History of Japanese Irezumi Tattoo

Japanese Irezumi Tattoo evolved over many decades to the artform that we recognize today.

The first designs were very simple, and were made with hand held tools. Here is a short description of the history and development of Japanese Irezumi Tattoo. Information with the courtesey of Wikipedia.com
Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jomon or paleolithic period (approximately 10000 BCE). Some scholars have suggested that the distinctive cord-marked patterns observed on the faces and bodies of figures dated to that period represent tattoos, but this claim is by no means unanimous.

There are similarities, however, between such markings and the tattoo traditions observed in other contemporaneous cultures. It is true that these simple designs and "Markings" are hard to associate with the complex designs and patterns that we have come to recognize in Japanese Irezumi tattoo designs.

In the following Yayoi period (C. 300BCE - 300CE) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol.

Starting in the Kofun period (300-600CE) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as "I am a slave who has run away from his master").

Until the Edo period (1600-1868CE) the role of tattoos in Japanese society fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos -- some featuring designs that would be completed only when lovers' hands were joined -- also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese irezumi tattoo designs began to develop into the advanced art form it is known as today.

The impetus for the development of the art were the development of the art of woodblock printing and the release of the popular Chinese novel Suikoden, a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous.

Woodblock artists began tattooing. They used many of the same tools for imprinting designs in human flesh as they did to create their woodblock prints, including chisels, gouges and, most importantly, unique ink known as Nara ink, or Nara black, the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin.

There is academic debate over who wore these elaborate tattoos. Some scholars say that it was the lower classes who wore -- and flaunted -- such tattoos. Others claim that wealthy merchants, barred by law from flaunting their wealth, wore expensive japanese irezumi tattoo designs under their clothes. It is known for certain that irezumi became associated with firemen, dashing figures of bravery and roguish sex-appeal who wore them as a form of spiritual protection (and, no doubt, for their beauty as well).

Japanese Irezumi Tattoo Gaining Popularity

At the beginning of the Meiji period the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West, outlawed tattoos, and Japanese irezumi tattoo took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.

Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but unfortunately has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese irezumi tattoo designs were associated with the yakuza, Japan's notorious mafia, and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.

Tattooing and other forms of body decoration and body modification, as in much of the western world, are gaining in popularity in Japan. However, Japanese young people who choose to get tattooed are most often choosing "one point" designs -- small designs that can be completed in one sitting -- usually in the American or tribal styles. More recently, however sanskrit scrypts Siddham script tattoos are getting more and more fashionable, due to the fact Kanji tattoos really look weird to Asian eyes.

Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take 1-5 years of once-per-week visits to complete and cost more than US$45,000.

Another form of Japanese Tattoo that is getting very popular nowadays, is Kanji tattoo designs.

My take on it is because of the simplicity of the designs and the ease with which you can convey a concept with a single symbol. a word of cuation though, make sure that you know exactly what your symbol means before you go ahead with it.

To Return to the Japanese Tattoo page, please click here.

If you did not quite find what you were looking for, please go back to our home page and make another selection, or use google to search for more options.