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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.
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.
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.
At the beginning of the Meiji period the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West and to avoid ridicule, 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.
Although tattoos have gained popularity amongst the youth of Japan due to Western influence, there is still a stigma on them amongst the general consensus. Unlike the US, even finding a tattoo shop in Japan may prove difficult, with tattoo shops primarily placed in areas that are very tourist or US military friendly. According to Kunihiro Shimada, the president of the Japan Tattoo Institute, “Today, thanks to years of government suppression, there are perhaps 300 tattoo artists in Japan. In general tattoos are frowned upon, with many traditional Japanese establishments banning people or refusing service to those who have tattoos. Japanese public baths and hot springs usually place signs up banning people with tattoos from entering, or warning them that their tattoos need to be covered to enter the premises.
There are even current political repercussions for tattoos in Japan. In 2012, the mayor of Osaka (Toru Hashimoto) started a campaign to rid companies of their employees with tattoos. According to an article written about Hashimoto “He is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere.” Hashimoto’s beliefs were fairly well received by the public as well, with many large companies who were already “tattoo-phobic”, siding with him. Modern tattoos in Japan are done similarly to western ones. Unlike traditional irezumi, where the majority of the tattoo decision making is left up to the artist, customers bring in a design of their choice or can decide on what they would like at the shop. Many Japanese artists are well-versed in multiple styles besides traditional Japanese tattoos, giving customers the ability to select from a wide assortment of options, anywhere from tribal to new age styles. Modern tattoos are done via an electric machine, in which the ink can be inserted into the machine or the needle tip can be dipped into ink for application. Japanese artists are lauded for their quality of work, despite being a bit pricey, and are highly sought after. “Despite widespread discrimination towards people with tattoos, with rules that prohibit tattooed people into hot springs, golf courses and gyms, it is still one of the best places in the world to get the best quality ink jobs.”
Despite the majority of modern tattooing being done by needle gun, irezumi is still done traditionally. The ancient tattoo style is still done by specialist tattooists, who might be difficult to find. Unlike western style tattoo artists, the majority of traditional irezumi artists aren’t located in the Tokyo area. Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists. 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 process is also much more formal than western tattooing. Whereas western tattoo artists tend to do exactly what you request, traditional irezumi artists tend to go back and forth with the customer and discuss what they would like the tattoo to look like as well as reserve the right to refuse service. Rather than electric guns, wooden handles and metal needles attached via silk thread are utilized.
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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.
Some common images in traditional Japanese tattoos include: