Japan: Tattoo artists want to wash off criminal connection

Japan: Tattoo artists want to wash off criminal connection
Fecha de publicación: 
10 July 2023
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Japan's Bunshin Tattoo Museum in Yokohama is dedicated to the work of Yoshihito Nakano, who is better known in the body art world as Horiyoshi III, a master of traditional Japanese tattooing.

The museum is presided over by Horiyoshi's wife, Mayumi Nakano. Wearing a sleeveless shirt that reveals entwined flower tattoos in vivid reds, greens and yellows from her wrists to her shoulders, she confides that she received her first tattoo when she was 20. It was at the hands of her husband. 

"Tattoos are misunderstood in Japan," she tells DW, surrounded by stencils of intricate tattoo designs and pictures of his satisfied clients.

"Tattoos have always been associated with the underworld gangs, but I had hoped that would change over time. Even though there is no stigma attached to tattoos in other countries, Japanese society is not ready to change," says Nakano.

Mastering a taboo artform

Now 77, Horiyoshi has said in interviews that he first became mesmerized by tattoos at the age of 11 or 12 after he saw a yakuza member with a traditional full body tattoo at his local public bathhouse. He earned the title Horiyoshi III, after working as an apprentice for the legendary tattoo master Shodai Horiyoshi of Yokohama.

A portrait of Horiyoshi III at the Bunshin Tattoo Museum in YokohamaImage: Julian Ryall
The winner of countless awards for his work, Horiyoshi used to do the outlines of his designs by hand until the 1990s, when he started using electric machines. Colors and shading are still added with the traditional "tebori" technique, which uses a slender bamboo or metal rod with needles attached to the tip.

As with most Japanese tattoo artists, Horiyoshi's designs are variations of iridescent "koi" carp, dragons, tigers, snakes, peony flowers and maple leaves. Others are inspired by Buddhist deities or creatures from mythology. Bright pink cherry blossoms are also popular designs.

In an interview with The Japan Times newspaper, Horiyoshi once said "The creatures I draw come alive on somebody's skin."

Why are tattoos associated with criminals?

However, there is no doubt that the vast majority of Japanese perceive tattoos as a mark of criminality. And that has not washed off over time. 

In ancient times, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, practiced tattooing with ink made from the indigo plant. The people in the islands to the far south of mainland Japan, then the Ryukyu Kingdom but now incorporated into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture, also applied skin art inspired by their environment and culture.

During the Edo period, between 1603 and 1867, rule over the nation became more centralized and the punishment for certain types of crimes was tattooing.

Thieves were tattooed and a murderer had a mark permanently added to his or her face. Unsurprisingly, tattoos became synonymous with criminals, even though there was the parallel development of decorative tattoos and the emergence of a distinctive artistic genre. 

Tattoos were outlawed entirely in the early years of the Meiji period, which began in 1868. It was believed that elaborate markings would shock or offend foreigners as Japan opened its borders and sent political and trade missions abroad.

An underground tattooing industry thrived, however, with foreigners particularly keen to obtain Japanese-style skin art. 

The British royal family was particularly interested in Japanese tattoos, with Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh having a writhing dragon inked on his right forearm in Tokyo in 1869. Similarly, Prince Albert and George, Prince of Wales, were sailors aboard HMS Bacchante and both were tattooed during a visit in 1881. 

Tattooing became legal once again in 1948, but it was unable to shake its criminal connotations, especially as tens of thousands of men became members of rival yakuza gangs in the difficult decades following World War II. 

Given that association, companies have long refused to employ anyone with a tattoo simply out of concern that customers or business partners will assume the firm has links to Japan's criminal underworld.

Equally, anyone with a tattoo is likely to be banned from a public swimming pool or a "sento" or "onsen" public bath. People with visible tattoos get a wide berth on beaches.  

However, despite the Japanese public's refusal to embrace tattoos, there are signs that the government's attitude is changing. Concerned at falling recruitment rates, Japan's Defense Ministry has indicated that it is planning to alter its regulations to let men or women with a tattoo to join the armed forces. 

"In Japan, tattoos are still very much a niche subculture associated with people in music, art or fashion," said Kyle Cleveland, a professor of Japanese culture at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. "But it is important to distinguish between the historic roots and the links with the yakuza and the tattoos that are being worn today, especially by young people," he told DW.

There was a debate in Japanese society before the Tokyo Olympic Games over athletes from all over the world competing with visible tattoos, Cleveland said, which continues today as foreign tourists flock to Japan. But these are distinct from the tattoos that still mark out the underworld, he added. 

The tattoos that gang members wear are "deeply symbolic and are designed to indicate membership" of a criminal group, Cleveland said.

On the other hand, designs that are more common elsewhere, such as playful designs of flowers or animals, a favorite quote or image, are extremely individualistic, Cleveland points out, and often mark a life transition, such as a marriage, birth or death. 

Japanese society, at present, negatively conflates the two, he added, making it hard for tattoos to gain traction. 

In the Bunshin Tattoo Museum, Megumi Nakano is not convinced change is on the horizon in Japan, even as tattoos remain popular elsewhere around the world. 

On a table stands a framed picture of David Bowie when he visited Horiyoshi III's studio in about 1990. 

"He was a real gentleman," she says. "And he understood."

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