One man alone will spend $30,000 over five years chiseling visions of fearless warriors, carp and mythical tigers into his skin; only to be wrapped in clothes and hidden away. This is the life of Irezumi: Japan’s art of tattooing. To visitors the forbidden nature of this meticulously crafted art can seem puzzling, if not strangely ironic. The answer lies beneath Irezumi’s colourful skin where stories of conformity, power struggles and cultural repression date back to the Jomon period of 10,000BC.
Irezumi’s beauty comes from its craft; years of painstaking practice and study drive the work of all great hand-tattooists. Yet to understand the public’s strained relationship with the art, one must look back to the time of samurai.
It was the EDO period (1600–1868 AD) when the true decadence of decorative tattoo art came to be. During these last days of traditional Japan, the country was recovering from centuries of internal conflict, living in relative peace under the Shogunate of Tokugawa. Here, a Chinese novel Suikoden gathered immense popularity with tales of rebel warriors, their bodies awash with tigers, mythical beasts and religious icons. Lavish woodblock prints were used to create the novel’s images which soon led to a demand for the same illustrations to appear on men’s skin. Using the same hammers and chisels from the woodblocks, tattooists would gouge Nara ink (the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin) into the skin of willing subjects. Motivations for these extravagant pieces differ little from the modern day with roguish sex appeal and displays of wealth driving the desires of many.
Having enjoyed years of growth the tides changed in the mid-1850s with the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s trade ships. The American demanded Japan open its doors to trade or face the brutal realities of colonisation. Choosing to avoid further conflict the newly created Meiji government obliged the Commodore, deciding to put their best foot forward by showing how civilised the country already was. Unfortunately for Irezumi this meant the outright banning of tattoos in 1872.
Although the industry persevered through an elaborate underground operation, catering to foreigners and Japanese alike, Irezumi wouldn’t be freed from its illegal status until 1948. Ironically, the move was initiated by the allied occupation forces, whose adoration for Irezumi stemmed from their time in Japanese harbours.
Over the next 40 years a new love for Irezumi blew from east to west. America’s imagination was captivated by a pair of Japanese influenced artists Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, who strived to better the work of Japan’s own masters. In the east however favour was waining, all thanks to an organisation best known as the Yakuza.
Images of fearless warriors girthed by cherry blossoms now came to represent criminality throughout Tokyo and the rest of Japan. The Yakuza’s interest in Irezumi came from a set of connotations; they felt because tattooing was painful, it was a proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them outlaws forever. Hollywood further propagated associations with criminality by featuring gang lords in action movies adorned in Irezumi. The Japanese government’s response to the group came in 1992 with a series of new Anti-organised crime laws aimed at subduing the Yakuza.
The move led artists to report a significant drop in interest from members.
Irezumi is still plagued by criminal stigmas to this day, with outspoken enemies of the art crusading for its renewed ban. In 2012 Osaka’s mayor suggested public service workers should either have their tattoos removed or find work elsewhere in the private sector. Many bath houses (Onsens) outside of tourist districts have strict policies banning those with tattoos from entering, with many others insisting all tattoos be covered.
Despite lingering objections Irezumi retains a popular standing amongst Japanese youth, drawn in by its beauty and craftsmanship. Today, Irezumi lives as a right of passage, an expression of individuality weaved between threads of Japan’s complex past. Visitors who acquire their own Irezumi will forever travel with one of the world’s most appreciated and contentious forms of cultural art.
Find out how to get your own tattoo in Japan here