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Japan’s Complex Relationship with Tattoo

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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 ...Read More »

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: “Perseverance”

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Since 1936, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been dignified. Revered. Respectable. Timeless. As of May 29th, however, it’s going to look a little different. On May 29th, it’s getting 115 tattoos. And frankly, it’s about time.  With the opening of Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition (also known as Perseverance),Richmond’s most popular art form moves into the biggest gallery in town. The world-famous exhibition—including pieces by Horitaki, Horitomo, Miyazo, and Shige—combines the mysticism and beauty of feudal Japan with the style and skill of modern art. And if there’s a better place on the East Coast for it, we can’t think of it. The capital of the old South—Richmond, Virginia—is now the artistic hub of the new South. It’s the third-most tattooed city in America (per capita, mind you),which makes it the perfect match of artists and audience. Richmond is, was, and will always be in love with art. Just not always the kind that hangs on gallery walls. Tattoos, graphic design, sculpture, typography, mural painting—Richmond’s breaking all kinds of new ground in these every year. When you’ve got a mix of young artists, art students, tattoo artists, musicians, skateboarders, crust punks, regular old (or as regular as they get) punks, bike gangs, motor-scooter gangs, and general nonconformists like Richmond has, you’re going to see an awful lot of beautiful things that don’t always fit the 20th-century definition of “art.” VMFA, to its credit, has realized this. In a city that prides itself fiercely on outsider ...Read More »