Kian Forreal on the history of Japanese tattooing: Part 4.

After all that we have read of this story in the last three parts, what was the final catalyst that propelled tattooing into the mainstream Japanese consciousness of the Edo period? 

It was in fact a novel from China called The Suikoden (Japanese), which translates in English to The Water Margin.  The book is a 14th Century account of Sung Chiang and his group of rebel companions that fought against a corrupt bureaucracy in China between 1117-1121AD. These 108 heroes of the Suikoden were outlaws and brigands, yet were also men of honour and integrity and formed a Robin Hood-like gang that helped the poor by fighting off the rich.

The book details an account of each of their exploits and, in some stories, details their gruesome deaths. These men of honour showed their decency, humanity and sense of justice in the stories told and the Japanese translation became an instant classic. The fact the book was considered so anti-government made it revolutionary in Japan to be given the freedom to read it, yet because it merely detailed a story from China there was little the government could do without looking as bad as the corrupt officials in the book.

From 1750 to the turn of the Century it was a steady seller, but from the 1800s it became a craze and many new editions were released amid great fanfare. The one that gained the most fanfare was a slightly Japan-ified version that was illustrated by none other than Katsushika Hokusai in 1820. This edition was followed seven years later by arguably the most famous edition of all and that is the one that was magnificently illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The last important edition of note was illustrated by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi in a version that was completely Japan-ified in both text and pictures.

The fact that many of the characters in the original Chinese novel were tattooed heavily played a vital role popularising tattoos amongst the Japanese readers. They wanted to emulate the dragons and tigers and flowers tattooed on these warriors. So when Kuniyoshi created these striking images of tattooed men battling beasts and fighting for their lives all the while covered in large tattoos, it captured the imagination of these young men who wanted to be just like that.

These illustrations proved immensely popular, especially the ones by Kuniyoshi who some say was heavily tattooed himself, but it has never been confirmed.

He was originally commissioned to do seven heroes for the book release and was subsequently asked to do the remainder to be sold as individual prints, which sold out. Only 74 were ever accounted for in total. It was these particular ones that created and formed both the style and the iconography of the Japanese pictorial tattoo. Artisans, fireman, workers, every person who has Japanese-style tattoos is wearing copies that can be traced back to Hokusai, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi prints including, no doubt, many of you reading this.

Some scholars believe Kuniyoshi may have been a part-time tattoo artist himself, his prints were certainly drawn to be tattooed as backpieces. If you look at the leg positions and lower compositions of most of the prints they allow for a split down the buttocks enabling the image to be done as large as possible on the back.

And so with this background tattooing quietly flourished in the artisan and pleasure quarters of nearly every large town in Japan even with an official order in 1840 targeting tattooing and once again proclaiming it illegal. And the tattoos imitated the prints, which depicted the kabuki plays, which sported the tattoos from the prints. It was an endless cycle of artistic imitation and innovation and fed off itself for many years.

What’s important to understand is that during all these years there were no foreigners or foreign influence at all in Japan. It was a self-imposed isolation that this country experienced, and one that would not even let foreigners on to land if they were shipwrecked. In fact, if you set foot on to Japan during this period there’s a good chance you would lose your head. Not that the West didn’t try to broker deals and open ports as they frequently sailed Japanese waters, they did, but were routinely shut out with gunfights resulting. This all changed in 1854 when Commodore Mathew Perry returned to Edo Bay with a few steamers and four heavily armed warships. A year before he had given an ultimatum, ‘let us in or we will shell your city’. It was now a year later and they were here, they meant business and weren’t going away. For a city made of paper and wood being shelled by big American guns would be instantly devastating. After much deliberation on the part of the Shogunate (the military government), the Emperor and his advisors it was agreed the Americans would be let in and a treaty signed giving them access to provisions and several ports to trade with via an America consulate to be built within 18 months. Japan was wide open now and all the Europeans powers of the time tried to make the same arrangements – some were even successful. Many adventurous foreigners were flocking to exotic Edo and were enamoured with the tattooing when they first saw it. This resulted in many getting work done themselves, albeit smaller ones for souvenir purposes. In fact the foreign invasion caused an up swell in business for the tattoo masters. With the opening of Japan to the West came the demise of the Tokugawa regime and the start of the Meiji restoration in 1869. This same year tattooing was once again banned outright and artists’ pattern books were confiscated and destroyed. The Meiji restoration abolished the Feudal system completely and absorbed the culture and technology of the West. So the government suppressed anything they considered would make them look backwards or barbaric. Tattooing was one of these things. The ruling class were embarrassed by it and thought it would make them look silly to their new Western allies. The irony of it is that while it was illegal for Japanese to get tattooed at this time it was perfectly legal for foreigners to get tattooed, and they did! Tattoo masters had to start moving from studio to studio to avoid police and had to advertise in tourist books to get enough business as the police were really cracking down. Tattooing became so popular with the Westerners that some tattoo masters were repatriated to America and Britain to tattoo their rich patrons and their friends at their homes. Dragons and other Japanese-style creatures and motifs started to appear in Western tattoo artists’ repertoire but they could never reproduce the Japanese style properly. This fad of Japanese tattooing spread to the West with not only the artists themselves but in literature and commentary in various newspapers and magazines. From all accounts it seems as if the first thing one would see after disembarking from a ship in Edo port was tattooed porters and palanquin bearers all going about their business in loin clothes, sandals and tattoos from the neck to the knees. What a sight it must have been!

Horisumi – Kian Forreal is a professional tattoo artist specialising in traditional Japanese tattooing with 22 years international tattoo experience. He has worked all over the world studying under some of the leading tattoo artists of today. In 2013 he was given an honorary Japanese tattoo name by Horiyoshi III in Japan. He is based out of Sydney, Australia where he owns and runs Authentink Tattoo Studio in Surry Hills. You can check his work and those of the other artists working there at