Tradition and history
Japan’s art conceptions, deriving from diverse cultural traditions, have been formative in the production of a unique type of tattoos art and technique.
Japanese tattoos originated in the Edo Period and are derived from Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e).
Japanese tattoos are unique in the sense that the tattoo artist uses the whole body as one big canvas. Each separate design is connected through stylized Japanese wind and water elements.
Today, popular tattoo designs that we associate with Japanese tattooing are directly derived from Japanese woodblock prints. Every Japanese tattoo tells its own tale, with hundreds of years of culture and tradition incorporated into the designs, each with their own meaning and symbology. In Japan, tattooing is commonly referred to as Irezumi which means “to insert ink” when translated to English. Japanese tattoo artists are called a ‘Horishi’ or ‘Horimono’ which means “to carve”.
Many of these prints were inspired by a popular Chinese folk tale called Suikoden. In this tale, many of the main characters were heavily tattooed masterless Samurai or Ronin. Woodblock prints that took inspiration from these stories served as a guide for the Japanese tattoo artists at the time and inspiration for many of the full-body tattoo designs came from these stories. The most famous example is probably a series of prints from contemporary Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi 3, he created a series of sumi ink prints called “108 heroes of the Suikoden”.
Tattoo artists still take inspiration from woodblock prints to this day. Some of the most influential woodblock prints were by Utagawa Kuniyoshi who is most famous in the western world for his series of prints ‘Heroes of Our Country’s Suikoden’. Another influential woodblock artist was Katsushika Hokusai, perhaps most famous for his series of prints ‘Thirty six views of mount Fuji’ – a series of thirty six woodblock prints all depicting Japans famous mount Fuji from different vantage points and throughout different seasons.
The most famous of these is “The great wave of Kanagawa” where Mount Fuji is seen in the background of a Tsunami-style wave.