Tattoo and Ukiyo-e

Tattoos in Japan are a subject of contention to this very day. During the Edo period, tattoos were used as a form of punishment for criminals, a way to ostracise them from law-abiding society and mark them permanently as outsiders. Often those convicted had no other options but to pursue a life of crime. This led to the formation of gangs, the so-called yakuza. But it was not until the Meiji period (1868-1912) that tattoos were officially outlawed in Japan, creating the persisting association between tattoos and the yakuza. 

The yakuza mainly ran gambling houses and prostitution rings. Interestingly enough, they were tolerated by law enforcement as they policed the underworld with their own laws and regulations. Unfortunately the criminal stigma persists to this day, with many doors (mostly bath houses) closed to those with even small tattoos – though this is slowly changing. 

Image Credit: ‘Japanese Tattoo’; Kusakabe Kimbei studio, Baron Raimund von Stillfried c1890. 

So, what does Japanese tattoo culture have to do with mokuhanga? During the mid-to-late Edo period (early 19th century) tattooing became popular with ordinary (non-yakuza) people at the same time that Ukiyo-e reached its peak popularity. Edo period labourers and firemen were the most common customers of irezumi shops. Firemen, in particular, were ardent tattoo enthusiasts and seen as rogish, handsome characters of society often featured in Ukiyo-e prints as dashing heros. Like today, “bad boys” had a particular attraction.

The pleasure districts of Edo – particularly Yoshiwara where most of the kabuki theatres, drinking houses and brothels were located – became very popular with people of the middle class who now had more income and free time than ever before. Ukiyo-e was mostly sold there too. Many of the subjects of ukiyo-e were kabuki actors, warriors and people from grizzly tales. A lot of the motifs for tattoos at that time were taken from ukiyo-e. In fact, tattoo artists were even called ‘carvers’ because of the technique of tattooing by hand, known as tebori (hand engraved). Irezumi shops employed the same ink and tools as printmaking workshops, especially nara ink which was known for turning blue-green on skin. It is thus speculated that many ukiyo-e artists moonlighted as tattoo artists. Ukiyo-e style tattoos have never waned in popularity, even in the west, and have remained almost unchanged since the Edo period.

For more information, please read this excellent article on Artsy.

Cover Image Credit: Settai Komura (1887-1940), Irezumi no Oden, Shin Hanga woodblock print.