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The Japanese tattoo is an ancient art. Haniwa, small clay figurines, some bearing facial tattoos, have been found in tombs that date from the fourth or fifth century. It is thought that the tattoo signified social rank or warded off evil spirits and wild animals. Over time, the custom faded and it became the fate of criminals, in the old Chinese manner, to be tattooed on the face as a form of punishment. It has been suggested that, in a society where ostracism is the most severe punishment, tattooing became a decorative art as people sought to hide these incriminating symbols of shame within more elaborate shapes and patterns.

Love and religion seem to have been significant inspiration for early Japanese tattoos. Lovers, courtesans and lowly prostitutes would often have the name of a lover written on the inner arm, with the kanji for inochi (life), symbolizing a pledge of eternal love, added. Edo period (1603-1867) literature abounds with references to pledge tattoos, or irebokuro as they were known.

A singular aspect of the Japanese tattoo is that, rather than being almost exclusively a mark of punishment or an element of ritual, it became an immensely popular fashion statement among working-class urbanites of the late 18th century to mid-19th century, despite a ban on tattoos from 1789 to 1801. That was when the tattoo found favor among the growing legions of laborers, rickshaw pullers, criminals, firefighters, artisans and women of the pleasure quarters. The designs flowered from simple messages, invocation or pledge into fuller pictorial forms capable of integrating complex secondary design motifs into a grander overall concept.

For the merchants and samurai who swarmed into the entertainment quarters of Edo, people who wore tattoos were an exotic sight. There were even tattoo exhibitions, with judges and prizes. Tattoos have never received official favor in Japan, however, and are still frowned upon in polite society. During the Edo period expressions of individuality among the masses were invariably interpreted as subversive, a potential cause of social unrest, and accordingly repressed. Tattooing was an obvious target for the government and it was frequently banned, although the bans were largely ignored.

The Japanese tattoo is closely akin to the Japanese woodblock print in design, coloring and techniques, and the popularity of artists like Utagawa Kunisada and Kitagawa Utamaro, who all vigorously depicted the figures of tattooed actors, courtesans and gods, and whose work had enormous appeal at all social levels, coincided with the blossoming of tattoo art among the plebeian masses. As the ukiyo-e woodblock print gradually acquired more color and complexity of design, so the motifs and pigments used in tattooing grew more ambitious and subtle.

Edo firefighters, colorful characters who might almost have stepped out of fiction themselves, were among the first to wear full-body tattoos-works that cover everything but hands, feet and head. Different groups of firefighters displayed different preferences in their tattoo designs, but all seem to have included a protective water symbol of some kind, usually a carp or water dragon. Although tattoos were still regarded with suspicion by the authorities and condemned as "deleterious to public morals," a newly affluent middle class, enthusiastic patrons in all fields of art, were showing much curiosity and appreciation of tattooing, though never going quite as far as to submit to one themselves.

With the opening of the country in the 1860s, renewed efforts were made to suppress tattooing. This time, the ban was not out of concern that personal liberties would encourage an uprising among the masses, but out of concern that the newly arriving emissaries from the West would denounce tattooing as barbaric. Tattoo artists suddenly found that, while their regular Japanese clientele had dried up, they were being asked to do tattoos on the very foreigners whom the authorities sought to protect. Back Kuniyoshi

Abstracted from The indelible art of the tattoo, Stephen Mansfield, Japan Quarterly, 1/1/99     SiteMap   More Tattoos