Japanese Tattoo Tradition on Exhibit in Los Angeles


The Japanese American National Museum presents Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World until September 14, 2014. The groundbreaking exhibition examines traditional Japanese tattoo artistry with its extensive history and its influence on modern tattoo methods. It also explores Japanese tattooing as an art form due to ukiyo-e woodblock print artistry. The museum surveys present-day practices and derivatives of the practice in the U.S. and Japan. The works of Horitomo, Miyazo, Horitaka, Shige, Chris Horishiki Brand, Yokohama Horiken and Junii among other tattoo works are featured.

Japanese tattoos have recently shifted into the mainstream, and the legacy and artistry of the practice remain both mystifying and misunderstood. It is often copied in the Western world without consideration to its symbolism, tradition or history. Today, the art form is generally abstract as a visual or exotic caricature. Conversely, Japanese culture dismisses the art itself as underground, associating it more with the individuals who have the tattoo rather than the artists practicing it. Both mindsets ignore the vast artistry and the practice’s long, time-honored history.

Regardless that Japan still views tattooing an underground activity, Japanese tattoo artists continue to pursue their obsessions, harness their talents, and have become internationally renowned. Through their perseverance and dedication, Japanese tattooing has endured censorship and reproach to become recognized as a fine art form.

Japanese tattoos date back to approximately 5th century B.C. but flourished during the Edo period. Hindered from dressing in the lavish kimonos worn by royalty and the privileged, incensed merchants and the lower class rebelled by brandishing tattooed body suits. The tattoos covered their torsos with designs that started at the neck, reached to above the knee and extended to the elbow. The wearers concealed the decorative tattoos underneath their clothes. In 1870, the Japanese government regarded the practice as insubordinate and associated with criminality so they forbade tattoos. Consequently, tattoo artists went underground, where artistry blossomed as an expression of the wearer’s personal desires and inclinations.


Since tattoos were banned, the body suits became attractive to the Japanese gangsters or Yakuza. Intricate and sophisticated designs signified an unresolved struggle and contained symbols of character qualities that the Yakuza aspired to follow.

The traditional Irezumi is the beautification of the body with flowers, leaves, mystical beasts and other similar motifs from Japanese tales and myths. For example, a lion stood for bravery, Longmen Falls became a symbol of worldly aspiration while a koi fish denoted individualism, strength and perseverance.

It is said that woodblock artists were the first to begin Irezumi, employing the same tools as they used in their art, which could involve chisels, gouges and Nara black ink that turned blue-green under the skin. Although, the individual had to withstand long intervals of pain from the “artist’s bundles of needles,” the wearer endured as a display of faithfulness to their personal beliefs.

The traditional technique called tebori did not use motorized equipment. In this practice, tattoo artists dipped their instruments into the ink before poking repeatedly into the skin. While the process is the traditional way, it is not considered antiquated. Today, there are still many tebori practitioners, according to tattoo artist, Horitaka (Takahiro Kitamura), the curator of the Perseverance exhibition. He noted that many artists use the motorized needles to outline the design, but they prefer to use their hands for the shading and details. In the exhibit, viewers can survey the zoomed-in photographs of numerous human canvases that sometimes takes up to five years of weekly visits to finish.

Japanese tattoos are not only different from tattoos in the U.S. for their technique and tradition, but they are considered “fine art.” Paralleling to traditional Japanese art forms begin with the artist’s name. Many Japanese tattoo artists take the prefix “Hori,” which means, “to carve or dig.” Japanese woodblock artists often signed their name with “Hori,” such as the 1867 woodblock print, Genji Viewing Snow From a Balcony by Hori-ei.

Even though occupational forces legalized tattooing in 1945, it holds fast to its association with the Yakuza and many businesses in Japan such as fitness clubs and public baths forbid tattooed customers. As the artistry of Japanese tattoos has increased in reputation and popularity, the symbolism and time-honored tales have synthesized. Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World is an atypical museum exhibition as it chronicles Japanese history and celebrates the tattoo art of Japanese tradition.

By Dawn Levesque

Japanese American National Museum
Irezumi Art
LA Weekly
Museum Victoria


You must be logged in to post a comment Login