Japan’s Complex Relationship with Tattoo
When visiting Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia until September 27, you’re struck by the pure artistry. Photo after photo of intricate, mesmerizing designs, breathtaking colors, and symbolic imagery, one interwoven into the other, which would be difficult to render on canvas, much less flesh. There’s a passion and a reverence in these galleries that is almost palpable.
That’s why it’s almost inconceivable that Japan, which has been so instrumental in elevating tattooing to an art form, has also pushed this art form into the shadows, even condemned it for centuries.
To understand the seemingly conflicted relationship that Japan has with tattooing, you must carefully unearth the deep roots of Japan’s tattoo culture, which date back to the Jomon Period (roughly 10,500 to 300 BC). That’s when the first evidence of tattooing in Japan was recovered from tombs, in the form of clay figurines with faces painted or engraved to represent tattoos.
Fast forward many years later to the Edo Period (1615-1868) and Japanese authorities began using tattoos to mark criminals. According to “Japanese Tattoos: From Yakuza to Artisans, Aesthetes” in the Wall Street Journal, “…convicts were branded with penal markings such as bands on the arms, or the kanji character for ‘dog’ on the forehead.”
While this criminal stigma would prove difficult to shake for many centuries, tattooing enjoyed a significant reprieve from the negative connotation at the end of the Edo Period when it flourished alongside two other Japanese art forms: ukiyo-e woodblock printing, and kabuki. During this period, the military dictatorship governed by the corrupt samurai elite was attempting to repress artistic expression in the lower classes; however, these art forms grew instead, pushing one another to new levels of creativity and mastery. The samurai even tried to ban tattooing during this period, but it was far too popular for the laws to have much success in suppressing it.
This heyday of tattooing continued until the mid-19th century, when Japan began modernizing as a defense against Western occupation. Modernization for the country meant not only acquiring steam power, telegraphs, and heavy weapons, but also projecting a more civilized image to the world.
“One of the ways to project this image was to ban tattooing, which the Japanese government thought foreigners would regard as backwards or barbaric,” author of Tattoo: The Anthropology of Body Decoration, Yoshimi Yamamoto, told the Japan Times in an article titled “Japan Inked: Should the country reclaim its tattoo culture?”
After this stronger ordinance was enacted in the 1870s, police discouraged open displays of tattoos, raided tattoo studios, and confiscated tools and artwork, forcing tattooing underground. These sanctions against tattooing remained in place until they were lifted by U.S. occupation forces in 1948.
However, just because tattooing was finally legal didn’t mean the Japanese people embraced the practice. At this point, the criminal stigma created centuries earlier was being reinforced by gangster movies showing images of yakuza (Japanese organized crime) wearing wabori or bodysuit tattoos. While discouraging the average Japanese citizen from going under the needle, these images actually encouraged young yakuza to follow in the footsteps of the characters they saw on the silver screen. As a result, tattoos became indelibly linked to criminal behavior in the minds of Japanese people.
Today, while tattooing among the criminal element in Japan is declining, the mainstream population is getting inked more than ever, providing work for 3,000 artists throughout Japan, compared to 200 in 1990. But despite the renewed popularity of tattoos, they are still kept tightly under wraps in this country, banned at swimming pools, hot springs, and even some beaches, and hidden under clothing just about everywhere else.
Unlike tattoos in the West, they are considered a very private expression. Horicho II, an Asakusa-based tattoo master, explained to the Wall Street Journal in the aforementioned article that Japanese tattoos are like the pattern on the inside of a kimono cloth: “It is beautiful, because you only get a glimpse of it.”
The title of the exhibition at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is derived the Japanese word gaman, loosely translated as “perseverance“—a word that has long been associated with tattooing in Japan. According to Takahiro Kitamura, curator of the exhibition, and Kip Fulbeck, exhibition creator, designer and photographer, perseverance is what has created this amazing art form despite numerous attempts by the Japanese government to suppress it, despite ongoing prejudices against its practitioners and clients, and despite a constant trend to oversimplify its complexities in contemporary media. Perseverance is a core concept in the fleeting art of the Japanese tattoo, a tradition that is transient yet also alive and well in this modern world.
WATCH all 14 of these AMAZING VIDEOS – featuring artists whose works are represented in the show.