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The flowered margin

Hidden beauties of Japanese culture

by Stephen Mansfield

TATTOOS OF THE FLOATING WORLD, by Takahiro Kitamura; foreword by Donald Richie. Hotei Publishing, 2003, 120 pp., 2,600 yen (cloth).

In an age excessively concerned with outward appearances, official disapproval of tattoos in Japan is perhaps understandable. The Japanese are less seriously spooked by the sight of peonies blossoming on shoulder blades, or of giant carps tumbling down chests and spines, than by the thought that someone could have willingly gone through this transforming process. Regarded in today’s Japan as a kind of obscenity, something to be hidden away like the marks of leprosy, groups of tattooed friends hoping to enjoy a Japanese hot spring are required to book the premises for their exclusive use, while a symbolic cordon sanitaire is placed around the inn. Reversing this prejudice will be difficult. Despite this prejudice, as writer and tattooist Takahiro Kitamura demonstrates in his recently published “Tattoos of the Floating World,” even today small, marginalized groups of Japanese doggedly continue to paint their skin in the indelibly lurid colors of Edo period Kabuki actors and rickshaw pullers.

Love and religion seem to have been the main inspiration for tattoos during this period. Lovers, courtesans and lowly prostitutes would often have the name of a loved one written in Chinese ideograms along the inner portion of the arm. The ideograph for inochi (life), symbolizing a pledge of eternal love, was also added. There are many allusions in Edo period literature to these pledge tattoos, or irebokuro, as they were known, particularly in the works of the satirist Ihara Saikaku.

Tattoos to deify or immortalize an amorous experience or affair are rarer in the 20th century. A notable exception comes to mind — that great chronicler of the Tokyo demimonde, the novelist Nagai Kafu, who is said to have had a tattoo done in the likeness of a geisha named Tomimatsu, with whom he had been infatuated for a short time until he lost her to a wealthier, more determined patron. Whether in the spirit of Byronic romanticism or because of the stubbornness of the inks used in the process, he is said to have carried the image to his grave.

Kitamura, though touching inevitably upon the iconography of religion and passion, is more interested in the links between tattoo art and woodblock printing, and the manner in which the Edo period tattoo reflected popular tastes, the arts and Buddhist-inspired concepts like ukiyo (a notion that yoked beauty with impermanence). Flesh — matter that blossoms and then decays — is arguably the perfect canvas on which to represent the idea of ukiyo, the transience of things. There is nothing, after all, more perishable than flesh. Dulled, wrinkled and smudged, a skin-print that endures for half a century or more begins to look like the wall of an ancient tomb; traces of figures and outlines become increasingly less visible with the passage of time.

The popularity of artists who depicted the figures of tattooed actors, courtesans and gods, and whose work had enormous appeal at all social levels, coincided with the dissemination of tattoo art among the plebeian masses.

As the woodblock print gradually acquired more color and complexity of design, so the motifs and pigments used in tattooing grew more ambitious and subtle. Kitamura explores the close relationship between these two popular arts. The text is complemented by lush illustrations from ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists such as Kunisada Utagawa, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Toyahara Kunichika, all tellingly juxtaposed with contemporary tattoo images.

Despite the state-of-the-art electric equipment used by all but a few traditionalists and fees that would scandalize the plebeian masses of Edo, tattoos continue to remain living documents, transmitting and codifying colorful elements from the popular culture of the past. It would be a great pity to see them vanish under the pressure of conformity. The only way to avoid that perhaps is by conferring, as this creditable book attempts to do, a little more respectability on the art. The fact remains, though, that you would be more welcome in a Japanese public bathhouse wearing a necklace of shrunken skulls than a tattoo.