A Bit of Tattoo History from Japan

posted in: Uncategorized

I was immersed in the local culture of tattooing in Japan last year when I toured there. My host, as luck would put it, was a master tattoo artist and is very well respected there. He does not have any shop or tattoo parlor in the literal sense, and does much of his tattooing at the back of his house, under a very old and very large cherry tree. He does not accept many customers anymore, only a select chosen few, from a list kept by his assistant. His assistant does accept future reservations, but it is not a sure thing of when you will be entertained, or if ever. I caught a stolen glance at his list and I was dumbfounded that it was long, a couple of pages long in fact.

I don’t know the reason why it is that way, and was afraid to ask, I only assumed that it is because of his old age or his frail arms. Or maybe some belief, or the name of who is in the list, yeah, maybe that and other things I know nothing about.

They call their art Irezumi , roughly translated in the English language, it means the introduction of ink beneath the skin to leave an enduring mark. He has been performing Irezumi for many years since he was young. I asked him if he ever remembered or recounted exactly how many he had done, as many as the flowers that bloom on this tree, along with a sly grin, was the only answer that I got, and I knew it was true somewhat.

He was tattooing a man that day, and it seems that it has been a number of times the man has been under his needles, because the whole of his back was covered in tattoos and only a part of his chest was bare. Some of the tattoos were almost fresh, as signs of tattoo scabbing was still clearly visible on them. And upon seeing my curiosity piqued, he asked me a question. Do you know that Irezumi, beautiful as it is, was once considered as punishment? I kept silent and un-answering as he narrated how it was so.

Tattooing, considered permanent and visible, was used during the Edo period to identify lowlifes during that time. Criminals were marked on their forehead so people would be able to know that they had committed a crime. Japanese characters such as “dog” were inscribed atop their brows signifying the thieves as such, several tattooed lines or dots, also on the criminal’s forehead indicated how many times they have committed crimes, and tattooed crosses, which means bad or evil, were also used to brand them.

Then he said that it was also during that time, that the Irezumi got its distinctive and intricate kind of art form. Because the same criminals who have tattoos stamped all over their bodies, began covering them up with several layers of tattooed art, so it will not show anymore their true meanings and their true identity.

But seeing through the ruse, the common people was on to the criminals and knew what they were trying to do. Therefore unconsciously, starting from that time then until now, tattoos has always been equated to criminals, gangsters and in general, people who do bad things. I nodded in complete agreement.

I learned many things from him during my month long stay there. I really would like to have a chance to visit him again.

Comments are closed.

  • Archives

  • Pets links