Irezumi

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Irezumi [ee-reh-zoo-mee] (literally ‘insert ink’) refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent, usually decorative mark; a form of Japanese tattooing. Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to the paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE). Some scholars have suggested that the distinctive cord-marked patterns observed on the faces and bodies of figures dated to that period represent tattoos, but this claim is controversial. There are similarities, however, between such markings and the tattoo traditions observed in other contemporaneous cultures.

 In the following Yayoi period (c. 300 BCE–300) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol. Starting in the Kofun period (300–600) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottoes such as ‘I am a slave who has run away from his master’). The Ainu people, the indigenous people of Japan, are known to have used tattoos for decorative and social purposes, but there is no known relation to the development of irezumi.

Until the Edo period (1600–1868) the role of tattoos in Japanese society fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos—some featuring designs that would be completed only when lovers’ hands were joined—also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is today. The impetus for the art came from woodblock printing and the release of the popular Chinese novel ‘Suikoden,’ a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous. Woodblock artists began tattooing. They used many of the same tools for imprinting designs in human flesh as they did to create their woodblock prints, including chisels, gouges and, most importantly, unique ink known as Nara ink, or Nara black, the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin.

There is academic debate over who wore these elaborate tattoos. Some scholars say that it was the lower classes who wore—and flaunted—such tattoos. Others claim that wealthy merchants, barred by law from flaunting their wealth, wore expensive irezumi under their clothes. It is known for certain that irezumi became associated with firemen, dashing figures of bravery and roguish sex-appeal who wore them as a form of spiritual protection (and, no doubt, for their beauty as well). At the beginning of the Meiji period in the modern era, the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.

Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1948, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the yakuza, Japan’s notorious mafia, and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos. Tattooing and other forms of body decoration and body modification, as in much of the western world, are gaining in popularity in Japan. However, Japanese young people who choose to get tattooed are most often choosing ‘one point’ designs—small designs that can be completed in one sitting—usually in the American or tribal styles. More recently, however sanskrit Siddham script tattoos are becoming more and more fashionable. Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take one to five years of weekly visits to complete and cost in excess of US$30,000.

The prospective tattooee must first find a traditional tattoo artist. This in itself can be a daunting task (though it has been made easier by advent of the Internet) because such artists are often surprisingly secretive, and introductions are frequently made by word of mouth only. A traditional tattoo artist trains for many years under a master. He (for they are nearly exclusively male) will sometimes live in the master’s house. He may spend years cleaning the studio, observing, practicing on his own flesh, making the needles and other tools required, mixing inks, and painstakingly copying designs from the master’s book before he is allowed to tattoo clients. He must master all the intricate skills—unique styles of shading, the techniques used for tattooing by hand—required to create the tattoos his clients will request. He will usually be given a tattoo name by his master, most often incorporating the word ‘hori’ (to engrave) and a syllable derived from the master’s own name or some other significant word. In some cases, the apprentice will take the master’s name, and will become ‘The Second’ or ‘Third’ (and so on).

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