Tattoo Styles: Irezumi Tattoos

Traditional Japanese tattoos are also known as Irezumi, which is a Japanese word that refers to any of the traditional Japanese forms of tattooing

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Irezumi means to "insert ink" literally. Japanese tattooing has a rich history rooted in Japan’s cultural and aesthetic traditions. Traditional Japanese tattoos are inspired in the ancient Japanese hand carved tattooing techniques, called "Tebori". This style uses bold black outlines and minimal shading, like the American Traditional style, but features iconic Japanese images, such as waves, snakes, dragons, koi fish, flowers and tigers.

Japanese tattooing dates back to roughly 10,000 B.C., during the Jōmon period (縄文時代), which lasted until 300 B.C. The cultures during these millennia were diverse, made of complex hunter-gatherer communities. Surviving pottery implies that ancient tribes practiced body modification, but very little is known about the techniques or cultural practices around them.

The Yayoi period (弥生時代) ran from circa 300 B.C. - 300 A.D., and marks Japan’s transition to farming communities. Evidence of tattooing in this era shows that modification played a role in the expression of social status, but few specifics about designs or traditions have survived.

Negativity around tattooing in Japan was first confirmed during the Kofun period (古墳時代), circa 300 - 600 A.D. Records of punitive tattoos show that they were applied forcibly to mark criminals, both as a form of punishment and to track them.

Japanese decorative tattooing, as we know it today, can largely be traced back to the Edo period (江戸時代) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) emerged as a popular Japanese art genre, primarily in woodblocks, paintings and masks. The term “Ukiyo” was used to describe human pleasure and hedonism, especially in the economically thriving merchant class. “Ukiyo-e” referred to the art celebrating lavish indulgences and entertainment, such as geishas, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and pornographic fantasy art. Ukiyo-e tattoos carry on the aesthetic traditions of this movement.

Mythology-inspired motifs also grew from this point onward, featuring animals, natural elements, dragons, demons, spirits and the like, all with symbology pulled from Japanese folklore. Each tattoo’s individual meaning was passed down from master to apprentice for centuries.

Irezumi has some traditional compositions that have been inherited for hundreds of years. The designs are composed of a combination of two different motifs with a meaningful purpose. Some traditional combinations are a Foo Dog with peony flowers, a carp with Autumn leaves, or a tiger with bamboo. Some Horishis break this traditional composition “rules”, and create new meaningful combinations. Master Horiyoshi III has tattooed tigers together with cherry blossoms to bring cheerfulness to the design.

The Meiji period (明治時代) of 1868-1912 formally criminalized tattoos in Japan; this ban lasted until 1948. By driving the trade underground, tattooing was soon associated with organized crime and the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent to the mafia. When all tattooing was outlawed, decorative designs were adopted by yakuza members to embrace criminality as an identity. Despite being legalized after WWII, tattoos are still heavily frowned upon in Japan. Many local institutions will still refuse service to anyone with visible tattoos, and some lawmakers are working to reinstate the ban nationwide.

Non-Japanese tattoo art lovers have been attracted to these motifs and techniques for centuries, even if they don’t fully understand the symbology or social history. Younger generations within Japan are simultaneously more influenced by the west, growing up with access to nontraditional ideas via the internet. As a result, there are subcultures moving back toward purely decorative tattoos within Japan, but they do face social tension domestically.

It’s worth noting that the Ainu (蝦夷), a tribal community of Northern Japan, have unique and separate tattoo practices related to womanhood. Specifically, girls transitioning into adulthood would receive black ink tattoos on their lips and faces, believing it would protect their souls after death. There is no tangible anthropological connection between existing Ainu tribal tattoos and contemporary Japanese tattoos.

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