Japanese Tattooing Evolved to Be Both Bold and Secretive
Japanese tattoos are known for their bold lines, historic patterns and imagery, and total body coverage. The techniques for tattooing that developed in Japan used hand tools, and it wasn't until the mid 20th century that machines first came to Japanese tattooing. Whereas Western tattooing often results in a varied collection of small pieces, Japanese tattooing often involves larger-scale full sleeve or leg tattoos, and entire bodysuit tattoos which cover from the neckline to the wrists and ankles.
The First Time I Saw a Real Japanese Tattoo
This photograph is from 1994. This picture was taken during the NTA convention "meet and greet." This meant it was a huge photo op for anyone with a certain amount of convention access. I shot close to 80 pictures in the space of about two hours, running around a giant ballroom full of tattooed people.
This was the first time I got to see or photograph traditional Japanese hand tattooing. I was struck immediately by the subtlety of some of the shading. There is a quality to it that you just don't see in Western tattooing.
The young man wearing the tattoo didn't speak any English, so I wasn't able to talk to him. You could tell by looking at his face, as he turned slowly to be photographed by dozens of onlookers, that he was very proud of his tattoo, and that he wished he could ask some questions of all of us too.
Kanji, Japanese characters, make popular tattoos. The woman whose leg you see here had her tattoo done entirely by hand at the 1994 NTA convention, and was kind enough to let me watch, take pictures and chat with me about it. The lower picture shows the Japanese master working by hand on this very tattoo.
She was the partner of an American tattoo artist, and she was getting the kanji for his name on her leg, along with a single cherry-blossom petal. Knowing how long it could take to do the work by hand, she told me she purposely made it a small design so that the Japanese tattoo master could work entirely by hand and not use a tattoo machine to save time. In a convention setting, outlines are often done by machine just to help get the design done a lot faster, with shading then done using the hand techniques.
I asked her if she felt any difference between the sensation of having a tattoo done by machine versus by hand. She thought for a moment and then said she'd almost say the Japanese hand technique was "cool" whereas the Western machine method felt more "hot." She felt the work she was getting was less painful, but she could also feel the distinct punctures of the needles into her skin, which she said felt sort of weird. If it's very quiet, you can hear the hand tool puncturing the leg, and it makes a strange crunching or popping sound, almost like when you hear a rat or rabbit chewing on something.
The completed design, shown here, took just about an hour to tattoo. Now imagine how many square inches there are in a full Japanese body suit, and you understand why they can take up to a decade to complete.
Three Videos of Hand Tattooing (Tebori)
The Japanese word for the technique of tattoing by hand is tebori.
These videos show a good approximation of what I was watching that day in 1994.
The first selection here is a video made of the man that many consider the #1 Japanese tattooist alive today, Horiyoshi III. Much of this video is shot in close-up, which lets you observe the Japanese hand tattoo technique. If you listen carefully, as Horiyoshi III works, there's this slight crunching noise. That is actually the sound of the needles repeatedly breaking the man's skin, a sound you can't hear in Western tattooing due to the use of fewer needles and the overriding noise of the electric machine.
The Absolute BEST Book On Japanese Tattooing
This groundbreaking photography book features images made using an oversize Polaroid, which actually produced near-life-size images of the subjects. The detail captured is as if you were able to look at the person up close with your own eyes.
This was the very first book I ever bought on Japanese tattooing and it's still the very best visual reference on the subject I've ever seen. It features a lot of work by the famous Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III.
Maron's Horiyoshi III Bodysuit: A Stunning Example of Contemporary Japanese Tattooing
The person shown here is Maron, who I met at Bondage A Go Go in San Francisco in 2005. He was competing in their tattoo contest one night.
His body suit was done in Japan, by tattoo master Horiyoshi III. Maron lived there for a few years, having work done on a steady basis to get it all completed in such a short time. The outline includes machine work, but all the color and shading was done with the traditional hand methods.
He's covered solid from wrists to ankles. The color detail and shading you can see when standing next to him and viewing in person just can't be adequately described. The tones and blending are just amazing. There is cross-hatching and very complex shading, as in very skilled pen illustration, in the black outlines and shading of the tattoo, at a level that you just don't see being done by American tattoo artists.
More Book Recommendations
I've always had a love of the Japanese style of tattooing. In my own tattoo book collection, this has got to be one of my largest sub-sections. Each of these books has proved valuable enough to not only own but to pore over repeatedly.
These collected titles provide not only historical facts and references for Japanese tattooing, but specific images and coverage of contemporary tattooing in Japan from the 1960s right up to today. The growth and fusion of the art form over what amounts to just my own lifetime is amazing to me.
A tattooist himself, Takahiro Kitamura takes a deep look at the ties between tattooing and samurai ethics in modern Japanese tattoo culture in BUSHIDO. Having associated with tattooist Horiyoshi III both as a tattoo client and student, Kitamura uses many of this master tattoo artist's designs to illustrate his theses.
This book is from the same author as BUSHIDO, but this one goes back further in time and takes a look at the printmaking history that inspired the designs of Japanese tattoos. Includes dozens of great illustrations and tattoo pictures.
Whereas most Japanese tattoo books talk about how Asian style tattooing influenced Western tattooing, Mike McCabe's book JAPANESE TATTOOING NOW takes a look at how Western styles have had an effect on the aesthetics and practice of tattooing as it exists in modern Japan. For anyone profiling the evolution of tattooing in Japan or looking for a tattoo artist working in Japan, this book will guide you thoroughly.
Donald Richie lived in Japan for most of his adult life and, as a Westerner, has studied many facets of their culture. He is considered an expert authority on Japanese cinema. This book on Japanese tattoos, written by Richie, was produced in 1980 and contains a lot of pertinent historical information along with excellent photo documentation of Japanese tattooing from recent decades.
Japanese Kanji (Lettering) for Tattoos: Do Your Research!
The web site Hanzi Smatter is dedicated entirely to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture. The author utterly adores and thrives on pictures of tattoos that people have gotten with Chinese characters or Japanese kanji where the translation is a bit off, or even way out in left field, or the characters were placed upside down.
The best way to not wind up a subject on this site is to do your homework and legwork when it comes to having your foreign-language tattoo created. Finding a native speaker is your best bet, although it's also a good idea to consult a second opinion.
The book below is a good starting point.
This book was specifically created to help people use kanji for things like tattooing. If you are out to design your own tattoo, consider this required reading!
"Horimono" Vs. "Irezumi"
The word "irezumi" has caught on in the US as a word meaning Japanese tattooing, but in fact, the specific meaning is "tattoos for punishment" and it refers to markings made on criminals in ancient times. The more appropriate Japanese name for tattooing is "horimono." See BME's discussion of these terms.
More Information and Historical Background on Japanese Tattooing
- Japanese Tattoo: Travelers' Tales
"Japanese Tattoo" by Dustin Leavitt. The author learns the history of this art straight from the master.
- Japanese Koi Tattoos
One of the most popular Japanese tattoo designs is the koi, the sacred carp. Learn more about and see these colorful fish designs.
- Japanese Tattoo Art
Artelino—Introduction to Japanese tattoo art
- The Art of the Japanese Tattoo
Japanese tattoos and Japanese woodblock prints
- Five Must-Knows When Getting a Kanji Tattoo
From Tattoo Club of Great Britain.
- Japanese Tattooing from the Tattoo Archive
It was 1853 before most of the world got its first glimpse of Japanese tattooing. That was the year that Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States Navy opened Japan to world trade.
So, if you made it this far, I'm gonna guess that you're a fan of Japanese tattooing and Japanese-style tattoos. Let me know what you thought of this article, ask a question, or share your experience with Japanese tattoos!