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Loved abroad, hated at home: the art of Japanese tattooing

by Jon Mitchell

On March 8, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles will open the largest-ever exhibition dedicated to irezumi — Japanese tattooing. Titled “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World,” the six-month show will feature lectures, live tattooing and life-size photographs of irezumi inked by some of the most famous tattooists working in the world today.

Greg Kimura, the president/CEO of JANM, spoke to The Japan Times about the inspiration behind the exhibition: “Perseverance shows Japanese tattoo as an indigenous, full-fledged art form, comparable in tradition and technique to other fine arts. It draws historical parallels to earlier Japanese art and aesthetics, including ukiyo-e printmaking.”

Such prestigious treatment of irezumi by JANM — and other international galleries over the past few years — stands in stark contrast to how tattooing is perceived at home in Japan, where many people regard it as synonymous with gangsterism and where those with even small tattoos can be denied entry to swimming pools and public baths. Despite tattooing having fallen out of fashion among many yakuza in recent decades, this stigma against ink in Japan is stronger today than ever; in January, for example, a school clerk in Osaka was docked one month’s pay for having tattoos on her arm and ankle.

The perception gap between international views of irezumi and those of Japanese people dates back more than 150 years, to when foreigners first laid eyes on Japanese tattoos. Since that time, however, Japanese tattooists have influenced their foreign counterparts in remarkable ways — and sometimes vice-versa; on one or more occasion, it might also be argued that international influence has helped rescue Japanese tattooing from near-extinction.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japan was awash in ink. In Kyushu, coal miners wore dragon tattoos as talismans to guard against the dangers of their work, while Ainu women in Hokkaido had facial tattoos to protect them from malignant spirits; Okinawan females bore tattoos on their hands as signs of beauty and maturity. Edo — modern-day Tokyo — was the birthplace of flamboyant full-body tattoos. Particularly popular among firefighters, messengers and gamblers, many of the designs were based upon ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and the two crafts were so intertwined that both woodblock artists and tattooists adopted the title hori (to carve) — a tradition that continues among irezumi masters today.

The open proliferation of ink in the Edo Period ground to a halt in the mid-1850s with the arrival of international ships to Japan. For more than 200 years the country had been closed to outsiders, but now these unwelcome visitors, including Commodore Matthew Perry and his infamous Black Ships, were demanding Japan open its doors to trade — a process that elsewhere had led to outright colonization. Desperate to avoid such a fate, the newly created Meiji government attempted to veneer the nation with the trappings of civilization: It encouraged people to wear Western clothes, banned samurai topknots and, in 1872, prohibited tattooing.

But the move backfired.

“The Meiji government thought that tattoos would be perceived by the West as a barbaric custom that should be hidden from Western eyes. However, the Western perception did not conform to Japanese predictions and to some extent, at the highest levels, tattoos were seen as one of the most attractive aspects of Japanese culture,” Noboru Koyama, head of the Japanese department at Cambridge University Library, told The Japan Times.

In the latter half of the 19th century, foreign sailors swamped Japan’s ports and, as soon as they set eyes on the irezumi worn by Japanese delivery men and rickshaw pullers, many wanted one as a souvenir of their stay. To cater to their demands — and in contravention of its own ban — the Meiji government begrudgingly permitted Japanese tattooists to set up shop in the areas set aside for foreigners, such as Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki. Working behind doors closed to Japanese people, during the late-1800s these tattooists inked, by some accounts, three-quarters of all visitors to Japan.

Many European aristocrats were among these foreigners awe-struck by the talents of Japanese tattooists, according to Koyama, who wrote a 2010 book titled “Nihon no Shisei to Eikoku Oshitsu” (“The Japanese Tattoo and the British Royal Family”). In 1869, Prince Alfred — one of Queen Victoria’s sons — was the first of several members of British royalty to get a tattoo in Japan. Twelve years later, Prince George — the future George V — received a blue-and-red dragon on his arm in Tokyo and then a second dragon in Kyoto.

Other European blue-bloods to receive ink in Japan during the late 19th century included those doomed to play pivotal roles in world history: Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 sparked World War I, and Nicholas II, Russia’s final czar, who was executed following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

At this time, Japanese people also continued to receive tattoos in secret — most famously, Matajiro Koizumi, ex-PM Junichiro’s grandfather, whose large irezumi earned him the nickname “Tattoo Minister.” However, the practice remained illegal and, according to Koyama, there were further crackdowns in 1880 and 1908.

During World War II, these prohibitions were again tightened in response to a rush among young Japanese men to get irezumi in attempts to evade military conscription; the Imperial authorities perceived people with tattoos as nonconformists and potential sources of trouble within the armed forces.

Ironically, following Japan’s 1945 surrender, the Allied Occupation opened the next chapter in the history of irezumi. Many GIs already wore simple U.S. tattoos — dismissed as “sushi” by Japanese tattooists because of their simplicity and poor placement on the body — but when these Americans saw large Japanese tattoos, they realized U.S. tattooists were merely scratching the surface of what could be achieved with needle and ink.

One of the American troops most impressed by Japanese tattooing was a close confidant of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the head of the Allied Occupation. Following a meeting with famous inker Horiyoshi II, the adviser became so convinced that irezumi was an art form worthy of U.S. intervention that he persuaded his boss to legalize tattooing. In 1948 the ban was lifted and, for the first time in more than 70 years, Japanese irezumi artists became able to ply their trade without fear of prosecution.

In the following years, numerous exchanges emerged between Japanese and U.S. tattooists that energized and evolved tattooing on both sides of the Pacific.

One of the most famous of these was initiated by Norman Keith Collins — better know by his trade name, Sailor Jerry. Tattooist by day and ultra-conservative DJ by night, Jerry became pen pals with two of Japan’s most talented tattooists, the aforementioned Horiyoshi II and Horihide. Exchanging U.S. pigment — a commodity hard to obtain in postwar Japan — for Japanese designs, Jerry became obsessed with irezumi and attempted to master them for himself.

In the 2008 documentary “Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry,” Don Ed Hardy, perhaps the most famous living U.S. tattooist and a friend of Jerry, explained how his associate’s compulsion with irezumi was partly driven by a desire to avenge the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “We’re going to learn this and we’re going to beat them at their own game,” Hardy said of Jerry’s motivation.

Thanks to an introduction by Jerry, Hardy himself visited Japan in 1973 to study irezumi firsthand. With his name now a brand gracing everything from T-shirts to hair dryers and disposable lighters, it’s easy to forget Hardy’s pioneering role during this period. In his 2013 autobiography, “Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos,” Hardy writes, “No white guy had gone and tattooed there, ever. I had seen behind the shoji screen.”

However, Hardy didn’t like what he glimpsed during that first trip. Based in Gifu city in a small apartment still bearing sword scars from its previous tenant, Hardy spent his days inking amphetamine-addicted gangsters who were more interested in guns and Hollywood mafia movies than the finer points of Japanese iconography that fascinated art-school graduate Hardy.

Part of the problem was timing: Hardy had arrived in Japan in the 1970s, the high point of tattooing among the nation’s criminal class. He quickly grew disillusioned with both his clientele and his master’s approach to irezumi, which was often as formulaic as the Cold War tattoos of hearts and anchors that had prompted Hardy to flee the U.S. in the first place. For example, when one young hoodlum had asked Hardy’s sensei for a tattoo of a kappa water imp, he’d refused on the grounds that it was not a suitable subject.

Although Japan disappointed Hardy, his 1973 trip cemented his passion for large-scale irezumi, and following his return to the States, he opened a studio dedicated exclusively to custom-designed tattoos combining Western and Japanese influences. In the next few years, he tattooed countless people — each of whom became a walking advertisement for irezumi in the U.S.

By the time Hardy returned to Japan in the mid-1980s, he was a well-known tattooist and his skills were in demand. Working out of a small apartment in Shinjuku’s Ni-chome gay neighborhood, Hardy inked American-style tattoos on Harajuku’s rock ‘n’ roll crowd — as well as traditional Japanese designs. The irony of “doing dragons in the land where they were born” did not escape him, and he saw it as testimony to what he calls the “weird East-West fusion” of tattooing.

This impact was a two-way street. According to Horiyoshi III — arguably the most famous Japanese tattooist alive today — an encounter with Hardy in 1985 changed him irreversibly.

“Before I met him, I was a bum. But when I saw how much Hardy knew about Japanese art culture and history, I felt so guilty that I started to study hard. I went to the library and for 20 years, I studied all I could. Without Hardy, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Horiyoshi III told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Unlike the stagnant forms of tattooing that Hardy encountered during his stay in Gifu, Horiyoshi III was determined to pump fresh blood into traditional Japanese tattooing, with his designs of demons and nama kubi — severed human heads — having been particularly influential.

Today the “weird East-West fusion” of modern irezumi is most evident in the Yokohama Tattoo Museum, established by Horiyoshi III in 2000. Its two packed floors offer visitors a crash course in tattooing history — from Meiji Era photos to anti-tattoo ordinances and displays of ukiyo-e prints that inspired early artists. Alongside these items, there are sheets of classic American flash designs and antique U.S. tattoo machines. Many of these artifacts are irreplaceable, but the museum is run-down and, by its founder’s own admission, running at a loss. More than anywhere else, its dusty shelves and dearth of visitors encapsulate the lack of respect for irezumi in the land where it was born.

Almost 9,000 km away, the owner of another museum — JANM’s Kimura — believes the “Perseverance” exhibition will help to bridge this gulf between Japanese and international attitudes to tattooing.

“The best irezumi is preserving not only artistic traditions; it is also reinterpreting and keeping relevant the symbols and mythologies of traditional Japanese literature and art. Irezumi is keeping alive . . . visual narratives that would all but be lost to contemporary generations. This is something that Japanese and Nikkei (their overseas descendants) should be proud of and embrace.”

One day, Kimura hopes, the show might even come on tour to Japan.

“Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” (www.janm.org/exhibits/perseverance) will run March 8-Sept. 14 at the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. Yokohama Tattoo Museum: horiyoshi3tattoo.com/horiyoshi-iii-tattoo-museum. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • GBR48

    The ‘rest of the world’ is not quite as enamoured with tattoos as you might think. In the UK they are popularly known as ‘tramp stamps’.

  • research please

    It is hilarious you used Horiyoshi III as the Japan source for this story as many of the Japanese tattooers in the JANM show are his ex-deshi and publicly ex-communicated from the Horiyoshi family by Horiyoshi III. im sure they were really happy to be in the article together!