As a fan of tattoos, one of my favourite pastimes is discovering new styles. Irezumi, the art of Japanese tattooing, has always been fascinating to me because of its connotations in Japan. Associated with criminality, irezumi is thought be both shocking and taboo. But outside of Japan, the distinctive style has captivated tattoo enthusiasts and that kind of contrast is intriguing.
Japanese Tattoos, written by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny, goes into detail about the history of irezumi and the motifs that make it one of the most beautiful tattoo styles in the world.
Breaking down tattoo culture in Japan
Ashcraft does an excellent job of explaining how tattoos have evolved through Japanese history. Originally used as a method of punishment, irezumi developed into an underground symbol of rebelliousness. The book contains interviews with famous Japanese horishi (tattooers) like Horiyoshi III and how they got their start in the industry.
Ashcraft also explains the different images that are used for irezumi and what they represent in Japanese culture, such as:
- Cherry blossoms – The ephemeral nature of life
- Chrysanthemums – Long life
- Koi – Strength and masculinity
- Tigers – Protection and strength
- Foxes – Craftiness and intelligence
In addition, there’s an in-depth chapter about the popularity of folk heroes inspired by the Suikoden. This Chinese text was translated into Japanese during the 1750s and the images of tattooed warriors were made popular by the 19th century artist Katushika Hokusai.
This style of irezumi became known as nijubori (two-layer tattooing). The result was getting a tattoo of a folk hero like martial artist Kyumonryu Shishin on the back, which also had tattoos of its own. It created a vivid and playful effect.
Japanese Tattoos is complimented by stunning photos of standalone irezumi. They range from elaborate back pieces of dragons and phoenixes, to full body suits that depict epic mythological battles. Learning more about the different kind of irezumi body suits was also fascinating. They include:
- Soushinbori – Full body suit
- Kame No Kou – The tortoise shell
- Hikae – Shoulders and arms
- Munewari – Split chest body suit
- Nagasode – Long sleeves
- Shichibusode – Seven-tenth sleeve bodysuit
- Gobusode – Five-tenth sleeve bodysuit
- Senaka – The back
Ashcraft highlights the importance of irezumi not being exclusive to yakuza or other criminals. There are plenty of examples of regular people who are proud to show off their tattoos in the book.
Whether you’re looking for ideas about a new tattoo or want to learn more about Japanese culture, Japanese Tattoos is a thrilling book to read. It’s informative, beautiful and balanced. Buy it now on Amazon.
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