Irezumi: Japan’s Irreplaceable Tattoo Culture

Tattooing in Japan may be dated back to the Jōmon era, or Japan’s paleolithic period, when it was employed for spiritual and ornamental purposes (about 10,000 BCE). Tattoos have a troubled history in Japan, having been linked to criminals and the yakuza gang. For a while, the Japanese government also forbade inking, contributing to the prevailing unfavorable impression in Japanese society. Even today, certain places with “No Tattoos” signs, such as public baths, fitness centers, and hot springs, absolutely exclude tattooed patrons.

Irezumi is a verb and a noun tattoo. Tattoos have been used as both a form of ornamentation and a method of punishment in Japan for ages (bokkei). Discover the history of Japanese irezumi, from its modest origins to the present.

Japanese tattoos are done by hand using metal needles connected with silk thread and wooden handles. The irezumi method necessitates the application of a specific ink known as Nara ink or zumi. The Japanese body inking technique is time-consuming and uncomfortable.

An iruzumi artist is called a Horishi, and there are relatively few of them left today. A Horishi will have one or two apprentices who will labor and study the skill for a long time.

Irezumi in the Edo period

The next significant movement in tattoo history occurs during the Edo period, when artists used art to fight against the harsh social order of the Tokugawa shogunate’s military tyranny, making irezumi an aesthetic choice. Motifs popular in woodblock prints were incorporated into tattoo designs, which appeared about the same time as parodic woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e.

Figure 2 shows how they regularly featured images of specific heroes in literature. Irezumi were not recognized by the ruling class because of a Confucian belief that believed any change to your body was an expression of contempt toward your parents. Tattoos, unlike common thought, were so fashionable that the samurai declared them illegal. However, because of difficulties in implementing this regulation, irezumi continued to be made.

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Irezumi in the 19th century

As Western countries began to show interest in Japan in the nineteenth century, the danger of colonization compelled the government to emphasize presenting a civilized, powerful image. Tattoos were viewed as a symbol of savagery that did not belong in a civilized culture. As a result, the Japanese emperors established a countrywide tattoo prohibition in 1872.

Following this, it was mostly the Japanese mafia known as the Yakuza that kept tattooing alive. As a result of this tendency, many Japanese civilians believe that those who get tattoos are members of the Yakuza, hence tattoo owners frequently experience discrimination and terror from the community. The restriction was abolished by the occupying troops of the United States in 1948, however this had a detrimental impact on the view of tattoos. The lifting of the restriction by Americans made many Japanese even more resentful of the practice.

Traditional Japanese tattooing methods

Traditional tattoo design should be left up to the tattoo artist, however nowadays it is becoming trendy to utilize pre-made designs or even bring your own. However, if you decide to have a classic irezumi tattoo, you should be informed that the process will be lengthy, painful, and costly. Tattooing your arms, thighs, and chest might take up to 5 years.

Initially, the tattoos were created using the same instruments used to produce wood engravings, namely chisels and burins. The color originated from nara ink, also known as nara black, which was made from temple lamp soot. After being injected under the skin, the ink is known to become green-blue.

A true Japanese tattoo should be done by a tattoo expert (horishi) with a traditional tebori, which is a bamboo pole with a metal hari needle connected with silk thread. Point by point, the color is inserted beneath the skin, which is poked at an angle. Nara black is being used as an ink today. Red, green, indigo, yellow, and colors created by blending these are also employed.

Before tattooing, the artist conducts extensive discussions with the customer, and only then does he offer his proposal. If the design is accepted, he begins his job by hand sketching the outlines. After that, the colors and shadows are progressively applied. After finishing the piece, the author generally signs it on the back.

Credit: Flickr

The meanings and designs of Japanese tattoos

The most prevalent motif is a dragon, which is a symbol of water and rain rather than fire. It embodies both charity and knowledge. The koi is another common design. Because of their proclivity to swim upstream the Yellow River against the current, these fish are regarded as emblems of power and courage. Those who complete this tough process are changed into dragons, which is why the koi also represents endurance and a positive change.

A frequent topic is the snake, which represents knowledge and wisdom. Skin shedding is seen as a sign of regeneration and healing. A phoenix tattooed on one’s body represents rebirth and victory. A tiger represents bravery and power. In addition, a tiger tattoo is said to ward against calamities and evil spirits. A lion with pointed ears tattoo protects its owner and is designed for individuals who admire heroism.

Flowers are another common Japanese tattoo topic. Lotus represents comprehension, knowledge, and enlightenment. The weak cherry blossoms represent death. Chrysanthemums are the epitome of perfection and durability. Roses are connected with new beginnings and equilibrium, but when given with a stem, they are understood in the opposite manner – as a symbol of recklessness and loss. The peony represents elegance, the orchid represents power and strength, and the hibiscus represents kindness.

The Oni mask is a common topic as well. It is the visage of a bad spirit or demon, and it is connected with sickness, calamities, and sadness in Shint and Japanese mythology. A person who has such a tattoo expresses their belief in devils that punish wicked individuals in our midst.

It is worth noting that Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom, who “brought” a dragon irezumi memento from Japan, helped to popularize tattoos as a form of body decoration in Europe. Shortly after the press made it public, other aristocracy expressed an interest in getting tattoos, and the first European tattoo workshop opened in 1870.

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