29 december 2013

Tattoo History


The Ainu (pronounced "eye-nu") 

"Ainu" means "human." The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as "kamuy"(gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include : "nature" gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder ; "animal" gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses ; "plant" gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort ; "object" gods, such as of boats and pots ; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word "Ainu" refers to the opposite of these gods.

The Ainu, along with the Okinawa-based Ryukyu, are an indigenous population of Japan. Ainu lived

in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin, but now largely live in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. As of the last census Ainu populations in Hokkaido were roughly 23,000 people.

In traditional Ainu culture when a woman begins to come of age at 12-13 she begins a heavy tattooing process of her lips, legs, hands and arms. When this process has been completed somewhere around the age of 15-16 she is considered ready for marriage. Ainu culture held tattooed women to be beautiful. As Helena Burton notes on the meanings of the tattoos:

The implication being that the arms and hands must work for the husband and the lips must speak for him. The anchipiri (blackstone mouth) tattoo came to be seen as very beautiful and soon Ainu women believed that there was no salvation after death without tattooed lips.

Gerald Vizenor, in his book Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 plays a great deal with the history of both American native cultural history as well as the discriminatory practices of the Japanese against the Ainu against the backdrop of playful terrorism. Main character Ronin Browne, half Aniishinabe and half Japanese, at one point is tattooed with dissapearing chrysanthemums during an Ainu religious ceremony.


Bakuto, traditional gamblers, along with the tekiya, peddlars, are commonly acknowledged as early precursors to the Yakuza in Japan. Beginning in the 1700s and existing until the early 20th century, the bakuto was largely a set of social outcasts who maintained gambling rooms for traditional games like hanafuda and dice.

Often bakuto had criminal records. In Japan during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, offenders of particular forms of criminal activities would receive punitive tattoos, usually a black ring around the wrist. These rings became the starting point of elaborate tattoos to reclaim the body.

The bakuto can be called responsible for the introduction of finger removal (yubitsume) into yakuza culture as well as the name 'yakuza' itself. The word comes from a hand in hanafuda (flower cards) that was particularly bad for the gambler. The combination 8-9-3, or ya-ku-sa, became popular slang to denote something useless. The term became slang for the bakuto themselves and later the larger criminal organization that sprung up around them.

The term bakuto is still used to denote some of the responsibilities within yakuza organizations, however most gangs are associated in larger syndicates that include tekiya as well as the newer gurentai.


Geishin was the term used for penal tattoos in Japan from the 17th century until the abolishment of geishin in 1870. Penal tattoos apparently were nothing new during the Tokugawa period. There are records of Japanese both engaging in aesthetic tattoo practices as well as penal tattooing as far back as the Jomon period (10,000BCE-300). However with the Tokugawa period's heavy emphasis on Confucian ideology penal tattooing became not only an issue of identification of wrongs done, but also disrespectful to one's ancestry, as Confucian morals say that to "preserve one's body is to revere God." Large black bands on the forearms of the offender were often used in the Tokugawa period for various offenses and it is thought by many scholars that the origins of the Japanese body suit came from a reclaiming of the body by the wearer of these tattoos. Fully "sleeving" a piece where the black bands start would obscure the offense, and instead turn an ugly social stigma into something beautiful.

Helena Burton, in her article explains:
In a country like Japan where the group is very important, social ostracism was the worst form of punishment. Both Mansfield and Richie and Buruma make reference to a complex vocabulary of criminal tattoos emerging by the 17th century. Criminals found guilty of their third offence in Chikuzen in Northern Kyûshu for example, had their foreheads tattooed with the character inu (dog). In Satsuma in Southern Kyûshu a circle was tattooed near the left shoulder, in Kyoto a double bar was tattooed on the upper arm and in Nara a double line encircled the biceps of the right arm.

However, this sort of identification tattooing was not reserved only for criminals but also for the lower classes. The Hinin (outcast clan, lit. non-people), those who worked with criminals, executioners and gravediggers were tattooed. Later the burakumin (village people) sometimes known as eta who worked as slaughterers or tanners and engaged in unpopular work were also tattooed, although they were tattooed only on the arms and they were not tattooed as punishment, but more it is thought, so that society was able to keep track of them. So it seems that tattooing in Japan has always been associated with criminals and the underclass. The notable exception to this were the tattoos belonging to the Ainu, the indigenous peoples of Japan.

Many scholars reject the theory of body reclaimation as folklore, instead that penal tattooing in Japan had faded out of use by the time image-driven tattooing became popular. Whichever the case, the heavy usage of geishin and its embedded Confucian logic is one of the greatest challenges to overturning the social stigma of tattooing in Japan.

Hori Chyo

Hori Chyo was a traditional Japanese tattooist in the Meiji era. According to turn of twentieth century English tattooist George Burchett, Hori Chyo had tattooed many British aristocrats, including the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of York (later, King George V), and the Czarevitch of Russia (later, Czar Nicholas II). As a result, Japanese tattoos were exported to overseas countries, and gained a reputation outside of Japan

Hori Chyo tattooing Brittish Prince George 1881


Jomon is the earliest period known of traditional Japanese tattooing (10,000 B. C. ~ 300 B. C.). Jomon means "pattern of rope." Many ceramic pots with markings of rope were found in that period. Clay figurines produced in this period are called Dogu. Scholars consider that some dogus show tattoo-like markings on their faces and bodies. The oldest dogus whose faces have a depiction of tattooing were found near Osaka in 1977.

The people on the Japanese islands during the Jomon era may be the distant predecessors of the Ainu.

Katsunari Fukushi

Dr. Katsunari Fukushi is best known for his research at the University of Tokyo involving the collection and preservation of tatooed human skins. He studies, preserves, and logs the accumulation of traditionally tattooed skins by "Yakuza" members of Japan. The transparent illumination of these skins is remarkable and upon close examination, the insertion pattern of the needles can be seen through the skin.


Seibei, of Choraku-ji Temple, was the first tattooed Yakuza boss. In old times Yakuza were not tattooed. The tattoo on his back was a Ono-no Komachi and cherry blossoms on his waist, hands, and legs. When he took a hot bath and drank, his skin became pink (see silver red). He was a Yakuza boss in 1827 in Fugieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Utagawa Kuniyosho

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1997-1861) was an Ukiyo-e print designer of the Utagawa School in the late Edo Period.

Born the son of a dyer in the Edo working class district of Nihonbashi, he became an apprentice to Utagawa Toyokuni after demonstrating his prodigious artistic talent to the master at the age of twelve. In his first print series as a professional artist, 'Popular 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, Told One by One' (1826), Kuniyoshi's interpretation of the tattoos worn by some of the Suikoden heroes was extreme, with men tattooed from their back, arms and legs in one all-covering design. As impressionable young men in Edo copied the tattoos in Kuniyoshi's prints the whole-body tattoo 'suit' now synonymous with Japanese tattooing was born.

Some academics and tattoo artists today claim that Kuniyoshi himself was tattooed with a dragon design, although this remains uncorroborated.


"Wa" is a reference to the custom of tattooing in Japan by the Chinese in 3rd century A.D.
The Chinese refer to the Japanese tattoo collectors as "Wa" in their journals. It is described in the third century Chinese history, Gishiwajinden, which is the oldest record mentioning Japan. Japan is called Wa, and the custom of tattooing is mentioned in this text:

"The men of Wa tattoo their faces and paint their bodies with designs. They are fond of diving for fish and shells. Long ago they decorated their bodies in order to protect themselves from large fish. Later these designs became ornamental. Body painting differs among the various tribes. The position and size of the designs vary according to the rank of individuals.... They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet just as we Chinese use powder."


Dogu are clay figurines that were produced in ancient Japan during the Edo period. Scholars consider that some dogus show tattoo-like markings on their faces and bodies. The oldest dogus whose faces have a depiction of tattooing were found near Osaka in 1977 and are dated at 10,000 B. C. ~ 300 B. C.


Keibunsha is the first organization devoted to preserving and encouraging the traditional Japanese art of hand-tattooing known as tebori . Established in 1981 by Keibunsha, along with tattoo artist Horiyoshi II, Dr. Katsunari Fukushi and the author Akimitsu Takagi, the Tattoo Institute publishes books, photobooks, videos and CD-ROMs of Japan's most recognized tattoo artists both traditional and contemporary. The institute is currently compiling 
the Japanese Tattoo Encyclopedia.


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