Japanese Tattoos - Irezumi of the Yakuza

Updated on March 4, 2012

Art: Skin as my canvas

For the past few years I've had a fascination with Japanese culture, their cartoons, their language, the people. It's an entirely different world in which they live and yet we are largely influenced by them. The appeal of their country is so far gone I'm not even entirely sure what it is I love about it anymore. It excites and fascinates me to no end.

Upon my delving into the many sources at my disposal (internet) I came across the word "irezumi." Now, Japanese language has been an utter nightmare in attempting to learn so I decided to stick with Latin based systems for now. However, this is one of the few words at my disposal and it has an entire history to back it up.

A beautiful and untraditional full body piece
A beautiful and untraditional full body piece | Source

Origination of Irezumi

The Edo period, of a still feudal Japan, had a significant effect on the role of tattoos. The tattoo was a symbol of the criminal and was sometimes done on the forehead or wrists. Over time the mark of the criminal became the tradition of the criminal and so the underground world welcomed such a unique ritual into their lifestyle.

Today, tattoos are still seen as a sign of criminality in Japan, particularly by those of the older generation and in the work place. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos (horimono) were associated with the yakuza. The yakuza, the mob, mafia, triad, whatever you want to call it, this is recognized as Japan's foremost organized criminal group. Many businesses and areas in Japan (Sento, or Onsen. These are public bathing areas or bathing areas functioning with a natural hot spring) still disallow customers with tattoos. Ironically, many yakuza and other criminals themselves avoid tattoos for this very reason.

Regardless of all the naysay, traditional irezumi is still done by hidden masters, however, it is very painful, time-consuming and expensive. A common traditional body suit which covers the arms, back, upper legs and chest, while leaving an un-tattooed space down the center can take 2 to 10 years of weekly visits to complete and cost in excess of US$30,000. It's also considered dangerous enough that a member of the underground, having grown in repute and having the funds, would brand himself with such a mark to prove his strength. Fever, infection and worse case even death can come from such an incredibly daunting tattoo. Therefore any man who managed to successfully complete his piece was regarded with honor and respect.

Example of a traditional full back and arm tattoo
Example of a traditional full back and arm tattoo

If you're interested, would you consider getting a tattoo with this style?

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Master of Irezumi

If one is seeking to find a master of this art for either a tattoo or to learn to be this type of tattooist, it is possible. However the prospective client or student must first find a horishi. This in and of itself can be a difficult task because such individuals are often secretive, and introductions are generally made by hearsay and word-of-mouth only.

If one discovers a master he would train for many years under him. He (for they are all usually male) might even become a live-in pupil: cleaning, observing, practicing on his own skin, making necessary equipment, mixing inks, and arduously copying designs from his teacher before he is allowed to tattoo anyone. He must become competent and prove his ability by mastering the intricate skills in his chosen craft.

When the student has been deemed worthy enough he would be given the chance to impress his skills on a prospective customer. There are many different categories of irezumi that a horishi must know to offer a wide array of designs to the liking of his clientele. These range from nature, like cherry blossoms and lotuses, to animals, both natural and mythological (tigers and dragons) even deities of both positive and negative aspects. (buddhas and tengu -- gods and devils)

Once it has been decided what is wanted, an outline will be placed (usually just freehand) this is done in one sitting but may take up to several hours. Over the course of weeks and months and even years, the piece will come to life. Depending on the stamina and resilience of a person (not to mention the cash on hand) once or twice a week up to two years or once a month for a lengthly process up to ten years.

Regardless of the cost, regardless of the pain, I feel that this is something I will do in my life. It isn't something I have decided to do to "show off." It isn't something I desire to prove to anyone or anything. I will get a full back piece purely for my own sake.

A traditional body suit with an untraditional set of mala prayer beads tattooed around his neck
A traditional body suit with an untraditional set of mala prayer beads tattooed around his neck | Source
A stunning sleeve with vibrant beautiful colors
A stunning sleeve with vibrant beautiful colors | Source
A female back piece, cause women can get them too
A female back piece, cause women can get them too | Source


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  • CodeMaster profile image

    CodeMaster 6 years ago from Alaska, Anchorage

    Thank you Pokedex! I love all kinds of different cultures and hope to get some more hubs out there. In the meantime good luck on your journey to discover all Pokémon! (avid fan ^_^)

  • Pokedex profile image

    Pokedex 6 years ago from Pallet Town

    Very nice hub. Its interesting how different cultures do different things.