The history of Japanese tattoo art stretches back thousands of years, and the evolution of the tattoo, known in Japan as irezumi, as a mode of artistic expression within Japan is profoundly linked to ukiyo-e, both historically and in the context of the modern tattoo industry.
Archeological evidence suggests that tattoos have been present in Japanese society since the Jomon period in roughly 5000 BC, usually as a form of body decoration for men. However, by the Kofun era (300–600 AD), Japanese society began tattooing criminals to mark them for their transgressions, thus associating tattoos with criminality and taboo practices (Kearns). Cultural perception of tattoos cycled from positive to negative the throughout the classical era, as tattoos continued as a form of criminal branding but were also used to portray heroic acts, profess romantic love, or illustrate famous narratives; this fluctuation of public opinion regarding tattoos continued for hundreds of year leading up to the Edo period, when the practice of tattooing was once again generally publicly acceptable (Kitamura & Kitamura 15).
The advent of more precise and efficient woodblock printing in the Edo period not only spurred the growth of ukiyo-e, but also opened up the market for a new style of tattoo which combined the artistry of ukiyo-e with irezumi, the historical practice of tattooing famous for its use of nara ink (Kitamura & Kitamura 12). During this time, ukiyo-e prints illustrating popular novels often featured heroic figures covered in body tattoos, and the enormous popularity of these figures boosted public interest in tattoos as both a luxury art item and a form of self-expression (Kitamura & Kitamura 13).
Image: Kimbei, Kusakabe. My Modern Met. https://mymodernmet.com/japanese-tattoo-history.
Responding to the boost in demand for tattoos generated by their inspiring illustrations, some ukiyo-e craftsman became tattoo artists as well, bringing many of the same tools and techniques from printmaking to body art (Kitamura & Kitamura 16). In this way, the artistic disciplines of ukiyo-e and irezumi were intermingled throughout the Edo period, as ukiyo-e artists and craftsmen produced celebrating tattoos as well as drafting or inking tattoos themselves.
Image: Yoshitoshi. Painful: the Appearance of a Prostitute of the Kansei Era. Ronin Gallery, https://www.roningallery.com/painful-the-appearance-of-a-prostitute-of-the-kansei-era-1789-1801.
Unfortunately, the onset of the Meiji Restoration brought this period of open artistic experimentation to an end and forced the tattoo industry underground, as tattoos were deemed barbaric by the government and outlawed throughout Japan (Kearns). In the century following the Meiji, tattoos once again became a mark of criminality and the traditional practice of irezumi was kept alive within the yakuza for decades, though the extent to which gang-related tattoos existed throughout the twentieth century and today remains hotly contested (DeHart). Though tattoos have been technically legal within Japan since the end of World War II, their association with the yakuza persists and individuals with visible tattoos are often banned from establishments such as hot springs and bath houses (Kearns).
Ukiyo-e elevated the aesthetics of irezumi to that of a true art form, enriching body art both in Japan and throughout the world as Japanese tattoo artists, barred from tattooing their own people, sold their services to foreigners and thus spread the visual traditions of ukiyo-e around the globe (DeHart). Here again, the Western distinction between high and low art is challenged by both ukiyo-e and irezumi, as the artistic traditions of woodblock printing blended with the commerce of the tattoo industry to produce beautiful works of body art. Though stigma continues to surround tattoos within Japan, the rich history of irezumi endures in the form of its influence on Western tattoo industries, where the legacy of ukiyo-e once again serves to unite the aesthetic triumphs of traditional woodblock printing with the commercial endeavors of a modern consumer-driven market.
DeHart, Jonathan. “Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage.” The Diplomat. 2016. (https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/forbidden-ink-japans-contentious-tattoo-heritage/).
Kearns, Angel. “Inked and Exiled: A History of Tattooing in Japan.” Bodylore, https://sites.wp.odu.edu/bodylore/2018/02/28/inked-and-exiled-a-history-of-tattooing-in-japan.
Kitamura, Takahiro and Katie Kitamura. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo. Kit Press, 2003.