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“Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design” offers a broad but casual introduction to the tradition of tattooing in Japan.

Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design, by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny
160 pages
Tuttle, Nonfiction.

Journalist and Japan Times contributor Brian Ashcraft and co-author Hori Benny, an Osaka-based tattooist, outline the history, popularity, proscription and meaning of traditional body art, aiming to steer neophytes clear of permanent mistakes.

After a look at the art form’s past connections with crime, punishment, luck and various professions, the bulk of this book essentially catalogs the motifs of the tattoos themselves: flora, fauna, gods, mythical creatures, ghouls and yojijukugo (four-character kanji idioms that can function like mottos). The focus is mostly on tradition, but the final chapter explores otaku (geek) tattoos and other artistic departures.

Ashcraft and Benny provide solid starting points for further study of the history and cultural significance of commonly inked symbols, interspersed with profiles of artists and their human canvases.

“Japanese Tattoos” has a scrapbook feel at times, with its hints, warnings and advice for people who are thinking of taking on some color. The book is replete with endlessly absorbing photos, though they are gleaned from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia Commons, and differ in tone, grain and feel.

Ultimately, “Japanese Tattoos” brims with the authors’ respect and love for the craft, occupying a curious space somewhere between field guide and coffee table book.

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