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Is It Art or Symbol of Heresy? History of Japanese Tattoo Culture

Is It Art or Symbol of Heresy? History of Japanese Tattoo Culture

Translated by Michiyo Nakashima

Written by Yusuke Baba

2015.05.28 Bookmark

Japan has a long love/hate history with tattoo culture. Let's take a look at the myths and stereotypes in Japan about tattoos!


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One’s dangerous aspect or bold appearance attracts people mysteriously. The instinctive sense of beauty that is hard to describe in words certainly exists in tattoo as well.

Today I would like to introduce you about an unique Japanese tattoo which is called “Irezumi”(刺青)in English.

Japanese people usually don’t have a positive notion on tattoo because that reminds them of gangs who wear tattoo on their backs. However, Japanese tattoo has been recognized from the world as the most sophisticated body art recently.

When did tattooing start?

Tattooing seems to be began in 5300 years ago.


Some artificial patterns were found on the body of Iceman that is known as the oldest tattoo in the history.Also clean images of tattoos were found from a mummy of princess Altai and her servants.

Is Tattoo only for gangs in Japan?


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The colorful designs of flowers and dragons became popular since Edo era(18th century). Back then tattoo was used and recognized as a symbol of criminals in order to prevent them from committing a crime again. However, citizens like carpenters, plasterers, fire fighters, and palanquin barer thought it was stylish; thus tattoo spread among people widely since then.

But later, gangs also preferred to wear tattoo on their bodies, and the purpose was to share the sense of unity in their community and show their power. Therefore, Japanese people haven’t had a positive notion on tattoo.

Photo by:Unbetitelt

Nowadays, it’s been common that artists and athletes show their tattoos to public as a part of their fashion, but some celebrities still cover their tattoo when they appear on TV because a majority of people thinks it’s not appropriate to show tattoo openly. The image of crime exceeds the modern recognition of tattoo as sophisticated body art. Unfortunately, the reason or motivation to get tattoo has been changing today, but people still cannot accept it as it is because of the bias for the history of tattoo.

The skill of painting tattoo is world-class level

Celebrities from overseas are fascinated by Japanese tattoo. The painting skill of Japanese tattoo is also known widely. There is a story that tells how people from western society were amazed by Japanese style tattoo back then.

In 1867, when Japan opened its country to the world and the end of Samurai culture had came, the government decided to ban tattoo as well as carrying a Japanese sword and wearing a topknot. Yet, when western people saw tattoos that were worn by Japanese men, they were amazed by the colorful paintings on the body. Those people who were surprised by the beauty of Japanese tattoo decided to have one on their body in commemoration of visiting Japan. There were princes of Great Britten and Russia among those people who wore Japanese tattoo at the time.

It’s mind blowing actually, but the story really tells how western people appreciated Japanese tattoo as an art back then. I have an experience that I was shocked when I saw a librarian lady’s arms were covered with colorful tattoos when I visited Australia. I believe there are many different ways of expressing yourself, and wearing a tattoo is one of those ways to express your identity.

A thing you have to remember when you have tattoo and visit Japan

Pict by 長島リゾート

Because there are still boundaries between tattoo culture and public spaces, you have to remember a manner when you are at a public space to prevent any troubles.

For example, usually, public hot spring facilities would not accept you taking a bath if you have tattoo. The reason came from the history of traditional tattoo was used for criminals. Public hot spring facilities are afraid of intimidating their other customers by having someone who wears tattoo for that reason. It’s not the case for all the hot spring facilities, but you will have to ask them if they accept someone who has tattoo before taking a bath.

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Does tattoo represent Cool Japan??


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However, the negative aspects of the history kept Japanese tattoo from appearing to the world for a long time, but the time has contributed to refine its beauty to evolve Japanese tattoo as art today. Cool Japan is not always pop culture and modern art, but an old history also owns some beautiful aspects that still attract people’s attention. It is safe to say that Japanese tattoo is one of our unique cultures that require subtle and dexterous skills.

(*1)Ötzi; also called Ötzi the Iceman, the Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, Homo tyrolensis, and the Hauslabjoch mummy) is a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 BCE, more precisely between 3359 and 3105 BCE. (Cited from Wikipedia)

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