Irezumi, Tebori, and the History of the Traditional …

Posted in Tattooing on Jun 12, 2021

Today, traditional Japanese motifs,designs, and stylistic sensibilities remain popular sources of inspirationbehindmany contemporary tattoos. Often, many ink artists opt to combine theold withthe new to create pieces that range fromplayful printsand patterns todelicate works of art. Regardless of specificstyle, these Japanese-inspired tattoos have one thing in common: roots inIrezumi, ortraditional Japanese tattooing.

To gain an understanding and appreciation for this ancient art form, one must first learn about its rich and colorful pastand the ways in which the Japanese tattoo has evolved over time.

Like much of Japan's art, tattooing can be traced back centuries.

The earliest indication of the body art phenomenoncan be found on the seemingly tattooed faces of clay figurines from 5000 BCE. Another ancientmention of these markings is evidentin Wei Chih, a Chinese chronicle from the 3rd century. The telling text reveals that, at the time, men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.

In the 7th century, however, the art form took a turn. At this point, people began to view tattoos unfavorably. By 720 CE, they were even used as a form of branding and punishment for prisoners, courtesans, and criminals. This practice would last for over 1,000 years.

In the 18th century, Japanese tattoos underwent yet another transformation. Due to the prevalence of the colorful and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock print, tattoos rendered in this style became popular among groups of people with lower social statuses, like laborers, peasants, and even gangs. Given its ties to the lower class and its long and unsavory history, Irezumi was eventuallyoutlawed in Japanthough artists based in the country could still legally tattoo foreigners.

This loophole proved particularly important in the 19th century, when artists began tattooing nonnative sailors. As a result of this, their workand all of the cultural motifs, symbols, and styles that accompanied itwas eventually exhibited all over the world. Thus, though still an illegal form of art for residents of its home country, the Japanese tattoo gained unexpected global prominence.

In terms of subject matter, Japanese tattoos often showcasethe culture's reverence for naturenamely, animals and flowers. Additionally, much like the Ukiyo-e prints that have inspired Japanese tattoos, figures and portraits are also frequentlyfeatured in traditional tattoos.

Many tattoos feature animals associated with strength, courage, and protectionlike lions and tigers. Koi fish are historically popular subjects, too, as they represent luck, success, and good fortune.

Unsurprisingly, sakura (or cherry blossoms) remain the most popular floral motif found in Japanese tattoos. On top of its beautiful pale pink petals, this flower is preferred for its symbolic meaning, as these short-lived flowers often symbolize ephemerality. Lotus flowers, peonies, and Chrysanthemums are also favored for their alluring aesthetic and prevalence in Japan.

Both realistic and mythological figures are often featured in Japanese tattoos. Portraits of people rooted in realism often include warriors and geishas, whose likenesses were favored for their expressive faces and bright colors, respectively. Additionally, other heroic figures, as well as characters from literature, often appear in Irezumi designs.

In addition to realistic people, folkloric figures are also popular tattoo choices. Prevalent mythological subjects includeTengu (ghosts), Oni (demons or troll-like creatures), and deities from both Buddhist and Shinto religions. Dragons are also traditionally found in Irezumi. Often featuring the head of a camel, the torso of a snake, fish scales, and bird talons, these creatures can symbolize a myriad of ideas.

Today, Japanese and non-Japanese tattoo artists alike often look to traditional Irezumifor inspiration. Though the practice has been legal in Japan since 1948, itis still somewhat taboo. Thus, finding a tattoo shop in the country can sometimes be challenging. Additionally, inked individuals are often prohibited from entering some public places, like bathhouses,hot springs, and gyms (though some of these spaces allow entry if the tattoos are concealed).

Nevertheless, tattoos have provenpopular among Japan's younger generations. While many embrace contemporary tools like electric needles, some wish to preserveancient approaches, like Tebori, or hand-tattooing. These pieces are created usinga rod made of either metal or wood, and can take considerably longer to render than those made with more modern techniques.To many tattoo enthusiasts and artists, however, preserving the ancient craft is well worth the extra effort.

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