Traditional tattooing has a decorated past. Depending on where you were standing geographically you were more or less only exposed to one style out of the many practiced in tattooing today. In America, our understanding of tattoos came from the circuses and servicemen who picked them up with their travels. On the other side of the globe, in Japan, another side of tattooing culture was already in full effect. The country has a decorated history when it comes to body ink that dates back to the Paleolithic era (circa 10,000 B.C.).
The roles of tattoos in Japanese culture and society have fluctuated through the eras. Originally, thought to be spiritual, tattoos later began being used as punishment for criminals during the Kofun period (300-600 A.D.). The art only began to truly develop into what it is today during the Edo era. During this time woodblock printing became popular due to novels, in particular Suikoden, which was a teenage tale of rebellion where the heroes were depicted with having heir bodies covered in imagery, most of which was mystical or spiritual (think dragons and tigers). Using chisels, gauges and the special Nara ink, the woodblock artists began putting images directly onto human skin. The wood carvers' hand eye coordination and gentle touch allowed them to create depth in a similar way that they did with woodblocks.
Tattooing history doesn't get any less complicated in modern Japan. At the start of the Meiji period the government outlawed tattooing, pushing the practice underground and the irezumi (tattoo) became associated with criminality. In 1948 it was legalized by the occupational forces, however, the criminal connotations were not lost. The notorious Yakuza gang has long been known for their intricate full body pieces. Irezumi is still frowned upon in Japan, certain businesses wont accept customers with tattoos and some companies discriminate when hiring employees. Despite many attempts at shutting down this practice, Japan remains a recognized tattoo location, where people go to get traditional Japanese tattoos from renowned horishi (master).
The tebori method is particularly sought after. Meaning to carve by hand, this technique takes serious time to master and often has apprentices working for many years before even touching a customer's skin. The canvases would most often sit for endless hours, creating detailed and unified full-body compositions called horimono. It was common that for these tattoos the horishi would have a great deal of control over the design and vision of the piece.
In 1946 photographer Horace Bristol went to Japan to document this beautiful and intricate art form. Most of his iconic photographs can be found online. However, if you're looking for something you can get your hands around, check out "Wabori: Traditional Japanese Tattoo". This coffee table book holds more than just photographs. Author Manami Okazaki takes us through the experiences and thoughts of some of the most respected horishi.
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