Japanese tattoo art has several names – irezumi or horimono in the Japanese language. Irezumi is the word for the traditional visible tattoo that covers large parts of the body like the back. Japanese tattoo art has a very long history.
Archaeologists believe that the early settlers of Japan, the Ainu people, used facial tattoos. Chinese documents report about the Wa people – the Chinese name for their Japanese neighbors – and their habits of diving into water for fish and shells and decorating the whole body with tattoos. These reports are about 1700 years old.
For the higher developed Chinese culture, tattooing was a barbaric act. When Buddhism was brought from China to Japan and with it a strong influence of the Chinese culture, tattooing got negative connotations. Criminals were marked with tattoos to punish and identify them in society.
Early History of Japanese Tattoo Art
During the Edo period – 1603-1868 – Japanese tattoo art became a part of ukiyo-e – the floating world culture. Prostitutes – yujos – of the pleasure quarters used tattoos to increase their attractiveness for customers. Body tattoos were used by laborers and firemen.
From 1720 on, the tattooing of criminals became an official punishment and replaced the amputation of the nose and the ears. The criminal received a ring tattoo around the arm for each offense or a character tattoo on his forehead. Tattooing criminals was continued until 1870, when it was abolished by the new Meiji government of the Japanese Emperor.
This visible punishment created a new class of outcasts that had no place in society and nowhere to go. Many of these outlaws were ronin – masterless samurai warriors. They had no alternatives than organizing in gangs. These men formed the roots of yakuza – the organized criminals in Japan in the twentieth century.
Tattoo Artwork → Here