prints were to drastically shape the aesthetics and design iconography of Japanese style tattoo design.

Ukiyo-e translates to Pictures of the Floating World. They are perhaps the most well-known art form from Japan to the Western World. It depicts beautiful nature scenes, daily life for courtesans and peasants alike, fashion plates,  animals, stories of war, ghosts, and even erotic episodes like those within Shunga.

Due to the way they were created with blocks of wood, several depending on the intricacy of the design, the style of Ukiyo-e is very particular. 

Wonderfully colourful, graceful illustrative linework, flattened perspectives, and unique use of negative space was all to inform not only European painters like Monet and Van Gogh, but also craft movements like Art Nouveau, and even Irezumi, Japanese tattooing, itself.

Imagery Within Japanese Tattoos

All of the imagery within Japanese tattooing has great meaning and it is no wonder that. Due to the history of tattoos in Japan, this has continued to be a revered and important aspect of the tradition. , Thought in Asian culture as a wise creature with the strength to wield the universe in their favor and to bring blessings to the bearer, Perhaps the most iconic image is that of the dragon.

japanese style tattoo artists

A popular theme within Japanese tattooing is Koi, the Japanese carp fish. They are found to be elements in many folktales and legends and to possess a great amount of work ethic, courage, and the ability to flow, like water, through the hardships of life.  However, there is the story of Kintaro, which shows that koi can also be stubborn and dangerous. Other well-known images are Fu Dogs or Chinese guardian lions ‘shishi’.

They are protectors and bring the wearer stability in wealth and health during their lifetime. As with many aspects of Irezumi, the meaning behind the work is dependent on placement, colors used, and other images surrounding the main concept.

Issues of Legality Within Japanese Tattooing

The high quality in artistic skill, nor the important cultural and historical aspects of Japanese tattooing, there is the point of legality to be noted, No matter the depth in meaning. Tattooing is still being waged against by government officials and mainstream society. With contemporary affiliations to gang members, Yakuza, and criminal activity, 

An article was done by the Economist on Irezumi mentioning that Toru Hashimoto, the then-mayor of Osaka, “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”, in 2012. This is a sentiment shared by much of the professional world of Japan, and indeed, most of society. 

In fact, as per what the law states, only people with a sufficient medical license can put ink into the skin with a needle. A tattooist in Osaka, Taiki Masuda,  had his studio raided by police and he was fined US$3,000 for tattooing without a medical license in 2015, his case continues to be open in 2018Still fighting against the charges laid against him.

old school japanese tattoo

Artists Who Do Japanese Tattoos

Due to the illegality of Japanese tattooing, many Japanese style tattoo artists have been pushed underground, and their studios are often difficult to find. Tattooing however thankfully still continues, not only through traditional Irezumi artists such as  Horitomo, Horiyoshi III,  Horikoshi, Horimasa, and Horitada but also through non-Japanese tattooists who practice in Japan and other parts of the globe. 

japanese style tattoos designs
japanese style tattoos designs

Henning Jorgensen, Chris Garver,  Mike Rubendall, Ami James, Lupo Horiokami, Sergey Buslaev,  Rion, Brindi, Dansin, Luca Ortis,  and Wendy Pham are all artists who either merge Japanese tattooing aesthetic with their own personal stylings or follow the guidelines of traditional Irezumi. When artists merge Irezumi with Neo-Traditional, Illustrative, or New School techniques to create a whole new look within the genre, it is called Neo Japanese.

Japanese tattooing is an incredibly important cultural art form that needs to be supported, preserved, and cultivated with respect and understanding. Its beauty lies within the vast historical and symbolic aspects that make it such an awe-inspiring Japanese style tattoo artists outlet. Irezumi is one of the foundations of modern tattooing worth complete reverence and admiration, from Buddhist deities, brightly coloured kimono, water lilies of the floating world, and compelling, dynamic dragons of ancient folklore.