Kian Forreal on the history of Japanese tattooing: Part 2.

The period of time known as the Tokugawa, Tokugawa Shogunate or Edo period (Edo is the old name for Tokyo) dated from 1603–1867. This was a time of military dictatorship with a totalitarian government in place. Japan was a total police state and to say the fun police were in effect is an understatement. Not only was Japanese tattooing outlawed over and over again, but so were simple pleasures enjoyed by the masses; Kabuki theatre was severely regulated and controlled, brothels were shut, fireworks were banned, and unless you were of the upper classes you couldn’t even wear nice clothes in public. Offenders were heavily fined and punished regularly. While the laws were at times ineffective and widely ignored, they were nonetheless in place.

For a while Japanese tattooing all but disappeared in this climate, till sometime after 1750 it all changed with a resurgence of tattooing so widespread that it revolutionised the tattoo and created the traditional Japanese style of tattooing that we know today.

It appears this happened solely in Japan, nowhere else did this occur on this level, until perhaps our modern times. While other cultures had tattooing and used it as part of their religion and ritual, like the Pacific Islanders and the Maori, the west had their small tattoo culture that was brought back on the ships and primarily worn by sailors. But in Japan, it became a prevailing social fashion within the mid- and lower echelons of society, an art form so unified, so imaginative and so technically perfect that all things considered it still is, to this day, unrivalled.

So where did this all spring forth from? Some say it came from the emerging wealthy farmer turned merchant class that was watched heavily by the ruling class. These nouveau rich merchants were new to having money and a semblance of freedom, but were forbidden from wearing the brocades and silks of the nobility in public.

So they responded by wearing very plain kimono lined on the inside with the most expensive brocades and most exquisite embroideries in order to rebel, yet not get them into trouble with the law and lose both wealth and their businesses. The merchant classes were a bourgeois class and were no more given to tattooing than the ruling class it seemed. It was, and still is, the lower classes that wore the tattoos and they didn’t hide them, at the time they flaunted them. It was their way to rebel against authority. It was the artisans, the gamblers, the labourers, the firemen that wore the tattoos up to and until the 1812 law that prohibited such practice. So it is to these people that we look to for the emergence of the pictorial Japanese tattoo.

There is no way to discuss traditional Japanese tattooing without discussing Japanese woodblock prints. The two are joined at the hip. The tattooers of the day called themselves “horishi” which comes from the verb hori – to dig or carve. This was the same title used by the woodblock print carvers. They called tattoos “horimono” meaning “carved object” rather than the negative word irezumi as we spoke of before. Using this title signified the skills needed to perform decorative tattooing at the time and the link to woodblock prints. I won’t go into the history of woodblock prints as time does not permit and this particular article is about tattooing, but we will be discussing how the emergence of the woodblock print brought on the tattoo renaissance during the Edo period and in the “floating world” of the Yoshiwara pleasure district in Edo.
Ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world”. One of the most well known floating worlds was the Yoshiwara pleasure district in Edo, established in the first half of the 17th Century. It became legendary as a relaxed atmosphere to escape the confines of the social order and high imperial culture that prevailed at the time. Though by and large supported by the new moneyed merchant classes of the time, and tailored to their tastes, people from all walks of life frequented it.

In this sophisticated and neatly painted city, as in the kabuki theatre, social distinctions were blurred and its distractions worked magic on the new bourgeois as well as the old nobility the same. The streets of the floating world were lined with theatres, brothels, restaurants, tea and bathhouses and this is where the courtesan culture of the geisha developed its mythic status. The arts of ukiyo-e and irezumi gave birth to the images that characterised this period. Yoshiwara was one of several cultural oases that provided a sanctuary from the rigid class system in place outside its walls.

Various reigning arts of the time that ran counter to the establishment’s highbrow imperial art were not only kabuki theatre but also set and costume design, kimono patterning, irezumi tattoo and, of course, ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Kabuki Theatre replaced Noh theatre and woodblock replaced traditional Japanese commissioned paintings, all were consumed by the same middle classes in any case. Because they were inexpensive to produce, woodblock prints were used as everything from house decorations to advertisements for theatre and brothels, and over the years they immortalised many courtesans and actors.

These ukiyo-e woodblock prints are where traditional Japanese tattooing comes from. Yet they were also intertwined with kabuki theatre and tattooing and vice versa. Male actors were often see sporting tattoos in their plays which were recreated in woodblock prints and then tattooed on people. The trinity of ukiyo-e, kabuki and irezumi all shared a homogenous narrative that enshrined ideals of loyalty, strength and valour, and the sins of greed, sex, murder and the pursuit of power. Many scholars believe that a fair number of woodblock carvers were also tattoo artists as the precision and skill necessary for both had some overlay, Kuniyoshi for example is very much thought to have been a Horishi and his woodblock prints designed specifically to be used for backpieces!

Part 3 will be about the samurai influence in tattooing and how one book from China changed everything in Japanese woodblock prints and tattooing! For Part 1, Part 3 or Part 4 click through and read on!

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 www.authentink.com