Book review: getting under the skin of Japan’s distinctive tattoo culture

With its association with organised crime, tattooing in Japan still has a frisson of the underground, but this lavishly illustrated tome reveals a practice with deep roots that also changes with the times

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 10:53am

Japanese Tattoos

by Brian Ashcraft with Hori Benny

Tuttle Publishing

3½ stars

An old tattoo master in Tokyo once laughed when I winced at photographs of some of his best work. Don’t worry, he implored, wilfully misunderstanding my reaction and suddenly crossed legs. The person in the pictures would be proud I was gawping at her private parts, tattooed using what resembled bamboo instruments of torture. A giggle from the kitchen confirmed his boast. It was his wife.

Fortunately, tattoo porn is missing from the pages of Brian Ashcraft’s new book. But just about every other facet of the art form is displayed in glorious technicolour, revealing not only the history and design of irezumi (literally “insert ink”), but also Japanese culture high and low.

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Short chapters explain familiar, nay clichéd, Japanese motifs etched into the backs, buttocks and more of the brave. As Ashcraft explains, despite the country’s long tradition of irezumi, which spans recorded history, tattoos are still associated with the yakuza, whose predilection for body art has kept the tradition alive, especially during crackdowns on its practice.

The practice was banned in Japan from the late 19th century to the end of the second world war, and since 2001 authorities have classified tattooing as a medical procedure, meaning studios faced being shut down because only licensed health-care practitioners can legally penetrate skin with a needle and insert pigment.

All this serves, of course, to heighten the art form’s sense of the illicit, which is in stark contrast to how it is starting to be seen in the West. For certain age groups in some countries, tattooing has reached the point of overkill.

However, this book, by American journalist Ashcraft and co-writer Hori Benny, an Osaka-based tattooist, should have broad appeal. That’s due in part to the lively profiles of masters, wannabes and the tattooed themselves, who are proof of the tradition’s willingness to modernise.

Among the interviewees is Gakkin, an avant-garde practitioner whose obsession with tattoos began in North America, although it was only after returning to Japan that he incised a Sex Pistols lyric on his chest: “I am an anti-christ, I am an anarchist.” Not surprisingly, given Gakkin’s affinity with punk, black rules his palette, although his distinctive, often geometric, designs now evince his Japanese heritage.

Providing generational contrast is Horiyoshi III, perhaps Japan’s most famous tattooist. A septuagenarian who still practices tebori (the “hand-poking” method), he turned to machines in 1985 after realising their efficiency and versatility. But he remains old school in describing irezumi as a “language” with its own grammar and rules. Break them, we’re told, and tattoos become meaningless, their wearers fools.

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This is where the writers have fun, pointing to the attraction in the West for Japanese-script tattoos, regardless of the foolhardiness of having non-native speakers – and computers – perform translations. Which is why bloopers abound: someone is apparently wandering the globe wearing a tattoo that reads “big mistake” instead of the intended “courage”. Someone else is etched with “baka gaijin” (“stupid foreigner”).

But the authors give more space to descriptions of typical Japanese designs, which range from mythical beasts to religious imagery to folklore heroes such as golden boy Kintaro, wrestling a giant carp.

The onslaught of colours and patterns is broken up with curious facts that underscore why Japan continues to fascinate. A “tattoo client profile” of a female health-care professional reveals not just a back-to-knees masterpiece of a deity with babe in arms. More interesting is that there exists a god of easy child delivery, Koyasu-gami.

Macabre Roald Dahl-style intrigue permeates another story, about the 105 tattooed hides housed in Tokyo University’s Medical Pathology Museum. We’re told they were used as research by a doctor studying how tattooing affected moles (his notes, unfortunately, were lost during the second world war) and shown a fuzzy photograph of the man with his grisly collection.

While interesting, these short, random pieces detract from the cohesiveness of the book and give it a bitty feel. An early page, for example, places two standalone boxes side by side with no obvious connection between them. One tells of warnings hung at public baths advising patrons to cover their tattoos; the other, about the trend among European royalty in the 19th century to return from exotic locations with permanent souvenirs: Britain’s Prince Albert Victor and the future King George V both received dragon tattoos on a visit to Japan in 1881.

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But for irezumi aficionados, these are quibbles. For others keen to outdo Cheryl Cole or indeed to invest in a full body suit, first read the practical precautions at the end of the book, then flip back to the piece on Horiyoshi III.

Horiyoshi, who refuses to call what he does “art” because in that world “you are allowed to fudge things”, insists he is instead a shokunin (craftsman) with a deep understanding of Japanese symbols and the stories behind them.

And the South China Morning Post being a family newspaper, I cannot possibly relay the motifs used in the intimate tattoos of that giggling woman who made me tea decades ago.