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Just 30 years ago only persons on the edge of society used to wear tattoos in Europe, North America or Japan - like prison convicts, prostitutes, or pimps. This has changed considerably over the last decades. Today many young people including women have tattoos. This has lead to a lively interest in old tattoo designs that one can find on Japanese woodblock prints.
First Publication: July 2009
Latest Update: May 2013
According to Chinese documents that are as old as 1,700 years, the early inhabitants of Japan used to tattoo their bodies - a habit that the Chinese high culture regarded as barbaric. When Buddhism came to Japan from China, this negative view of tattoos became the general standard in Japan. Criminals were marked with tattoos to punish them and identify them in society (from ca. 1720 until 1870).
Tattoos became again quite popular among Japanese towns people during the late Edo period (first half of the 19th century). But it was mainly a habit of the lower classes. Firemen in the large towns like Edo, the Japanese capital, often had tattoos. This was the period when the depiction of tattoos on ukiyo-e, the popular Japanese woodblock prints, became widespread.
With the beginning of the new Meiji era (1868) and Japan's total orientation after Western ideals, tattoos were regarded as a barbaric relict from a dark period. Tattooing was banned by the Meiji government. However the tattoo artists did not get completely out of business. Foreign sailors became their new clientele. And in 1948 tattoos were again legalized.
Images of tattooed men and women (very rare) have been a popular subject on Japanese woodblock prints - mainly during the 19th century. Japanese print artists with notable depictions of tattooed persons are Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and Kunisada (1786-1865) during the Edo period (until 1868) and Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) and Kunichika (1835-1900) for the Meiji period (1868-1912). I am not aware of any tattoo prints from the first half of the 20th century. But among contemporary printmakers, Paul Binnie, born 1967, has chosen this subject frequently.
Overall, the themes of Japanese art prints reflect the social environment in which the artists are embedded.
In 1827 Utagawa Kuniysohi began a series titled 108 heroes of the suikoden. It was an illustration of a Chinese novel about 108 honorable bandits. The story was rather popular in Japan. Kuniyoshi showed many of the suikoden heroes with tattooes. The woodblock print series became very popular among common people and it is said that tattoos became 'iki' (cool) with Kuniyoshi's prints.
Chikanobu Toyohara made a few woodblock print designs with tattoos. This one is especially beautiful. It shows a scene from the suikoden story.
Kunisada Utagawa was a prolific printmaker and was more appreciated as any other ukiyo-e artists during his time. The subjects of his designs covered everything that was in good public demand. Therefore a large number of tattoo prints can be found among Kunisada's oeuvre.
Kunichika Toyohara was a bohemian artist who did his best to show the public a macho image of himself. The character of the wild and rough guy with tattoos is therefore frequently found on his woodblock prints, most designed as actor scenes from the kabuki theater, one of Kunichika's passions next to drinking and women.
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was a rather retrograde printmaker who opposed the westernization of Japan during the Meiji period. Tattooed men can be found among his print series of historic characters. Notable is also a woodblock print published in 1888 from the series 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners of Women' ( Fuzoku Sanjuniso) showing a prostitute while she is getting a painful tattoo on her arm.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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