Tattoos have become commonplace in America with one in four people under 40 now having one. However, the art form dates back centuries in Japan and ancient designs influence modern tattoos as shown in a photographic exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles.
Entitled Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, the show looks at how Japanese artwork and traditional designs have become body designs. The exhibit features over 200 intensely vivid full-body images of men and women whose skin is functioning as an art canvas. Many of the Japanese-influenced designs popular today use formidable dragons, big koi, fierce-looking warriors and other images derived from Japanese printmaking. This JANM exhibit looks at the traditional images and how top tattoo practitioners depict them on humans today.
Perseverance in the exhibit’s title sums up the process of getting a full-body tattoo. The Japanese word for “perseverance” is gaman, which is usually translated as “patient suffering” or enduring for a purpose with dignity. It is probably no coincidence that it is also the work for tattoo in some parts of Japan.
Japanese tattoos have a long history, going back to the Edo period from 1600-1861. As shown in the museum, tattoos are not merely designs on skin or contemporary pop art. The detailed traditional work displayed is akin to hand painted art on woodprints, on kites, in printmaking and in calligraphy. However, some practitioners in the West have tried to copy Japanese tattoos without understanding or honoring the symbols and traditions displayed. The exhibit tries to address this with some side by side examples of old art displaying warriors and dragons alongside the tattooed representations created by the artists whose work is included in the show.
The JANM exhibition in L.A. has on display Japanese-influenced body art from seven internationally known tattoo artists: Chris Horishiki Brand, Yokohama Horiken, Horitaka, Horitomo, Junii, Miyazo and Shige, as well as selected works done by others. These artists show the spectrum of Japanese tattooing today through the various photographs shown, including life-sized pictures of people who have full-body tattoos.
While they have been around for a long-time and have a rich history there, tattoos are typically taboo in Japan. This negative attitude partly stems from the historical practice of permanently marking criminals with tattoos. It also derives from the fact that the yakuza organized-crime syndicate members also displayed tattoos. Some resorts, gyms and other public places in which people typically bare their skin, reportedly have signs that forbid exposing tattoos.
JANM wants to help shed any negative perceptions or stigma attached to tattoos. As JANM president and CEO Greg Kimura phrased it, “We have an obligation to recognize this cultural inheritance and to honor it …” even if, as he acknowledged, it continues to have an outlaw association in Japan. He also expressed the “provocative and radical argument” that Japanese tattooing should be viewed as a full-fledged art form that can be traced to wood block prints from the 1600s.
The Japanese tattoo art display at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles continues through September 14. The JANM is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursday (when it is open until 8 p.m.). The museum is closed on Mondays.
By Dyanne Weiss
Japanese American National Museum
Personal Visit to JANM Exhibit