Tattoos in Japanese Prints

tattoos in japanese pictures

The elaborate pictorial tattoos of the old Japanese tradition have always been a source of inspiration for contemporary tattoo lovers.

Τhis exquisite book – highly recommended to all tattoo artists – offers a thorough exploration of the history of Irezumi, an art form that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, but whose roots seem to extend back to the three prehistoric cultures of Japan: the Jōmon culture (from which the indigenous Ainu people of Japan’s far north are distantly descended), the Yayoi culture and the Kofun (Tomb) culture.


As Sarah Thompson, the author of Tattoos in Japanese Prints, argues, the reason there have been no recordings prior to Edo period is due to the fact that tattooing was not practiced by the ruling classes (the nobility and the samurai), but amongst the courtesans and the marginalized/the outlawed. In early Edo period: ‘they were used both as involuntary markers of punishment’ ‘for minor offenses as theft’ ‘and as voluntary testimonials to solemn vows, either romantic or religious’.

Later on in the 18th century, as we learn from Thompson, tattoos would become a fashion among ‘urban commoners of various occupations’, among merchants, artisans, courtesans, and peasants, due to the prevalence of the colorful and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking (eg. Kuniyoshi’s ‘pictures of the Floating World’, a form of art which the government had often tried to suppress and to regulate).


Sarah Thompson dedicates the greatest part of her book to the exploration of the 18th century woodblock print scenes, revealing an intricate world of ephemeral human passions and urban entertainment – similar to the world reflected in Kabuki plays – now literally animated and eternalized through the vehicle of the human body, each with its own carved story to tell…

Thompson often gives the examples of scenes where “Both men and women vowed eternal love by getting a tattoo of the name of the beloved plus the word ‘life’ (inochi) with the last stroke of the word written extra long to suggest lifelong devotion’’ (p.34). Other scenes offer the antidote to love through the use of moxa, the very herb used in acupuncture, which both courtesans and their lovers would burn on their bare skin so as to erase what was left of a romantic love…


Without any doubt, this book will leave you meandering the alleys and passageways of Edo (the city known today as Tokyo), offering you a most authentic taste of Japan’s culture and history.


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