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Tattoo Education: Irezumi


Irezumi: Refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent decorative mark, in other words, tattooing.
Tebori: (手彫り, literally to carve by hand) -- describes the technique of tattooing by hand.
Horishi: (彫り師, 彫物師) -- a tattoo artist.

Today's edition of Tattoo Education brings us to Japan, the land of the rising sun. Here in Singapore, I have seen a heavy influence of Japanese styled tattoos. Just one look and you'll know it's a Japanese themed tattoo. Their tattoos are bold, colorful and eye catching.

Tattoos have played a huge role in the Japanese culture. History books show that Japanese men had their ranks tattooed on them in the Yayou Period (300 B.C. - 300). And in the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), criminals where marked by the Shoguns. These tattoo markings consisted of stripes on their arms or faces. The number, formation and placement of the tattooed stripes differed from each city they were in. These tattoos ensured that the criminals would have no place in society. And with this, the obvious happened. These criminals had no choice but to unite and form various gangs. The tattoos that were meant as punishment, soon served as a way to identify these gangs.

In the middle of the 18th century, a 14th century originating Chinese novel "Shui hu chuan" was translated into Japanese by Takai Ranzan as Suikoden. The story of four rebels fighting against the government gained such popularity due to the similarity of what happened in Japan at this time and the Japanese were also fed up with the military dictatorship of the Shoguns. The Suikoden were provided with wooden cuts of the artist Katsushika Hokusai who through the original Chinese text, only knew that one of the rebels carried tattooed paeonien blossoms, the other one dragons, the third cherry blossom patterns and the fourth pine branches. In his illustrations the four rebels carried those designs all over their bodies.

In 1827 more wooden cuts were published by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He made sixteen out of the four rebels and illustrated their bodies with more complex designs of leopards, crows, monkeys, octopuses and nine tailed cats. Kuniyasho was also the one to embed the single motives in a wave and the now common cloud background covering the back, chest and upper arms. The Japanese tattoo owes it's most important impulse to those two artistic transfers of a text.

Tattoo masters like Karakusagonta (from Asakusa), Darumakin and Iso (Yanaka), Charibun (Asakusa), Horitsun (Kameido), Ichimatsu (Asakusa), Kane (Yottsuya), Horiichi (Osaka) and the most famous of all Horiuno, used those images to create their skin art.

The tattoos of the 19th century, mostly consisted of suits. A suit tattoo covers the entire back, chest, stomach, buttocks, upper arms and legs. Later Kawa tattoos strengthened the impression of a suit by leaving out a stripe of skin in the middle of the chest, stomach and upper leg.

A very popular tattoo artist in that time was Hori Chiyo who, among other things, tattooed a dragon on the fore arm of the British Prince of Wales, tattooed the Duchess of Edinburgh, Queen Olga of Greece and also the later Czar Nicolaus II. Hori Chiyo was considered the emperor among the "Kings of Tattoo Artists". The Japanese Irezumi with it's bright colors, complex patterns, expressive designs and it's anatomically designed Kanto style, applied especially to the muscle structure of the tattooed, to give movement to the design through the movement of the muscles.

Modern day Japan is still divided about tattoos. In some baths and spas, tattoos are banned till this day. As I mentioned earlier in the post, tattoos are still linked with the Yakuza. The Yakuza are the Japanese version of the Mafia.

The Japanese people are proud of their culture. The traditional form of tattooing is still actively practiced in Japan. There's even a tattoo museum called the Tokyo Tattoo Museum by Horiyoshi III and the Japan Tattoo Institute. The art of the Tebori won't be forgotten anytime soon!

(If you would like to contribute to this weekly column, do email Noel at


  1. "Yeah tatoo was very awesom"

    During 19th century suits tattoo was very famous!

    My friend in japan has tatoo that covers the her entire back, chest, stomach, buttocks, upper arms.

  2. I bet her tattoo looks awesome Mitakashime! I love looking at full body suit tattoos. It's the best kind of art in my books!


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