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The word can be written in several ways, each with slightly different connotations. The most common way of writing irezumi is with the Chinese characters 入れ墨 or 入墨, literally meaning to "insert ink". The characters 紋身 (also pronounced bunshin) suggest "decorating the body". 剳青 is more esoteric, being written with the characters for "stay" or "remain" and "blue" or "green", and probably refers to the appearance of the main shading ink under the skin. 黥 (meaning "tattooing") is rarely used, and the characters 刺青 combine the meanings "pierce", "stab", or "prick", and "blue" or "green", referring to the traditional Japanese method of tattooing by hand.
History of Japanese tattoos
Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jōmon or paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BC). Some scholars have suggested that the distinctive cord-marked patterns observed on the faces and bodies of figures dated to that period represent tattoos, but this claim is by no means unanimous. There are similarities, however, between such markings and the tattoo traditions observed in other contemporaneous cultures.
In the following Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol.
Starting in the Kofun period (300–600 AD) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottoes such as "I am a slave who has run away from his master").
The Ainu people, the indigenous people of Japan, are known to have used tattoos for decorative and social purposes. There is no known relation to the development of irezumi.
Japanese tattoos in the Edo period
Until the Edo period (1600–1868 AD) the role of tattoos in Japanese society fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos—some featuring designs that would be completed only when lovers' hands were joined—also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is known as today.
The impetus for the development of the art were the development of the art of woodblock printing and the release of the popular Chinese novel Suikoden, a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous.
Woodblock artists began tattooing. They used many of the same tools for imprinting designs in human flesh as they did to create their woodblock prints, including chisels, gouges and, most importantly, unique ink known as Nara ink, or Nara black, the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin.
There is academic debate over who wore these elaborate tattoos. Some scholars say that it was the lower classes who wore—and flaunted—such tattoos. Others claim that wealthy merchants, barred by law from flaunting their wealth, wore expensive irezumi under their clothes. It is known for certain that irezumi became associated with firemen, dashing figures of bravery and roguish sex-appeal who wore them as a form of spiritual protection (and, no doubt, for their beauty as well).
Tattoos in modern JapanAt the beginning of the Meiji period the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.
Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1948, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the yakuza, Japan's notorious mafia, and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
Tattooing and other forms of body decoration and body modification, as in much of the western world, are gaining in popularity in Japan. However, Japanese young people who choose to get tattooed are most often choosing "one point" designs—small designs that can be completed in one sitting—usually in the American or tribal styles. More recently, however sanskrit Siddham script tattoos are becoming more and more fashionable.
Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take one to five years of weekly visits to complete and cost in excess of US$30,000.
The making of a Japanese tattoo
The prospective tattooee must first find a traditional tattoo artist. This in itself can be a daunting task (though it has been made easier by advent of the Internet) because such artists are often surprisingly secretive, and introductions are frequently made by word of mouth only.
A traditional tattoo artist trains for many years under a master. He (for they are nearly exclusively male) will sometimes live in the master's house. He may spend years cleaning the studio, observing, practicing on his own flesh, making the needles and other tools required, mixing inks, and painstakingly copying designs from the master's book before he is allowed to tattoo clients. He must master all the intricate skills—unique styles of shading, the techniques used for tattooing by hand—required to create the tattoos his clients will request. He will usually be given a tattoo name by his master, most often incorporating the word "hori" (to engrave) and a syllable derived from the master's own name or some other significant word. In some cases, the apprentice will take the master's name, and will become The Second or Third (and so on).
After an initial consultation during which the client will discuss with the tattooist the designs he (again, clients are most frequently male; though women do wear traditional irezumi) is interested in, and work begins with the tattooing of the outline. This will usually be done in one sitting, often freehand (without the use of a stencil), which may require several hours to complete. When the outline is complete, the shading and colouring is done in weekly visits, whenever the client has money to spare. When the tattoo is finished, the artist will "sign" his name in a space reserved for that purpose, most often somewhere on the back.
Wearers of traditional tattoos can often afford little else. They frequently keep their art secret, as tattoos are still seen as a sign of criminality in Japan, particularly by older people and in the work place. Ironically, many yakuza and other criminals themselves avoid tattoos for this very reason.