In Japan tattoos are part of an ancient style in which tattoos are used as a new and more modern form of expression. Although the tattoo culture in Japan is very sophisticated Japan also has a more strained relationship with tattoos than many other countries today. Tattoos are still taboo in Japan. This means that Japanese tattoos usually are placed in such a way that that the tattoos can be hidden under clothes to hide them in public.
Some compare Japanese tattoos with fireflies. You only see their beauty at night. Similarly, tattoos in Japan are only seen in specific situations. This is one of the things that makes Japanese tattoo culture unique and very beautiful.
Tattoos in Japan started as a form of punishment
You can’t talk about Japanese tattoos without getting into the topic of organized crime. Yakuza is the name used on organized criminal organizations in Japan. These organizations engage in criminal activities both inside and outside Japan.
Today’s Yakuza has its roots in criminal organizations that engaged in illegal gambling or the trade of illegal or stolen goods in the Edo area around 1603-1868. During this time criminals got the Tokigawa symbol tattooed on their neck to escape the death penalty. The Tokigawa symbol therefore has a strong association with criminals in Japan.
Tattoos were also used to systematically label criminals based on where the offense was performed, the severity of the offense, and how many times the offense had been committed. In the past it was common for members of most Yakuza clans to have tattoos. The tattoos often showed drawings or symbols from Japanese art, culture and history.
Tattoos that cover the entire body, also called body suit tattoos, originate in the Yakuza culture. Here tattoos are seen as private and the tattoos usually stop at the neck and at the wrists. This is how these tattoos are kept out of the public, even though they cover almost the entire body.
In Japan symbols are very important. It is for example not allowed to tattoo the symbol of the first samurai, or to tattoo family symbols. The best tattoo artists in Japan are often associated with the Yakuza. Horiyoshi considered one of the most legendary tattoo artists in Japan. Horiyoshi is also the Yakuza’s favorite tattoo artist.
Japanese Tattoo Style
Japanese tattoos are aesthetically very different from the tattoos you often see in the west. Aesthetics is something that permeates Japanese culture. Everything from tea ceremonies to samurai swords and tattoos have their special features.
Japanese tattoos are often symbols or drawings from Japanese culture, history or art. Some popular motifs in japanese tattoos inklude flowers, carps, skulls, mythological beings, oceans and waves, ships, dragons or snakes.
Shadows are also important in Japanese art. Japanese tattoos therefore often contains shadows. Colors used are usually degrees of black and white, as well as red and green.