Throughout the world Japanese inspired designs are amongst the most popular in tattoo art. Typical designs being kanji, Koi carp or details from Hokusai’s woodblock print ’The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ (神奈川沖浪裏). There is a delightful irony in this considering that tattooing has been outlawed or at the very least highly disapproved of throughout Japanese history.
Traditionally tattooing was seen as a sign of barbarianism and only used as punishment. In the 17th century it was used exclusively to brand criminals and outcasts. It was outlawed in the 18th century and consequently taken up by the yakuza (やくざ). It remained illegal in the 19th century amidst fears that it would seem barbaric to the West. In 1936 those who sported tattoos were rejected from the army, seen as exhibiting signs of ill discipline. It was only after WWII that it finally became legal after General MacArthur liberalised the laws.
The full body tattoos that the yukuza bore not only were intimidating to look at but also signified that the individual had konjyou (こんじょう, 根性) or guts. The yukuza considered the pain inflicted a proof of their courage, the permanence a proof of their loyalty to the group and the fact that it was illegal made them outlaws forever.
Photo by loveberry
Even though it is now legal, there is still a widespread disapproval against tattooing. These days throughout Japan those who bear tattoos are banned from bath houses (onsen, おんせん, 温泉) swimming pools and certain golf courses and gyms but the restrictions on the tattooed individual extend beyond that. It also proves difficult to get bank loans and rental contracts if you sport visible tattoos and can affect your employment opportunities.
Photo by Sushicam
Osaka Mayor Tōru Hashimoto recently asked all 33,546 of city workers if they had a tattoo, going on to suggest that all who answered yes should quit municipal government. The up-and-coming politician was backed surprisingly by one of the countries irezumi masters. The traditional art of irezumi (いれずみ, 入墨) is still applied using wooden needles and charcoal ink. Horiyoshi the Third (based in Yokohama) keeps his own ‘body armour’ concealed at all times and states that the simple art of revealing a irezumi tattoo is intended to be threatening.
However, despite the negativity surrounding it body art is becoming increasingly more popular with the younger generation. Led by fashionable celebrities such as popular singer/model/actress Ayumi Hamasaki and ‘queen of Japanese pop music’ Amuro Namie.
In fact, the trade is flourishing. There are now 500 tattoo shops which stretch all over the 4 main islands, there are 3 main magazines devoted to the art (Tattoo Burst being the most popular) and tattoo events and conventions occur at least once a month. Books on the art are even being stocked at trendier shops such as Village Vanguard.
Despite being traditionally associated with men, many women are indulging in skin art. In fact, many of the top tattoo artists are female and they dominate as editors of the tattoo magazines. Sanrio characters, kimono (きもの, 着物）prints and foo-dogs are amongst the favourite tattoo designs. Charges are almost double the European average starting at ¥15, 000 per hour.
Due to the history of subterfuge most artists still work privately by appointment echoing the underground roots of the art, if anything this increases their value and Japanese tattoo artists are coveted globally for their unique aesthetic and take on this ancient art.