Page 1

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 1

Tattoos of the floating world Ukiyo-e motifs in the Japanese tattoo

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 2

Basis Tattoo-mp4_Basis Tattoo/mp4.qxd 03-01-12 13:03 Pagina 3

Ukiyo-e motifs in the Japanese tattoo

tat t o o s o f t h e f l o at i n g w o r l d Takahiro Kitamura

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 4

For Mom and Dad, for showing me how art could enrich my life

cover | Back with tattooed figure with Raijin. title | Back with dragon design. Upper leg with snake design. Upper leg with carp design. Upper leg with snake design.

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 5


Foreword by Donald Richie Preface

6 8



1 | A brief history of Japanese tattooing


2 | The popular arts of ukiyo-e and irezumi


3 | Triumvirate in arts


4 | The artist’s circle


5 | The tattoo as higher art


6 | Separate ways


7 | Ukiyo-e motifs in the Japanese tattoo


8 | The Japanese tattoo: a personal view by Don Ed Hardy


Short Biographies: Horiyoshi III


Don Ed Hardy










Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 6



Traditional art in Japan, as traditional art anywhere, exists only insofar as it can be rendered profitable or otherwise socially useful. Ikebana flower arranging and the cha-no-yu tea ceremony are, among others, big business; Ne and Kabuki still have a degree of social Êclat which ensures their survival. Other traditional arts and crafts are disappearing, however. The art of the kimonomaker is now greatly reduced as kimonos are rarely worn. The craft of the tatamimaker is all but obsolete, as most Japanese dwellings no longer have mat-covered floors; much traditional architecture – temple and shrine building for example – is curtailed because specialised carpenters can no longer be found. The tattoo has always fallen between craft and traditional arts and its contemporary fate reflect theirs. Full-body tattoos are expensive, costing as much as $20,000, and time consuming, sometimes taking several years to complete. The cost, the time and pain have never deterred customers. Indeed, these factors also ensure exclusivity. In addition, there is a social aspect always pleasing in Japan. Tattoos are a bond, uniting people. Historically, Edo firemen formed a strong political group and their tattoos helped create and publicise this strength. Even today the tattoo can be seen as a guild mark. Currently many sushi-makers sport discrete tattoos and until fairly recently, tattooed carpenters were commonplace. One group is notorious for its tattoos. The underworld Yakuza actually has fewer tattoos, but so much has been made of them and the fearful aura they radiate that the tattoo is closely associated with gangland violence in the Japanese mind. Superstition and the media have created this misconception. Formulaic Japanese films in which the Yakuza invariably sport threatening tattoos are a particular culprit. Thus, as a traditional art, tattooing is not really profitable (the tattoo master has fewer and fewer customers) and not socially useful, as public opinion confers something akin to pariah status on the tattooed. Most public baths and saunas ban them, the police order those with tattoos to keep their shirts on during otherwise unclothed festivals, and some countries such as The Philippines will not admit tattooed people. Such financial and social obstacles never really discouraged the true aficionado. Throughout its long history in Japan, the tattoo has often been banned, disappearing under the kimono until it was safe to re-emerge. Now, however, there are further complications.

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 7

One is that while the traditional Japanese tattoo is disappearing, body decoration in the form of the Western-style tattoo is proliferating. The wilful young display their mild dissent in Maori-warrior decorations or Elvis Presley images on their biceps. No one chooses the image of Benten, Kannon, or Kintaro riding a carp up a waterfall. The very popularity of such body-con alternatives help ensure the demise of the traditional Japanese tattoo. Indeed, more often than not, decorations on the skin of the young are only nominally tattoos. They are transfers, commercially designed decalcomanias, lasting a day or two before they wash off. They require no commitment, no time or money, and they don’t hurt. Another complication is that, just as ship-carpenters and shrine-builders are dying trades, so the traditional tattooist is increasingly hard to find. Most of the older masters are dead and those now working cannot attract apprentices. A few youngsters have set themselves up with electric needles, aniline dyes and James Dean copy-books, but this is not traditional Japanese tattooing. Yoshihito Nakano, who practices under his title Horiyoshi III is in a way the last of a long and illustrious line. He received his title and full-body tattoo from his late master, Yoshitsugu Muramatsu. He continues the traditional art, tattoos by hand (not just by machine), respects the evolved iconography, and resists the identification of the Japanese tattoo with the simple body decorations of the West. He has a successor as well, his son Kazuyoshi, who can be expected to carry this tradition into a rapidly changing world. One of the messages of the traditional tattoo in Japan was the dissidence of the wearer. He might have belonged to a group, but that group was by definition a minority and it guarded its differences. This, rather than some imagined Yakuza connection, is the real reason why authority in Japan has always been anti-tattoo. Japan is purportedly a land of accord, everyone pointed in the same direction, contentedly swimming along. It is not; no country could ever be. Such conformity is a politician’s dream. At the same time, there have been periods when such dubious unity of intent was possible, when dissent has been discouraged, when a populace has been cowed into uniformity. It is at such times that the traditional arts and crafts are subjected to doubt, that they must prove themselves financially or socially. It is to this brink that the art of the Japanese tattoo has been brought. Donald Richie


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:29 Page 8



My initial exposure to and interest in the Japanese woodblock print of the Edo period stemmed from my relationship with the Japanese tattoo, both as a tattooist and client. Appreciation for the artistic appeal of the Japanese tattoo fostered the desire to delve deeper and in doing so, the world of ukiyo-e was revealed to me. The beauty of the Japanese tattoo is built on a solid artistic foundation, reliant on a close relationship with the woodblock print. Japanese cultural traditions are multifaceted and complex, many being mutated forms of cultures and religions imported from China and India. Regional differences as well as historical context further complicate studies of Japanese traditions, enchanting as they may be. In describing the Kabuki theatre, Samuel Leiter acknowledges ‘the fascinating differences in the traditions as they have been transmitted down the years in the various acting families’.1 Traditional art forms, such as irezumi, ukiyo-e and Kabuki, have been passed down the generations by structures that will be discussed in this book. Each different structure, whether school or family, may have a different approach to or understanding of motifs and traditions within Japanese culture. What follows is based on research through one such ‘family’ structure, The Horiyoshi III Family. Takahiro Kitamura 2003

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:30 Page 9

1 | Full-body tattoo with dragon design.


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:30 Page 10



Though ukiyo-e (‘images of the floating world’) has often been discussed as a free-standing body of art, recent studies have emphasised the importance of considering the cultural milieu from which this art form emerged. Very much a popular art, ukiyo-e was inspired by the surrounding culture of the Edo period (1603–1868). This book explores ukiyo-e art, historically a subject of academic study, through irezumi, Japanese tattoo art. Although in modern times these art forms appear to

2 | Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900). Triptych with Ichikawa Danjurm IX (1839–1903) as Suikoden heroes Kumonryn (The Nine-dragoned) Shishin (right) and Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842–1904) as Kaoshm (The Flower Priest) Rochishin fighting each other with long sticks in the play Suikoden Yuki no Danmari (Suikoden – Silence in the snow), 1886. The play was performed at the Shintomi Theatre, Tokyo. Kaoshm Rochishin’s body is tattooed with cherry blossoms and Kumonryn Shishin is adorned with dragons.

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:31 Page 11

occupy polarised positions, at their inception and during their development they were interdependent. This is apparent on a direct pictorial level: the Japanese tattoo features in numerous ukiyo-e prints and many ukiyo-e prints served as tattoo patterns during the Edo period. Both these art forms had a powerful effect on the cultural climate of the time. Irezumi, as much as ukiyo-e, contributed to the overall feel of that cultural moment. The iconic ukiyo-e images that characterise the Edo period – whether those of courtesans, warriors, or Kabuki actors – were shaped by the culture of the common people, a culture that included tattoos. The spirit of the warrior, the drama of the Kabuki actor – all would draw upon the visual use of the Japanese tattoo. And it is this visual dimension that ukiyo-e captured so successfully. This book endeavours to clarify the similarities between the two art forms and to answer questions arising from these similarities. Specifically, what are the forces behind the survival of one art form (irezumi) or the canonisation of another (ukiyo-e)?


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:31 Page 12

3 | Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92). Left sheet of a triptych showing three tattooed actors against a background of morning glories. The triptych is entitled Tosei isami no hana (Flowers of present time bravery; title appears on right sheet), 1860. Here, the actor Nakamura Shikan IV (1831–99) is


portrayed with a tattoo of Raijin, the God of Thunder on his right arm. The left arm is tattooed with maple leaves and thunderbolts. The middle sheet (not included in this book) shows the actor Kawarazaki Gonjnrm (1839–1903), being tattooed with the story of Tamatorihime, the female diver who steals the jewel from the Palace of the Dragon King of the Sea. See ill. 16 for the right sheet of this triptych.

Ukiyo-e and irezumi enjoyed exalted status as popular arts of the Edo period and both exerted political influence, depicted social change, and reached a broader audience than could the more rarefied art forms of the time. After a brief introduction to the history of the Japanese tattoo, this book firstly explores the parallel status of ukiyo-e and irezumi as popular arts, the ways in which this condition allowed these art forms to tap into a larger nascent culture, and the emergent aesthetic developments. Secondly, parallels are drawn between ukiyo-e, irezumi, and another popular art form of the time, the Kabuki theatre. Thirdly, it considers ways in which irezumi and ukiyo-e explicitly enact certain ideas of community ranging from a small internal community (the studio or the school) to a broader

Tattoos 4.11.03 9:42 Page 13

artistic community and finally a general public. Lastly, the process by which popular art becomes high art is examined. Though the importance of critical Western reception is clear, the value of Western approval is questionable. Beyond considering ways in which specific images are reproduced in these disciplines, it will also evaluate the role these recurring themes play in the development of what are now Japanese icons. This section will be followed by descriptions of several ukiyo-e motifs recurrent in Japanese tattoos illustrated by woodblock print designs and sketches and drawings by contemporary tattoo master Horiyoshi III, and photographs of the actual tattoos. In a final essay, American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy provides his personal view of the Japanese tattoo. 4 | Tattooed back showing Raijin and Fnjin surrounded by a dragon. The yellow character between the shoulder blades represents Senjyu Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Mercy (see ill. 88).


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:31 Page 14

1 | A brief history of Japanese tattooing


Tattooing in Japan, as in many cultures, is an ancient practice. Early accounts from China describe the inhabitants of Japan as being tattooed in a highly decorative manner. Van Gulik writes: ‘In a section of the Hou Han-shu, the History of the Later Han Dynasty (ad 25–220), compiled around the year ad 445, it is recorded that the Wa [a people thought to have inhabited Japan not later than 265 bc], both men and women, tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs, the size and position of which vary according to rank’.2 Archaeological records in the form of clay figurines bearing what appear to be tattoo designs date back to the Jemon period (10,000–300 bc). These markings are generally assumed to be tattoos, but there is no conclusive evidence as to their specific nature and function. The figurines emphasise the desire for body decoration, but their design and overall quality have little in common with what is now known as the Japanese tattoo. Understanding the word irezumi (‘the insertion of ink’) and how its meaning has altered over the years offers insight into how tattooing in Japan has fallen in and out of favour. Originally, irezumi referred to tattoos as a form of punishment. This practice also fell in and out of official favour and was last officially sanctioned by the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751) in 1720. For many years tattooists refused to use this term, wishing to distance their art from the rather brutal practice of punishment tattooing. They began to call themselves horishi, derived from the verb horu, to dig or carve, the same title used by the carvers of woodblock prints. They called tattoos horimono, meaning ‘carved object’, rather than irezumi. This re-titling emphasised the skills tattooing required and linked the tattoo to the woodblock. The term irezumi has lost its negative connotations and today refers exclusively to the highly developed Japanese decorative tattoo. In contrast to punitive tattooing, what developed into the much-admired ‘Japanese body-suit’ began as an expression of love. In the pleasure districts of Kyoto and Osaka, lovers would often exchange tattoos in the form of small black dots as love tokens. This practice quickly spread to Edo. Called irebokuro (‘engraved mole’) and sometimes kisho-bori (‘pledge marks’) these were the precursor to the now common practice of sporting the tattooed name of a loved one. There are less welldocumented accounts of tattoos of this era having religious significance, in the form of prayers or kanji representing deities. From these simple beginnings, the Japanese tattoo slowly evolved into a decorative art. Japanese decorative tattooing was a product of the Edo period and its growth ran parallel with the popularity of the woodblock print. According to Van Gulik, the first decorative tattooists imitating the style of the woodblock prints may very well have

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:31 Page 15

5 | Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865). From the series Kinsei Suikoden (Modern Suikoden), 1862. Actor Bandm Kamezm I (1800–73) is portrayed as Hinotamakozm Onikeisuke, his back and upper arms tattooed with oni-azami (thistles). The text in the prints contains biographical details


relating to Onikeisuke. Originally a Buddhist priest, he was caught transgressing his Buddhist vows and became a vagabond. When Kaneaki Heinai humiliated him before a large crowd, he took revenge and killed Kaneaki Heinai’s adopted son. Onikeisuke came to be known as Hinotamakozm (Fireball Young Buddhist Priest).

been woodblock workers. The woodblock carver, whose job was to follow the lines prescribed by the artist, had very little artistic freedom. Many prints did credit the carver, but the primary artist of the woodblock print was considered to be the designer of the original drawing. When the townspeople of Edo began looking for individuals to tattoo woodblock designs, they drew upon a pool of craftsmen already familiar with those designs and with the requisite manual skills. Kitemakers, painters and other such artisans were also among the first tattoo artists. Arguably the largest single event fuelling the development of the Japanese tattoo was the popular novel Suikoden. This Japanese tale was based on the Chinese

Tattoos 20.1.03 14:47 Page 16


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:32 Page 17

classic, the Shuihu zhuan, (Stories of the Water Margin). The first translation is credited to the Nagasaki interpreter Okajima Kanzan (d. 1727), whose efforts were published in 1757. The stories of the 108 bandit warriors were immensely popular among the townspeople and this interest is best shown by the numerous graphic representations by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), followed by a host of other woodblock print artists. The set published by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) in 1827 became the most noteworthy and is thought to represent his commercial breakthrough as an artist. Throughout the early 19th century numerous adaptations and translations of this epic were published. 6 | Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861). From the series Tspzoku

Japanese artists applied a liberal hand to the representation

Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori (One hundred and

of Chinese warriors, adding tattoos to give these figures a

eight heroes of the popular Suikoden all told), 1827–30.

sense of valour, menace and excitement. Besides boosting

Tanmeijirm Genshmgo struggling with an underwater

the popularity of the tattoo, these prints served as artistic

opponent. The inscription includes the name of Genshmgo’s village and describes the hero’s ability to stay underwater as well as his tattoo. Genshmgo’s back is tattooed with the

references for tattoo designs from the Edo period up to the present. Contemporary tattoo master Horiyoshi III writes:

design of a leopard, which is also noted in the Shuihu zhuan,

‘In this way, the ukiyo-e artists of this period played a major

the original Chinese tale of the Suikoden heroes.

role in laying the foundations for the design and composition of what are now traditional Japanese tattoos’.3 The authorities were well aware of the growing popularity of

tattoos and imposed a series of bans aimed at suppressing the tattoo arts. During the Bunka period (1804–18), an edict read ‘the recent growth in people who tattoo themselves on mere whim has had an adverse impact on public morals. It is shameful to disfigure your unblemished God-given bodies. Despite the Shogunate’s repeated admonitions against tattooing, young dandies, in particular, are quick to tattoo themselves, paying no heed to the ridicule aimed at them’.4 With the modernisation of the Meiji era (1868–1912), tattooing was banned again in 1872. Ironically, the foreign public appreciated and collected Japanese tattoos. European royalty received tattoos from Japanese masters and wealthy Americans even imported Japanese tattooists to work abroad. This led to the legalisation of tattooing for foreign clients, though Japanese nationals could still be punished for administering or acquiring a tattoo. The final ban lasted until the American occupation after World War II. Feeling that tattooing was inappropriately criminalised, the ban was lifted by the occupying American government. Japanese tattooists, titled shokunin (craftsman or artisan), have always regarded themselves as skilled workers and have often called attention to the similarities between their professional practices and those of the woodblock production teams. In an article on the history of Japanese tattooing, Horiyoshi III quotes from the Shunkshoku tatsumi no sono, a cultural periodical of the time: ‘Whereas, in the old days, dexterous amateurs were asked to tattoo others, eventually a group of professional tattooists emerged. They include Karakusa Gonta of Asakusa, Iku of Yanaka, Horiiwa of Tachiki, Tarumakin, Yakkohei of Matsushima-cho and Charibun of Asakusa’.5 By the late 1800s, professional tattooists were widely practicing their work. Horiyoshi III goes on to quote the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (Tokyo Daily Newspaper) of December 1882, which lists the following tattooists: Horitoku of


Tattoos 13.1.03 15:32 Page 18

7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | The signature of Horiyoshi III. 11 | Full-body tattoo. Back decorated with monochrome design of dragon holding a jewel in its claws and chrysanthemums. The jewel is the


so-called Jewel of Omnipotence, which satisfies all desires and is frequently represented in Oriental art.

Shimo-nishizakamachi, Horiichi of Soemoncho, Horiyasu of Nanba-shinchi, and Horimasa of Tenma-Kawasaki.6 Tattooists, or horishi, then began assuming titles based on the prefix hori (‘to carve’): Horiyoshi, Horitomo, Horitaka. As the preceding list suggests, this prefix was widely used by the late 1800s. These new titles would then often be tattooed on a client as a signature to the work. These signatures are popular in Japan today, and have spawned imitators in the West and the adoption of hori titles by nonJapanese. The signatures evoke the signature blocks seen on woodblock prints A dynasty could also be established using titles. Tattooists quickly adopted the practices of the woodblock artists and soon organised master–apprentice relationships. Thus, a skilled master would take on students, title them and, where appropriate, pass his own name to a favoured apprentice. For example, Horiyoshi I of Yokohama titled his own brother Horiyoshi II, and also chose to give his name to a star pupil, Yoshihito Nakano, whom he named Horiyoshi III. In this manner they created a dynasty spanning over 50 years. The son of Horiyoshi III, Nakano Kazuyoshi, is currently in training and will eventually assume the title Horiyoshi IV.

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:32 Page 19


Tattoos 20.1.03 14:48 Page 20


12 | Detail of right upper leg. Horiyoshi III working on a design of Kintarm riding a carp. 13 | Horiyoshi III at work.

Traditional Japanese tattooing was conducted on the floor. For a right-handed tattooist, the left hand, fingers splayed, would be placed on the area of skin to be tattooed to keep the skin as taut as possible and to ensure accurate needle penetration. A sumi brush was laced between the ring, middle and index fingers of the left hand. This brush was saturated with the ink that would coat the needles, controlled by the right hand. The thumb of the left hand was used as a fulcrum for the needle hand. Wielded by the right hand, the hari (hand needle) consisted of a rod, possibly bamboo, with a structure of needles fastened to the end. This apparatus was often held with the index finger extended down the rod for greater control. The combinations of needle configurations were endless, but usually a single row of needles would be used for outlining and multiple rows for shading. An example of a large shading configuration is three rows of fourteen needles, a total of forty-two needles. The hand needle would be pushed with rapid repetitive short jabs into the stretched skin. Tattooing can follow pre-drawn lines, or in the case of the more skilled tattooists, be executed freehand directly into the skin. The proliferation of communicable diseases in modern times has changed tattooing techniques in Japan. Ink-brush techniques have been discontinued and replaced by disposable ink caps allowing for single-use ink reservoirs. Latex gloves have been standard since the 1980s. In the structure of the hand needle, stainless steel has replaced the bamboo rod and soldered needle configurations have replaced thread allowing sterilisation and re-use of instruments. The Japanese tattoo is not immune to the type of technological changes that caused the extinction of woodblock printing. While tebori (hand tattooing) is still widely practiced in Japan for shade work, few tattoo masters continue to outline by hand. The tattoo machine, introduced to Japan at some point in the mid-19th century, has by virtue of its speed and precision almost completely replaced hand

Tattoos 13.1.03 15:33 Page 21


outlining. While this may seem to be a severe break with tradition, the tattoo machine with its capacity for detailed line work, has enabled tattoos to conform more closely to the woodblock-print original. Many masters are keen to see hand tattooing survive and, by combining handtattooing and machine work and training their apprentices in both techniques, they are producing a new tattoo product that remains faithful to the images of the floating world. It is this preoccupation with tradition that has kept the images and styles of the Japanese tattoo remarkably untouched by outside influences.

Tattoos of the Floating World  

This unique book by tattoo artist Takahiro Kitamura (Horitaka, an apprentice of Horiyoshi III) discusses the art of the Japanese tattoo in t...

Tattoos of the Floating World  

This unique book by tattoo artist Takahiro Kitamura (Horitaka, an apprentice of Horiyoshi III) discusses the art of the Japanese tattoo in t...