This is a paper that I wrote from information that I gathered on Horimono (Japanese tattooing) in 2004.
Horimono: The Japanese Tattoo
The impetuous for the ancient art of Horimono lies deep within the roots of the Japanese psyche; and by extension, culture and history. The art’s techniques, images, meanings, and societal implications can be used as a window from which one can view the very underpinnings of Japanese society. Throughout its progression, Japanese tattooing has been a medium through which individuals could actualize, both to themselves and to the outside world, who it is that they perceive themselves to be and to permanently etch their societal niche into the fabric of their very being.
The History of Horimono
The art of tattooing in Japan spawns back many ages and is, henceforth, deeply entangled within the historical roots of the nation and culture. Due to the impermanence of human life, the physical exterior of which is the art’s medium, the exact origin and date of the tattoos’ first appearance in Japan currently remains hidden deep within the vaults of time; opaqued behind the shrouds of history. But, as of this writing, the analysis of facial tattooing depicted upon haniwa clay figurines have revealed that the art of tattooing was being practiced in Japan by at least seven thousand years before present (Richie 11).
Haniwa (hani-clay, wa-circle) earthenware figurines have commonly been found distributed, in-situ, over the surface area of tomb mounds, or tumuli. In their earliest forms they were simple, crudely shaped cylinders of clay. But they eventually progressed to show, acutely and literally, what they were intended to represent: architecture, weaponry, and human statuettes (Asia Society). The oldest of these figurines to bear evidence of tattooing, which was represented through scratched line patterns carved into the facial areas, came from a burial mound near Osaka dated to the fifth century B.C. The archaeological interpretations as to the purpose of these statuettes range from the infrastructural- as mechanisms to hold the artificially created mounds together, as stones act in concrete- to the spiritual- as representations of the deceased’s terrestrial surroundings which will continue to be of use in subsequent existence. But through the analysis of the functions which grave goods play within the burial practices of both past and present cultures, considerable weight should be placed in the idea that they served some manner of spiritual, transcendental purpose.
As these figures, more than likely, visually represented the people with whom the deceased associated in life, it can be assumed that the art of tattooing was not a culturally stigmatized practice. To the contrary, as only members of the societal elite received the honor of having their remains placed within tumuli, and the fact that the other variants of haniwa represented items of grandeur, evidence suggests that tattooing was an art form that was culturally embraced and regarded with the up most prestige.
The ancient Chinese texts of the Wei Chih (History of the Wei), San Kuo Chih (History of the Three Kingdoms), Hou Han Shu (History of the Latter Han), as well as the Japanese Kojiki all provide clear evidence as to the antiquity of tattooing in Japan.
From the Wei Chih:
Men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate
their bodies with designs……A son of the ruler
Shao-K’and of Hsia, when he was offered as lord of K’uai,
cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in
order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. the
Wa (Japanese), who are fond of diving into water to get
fish and shells, also decorate their bodies in order to
keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however,
the designs became merely ornamental……their position
and size varies according to the rank of the individual.
This commentary, referring to the Yayoi Period (300 B.C.- 300 A.D.), implies not only the fact that the people of Japan practiced tattooing but also provides glimpses as to the underlying reasons why the art was initiated and proliferated. It suggests that the tattoos provided the conscience feeling of security that is tantamount to the wearing of a charm- one feels protected solely because one thinks that they are protected- which, from an examination of the militaristic uses of religion, costume, alcohol and other mind alternates, often times does provide a level of psychologically induced protection through the chastising of fear (this point will be reinvestigated during the Firemen of Edo portion of this work). This text also hints at the tattoo being used to visually manifest societal stratification; a theme which continues on throughout the course of Japanese tattooing as well as that of many other cultures (namely those of Oceania and S.E. Asia, which may very well have had a tremendous influence upon the Japanese tattooing of this period or vice versa).
The Kojiki, a collection of archaeological information compiled in the eight century, makes various references to tattooing during the Kofun Period (A.D. 300-600). It reveals that the reasons for tattooing were, as stated by Donald Ritchie, “either cosmetic or religious in intent” (Ritchie 1980, p11). The Kojiki also makes the first Japanese reference to the tattoo being implemented as, and therefore indicative of, punishment.
During Japan’s initial period of “Chinafacation” which consummated during the Kofun Period of the forth through seventh centuries; a time when many of the arts, religions, and social attitudes of China were explosively and enthusiastically appropriated by the Japanese; a great change occurred as to the implementation of, and cultural outlook towards, tattooing. As a method by which to differentiate themselves from outsiders the Chinese developed a very reactionary and pretentious attitude towards tattooing; which served as a microcosm of their feelings towards the tattooed peoples of the east. Tattooing provided a visual base by which the line between us and them, between friend and foe, between the righteous and the barbaric could be drawn. To be tattooed was to be Un-Chinese. The Japanese swallowed this attitude towards the art; which equated to an acceptance of self rejection- an attempt to cover up what was “Japanese” with what was considered “Chinese.”
As is the case with many cultures, or individuals for that matter, who view another group as superior to themselves and who are later accepted, to a certain extent, by this group there is the tendency for an instantaneous reversal of values. As Japan overrode many aspects of their own culture through the mimicry of China, the Chinese outlook towards tattooing was also appropriated in this air of artificiality. No longer did the tattoo show rank or prestige in Japanese culture but it came to represent precisely what it did in China- the barbarism of the peoples to the east. As the bullied child tends to subject the exact same criticisms that they themselves are subjected to upon another who is weaker, the Japanese heralded an outlook of pretentiousness towards the tattooed communities of eastern Japan. In point: to be tattooed was to be disassociated from the culture, an outsider, unclean, gaijin.
Riding on the wings of this social environment across the Eastern Sea from China came the penal tattoo. There are various references throughout the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki (also a historical reference of Japan) as to the use of the tattoo to punish and indelibly mark those who rubbed against the idealized fabric of society: criminals. One such instance of this was of a man who was said to have conspired rebellion and was tattooed under the eye rather than sentenced to death. This punishment was often worse than the capital alternative; as to be ostracized from Japanese society to such a terminal degree was viewed as a manner of “living death” (Ritchie 13). Another such case was that of a man’s dog who ate one of the Emperor’s birds. His punishment for such a crime was that he was incised with a tattoo and required to live the life of a bird keeper.
A well developed codification system in regards to penal tattooing eventually took form. It was carried out in a manner by which one was not only identified as a criminal by their tattoo but the geographic location of where the crime was committed was also made apparent. If a crime was consummated in the Tama region the infringer had the ideograph for ‘dog’ tattooed upon their forehead; in Satsuma, upon the left shoulder was placed a circle; in Kyoto, a double bar was tattooed into the dermis of the upper arm; in Nara, the right bicep was encircle by a double lined band, and there were many other variations in other localities (Ritchie 12). The nature of the crime was left mysteriously vacant in this codification system; perhaps because the intention was to invoke suspicions of the worse kind from the populace within which the recipient would wander as Cane through the land of Nod.
Another intra-cultural group that was subjugated to this state mandated tattooing were the, so referred, Eta, (polluted) or Burakumin (village people) caste (Ritchie 12). This sector of the population consisted of those who performed “impure” labor such as the handling or procurement of animal products, digging graves, execution, cleaning, or, for the most part, any occupations which the mass of the Shinto/ Buddhist influenced society deemed ‘unclean’. In addition to the dermatagrapic marking of these individuals, which consisted of a cross or line tattooed on the inner arm, strict regulations were placed upon them as to their manner of dress, conduct, and personal appearance (Alldritt).
As Ninomiya states:
….they were all forbidden to wear any kind of
headgear even when it was raining, the men were
to keep their hair short, the women were not to
shave their eyebrows or blacken their teeth (Alldritt).
The probable reason behind the tattooing of representatives from the Burakumin caste was so that their identity would always be known to prevent them from permeating into other spheres of society. Massive registries were also collected to further this surveillance to the effect that not only the individuals who were involved with ‘unclean’ occupations were blacklisted but their family name, and those inherently connect with it, would continuously be associated with these practices (Alldritt).
It serves well to note here the extremely pertinent role which the Burakumin played- and still do to a large extent- within Japanese society to necessitate such invasive methods to keep them repressed. By means of the Shinto and Buddhist belief systems, which were followed by the majority of the population, it becomes severely taboo to partake in the aforementioned ‘unclean’ practices. But the goods and services from which these practices are inherently inseparable were of paramount importance for the proliferation and continuation of the base infrastructure of the society- especially as it was a time in the constant flux of militaristic endeavors. So comes forth the question: if a certain proscribed, sectioned, and distinct caste were not subjugated to these forbidden tasks then who would do them? If this caste were able to freely traverse into other socio-economic sectors, would they remain stagnated by the fetters of their ostracization? How, then, can a group who are phenotypically indistinguishable from the whole of society be segregated into an ‘us and them’ dichotomy? One method that was instituted, in addition to many others, was the forced alteration of their physical appearance which would therefore transcend the bounds of this apparent homogeneity. The tattoo was found to be an adequate medium through which this institutionalized social stratification could be implemented. This theme of group distinction as represented through the tattoo continuously reappears throughout the history of Horimono.
The Edo period (1603-1868), overruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, demarcates an era of supreme governmental repression and surveillance which permeated the depths of Japanese society. It was a time which saw air tight isolationism, absolute authoritative impunity, and also the fledgling beginnings of a market based economic system.
Strict and coercive regulations were placed upon the lower echelons of the caste system in terms of personal conduct but, conversely, a form of liberty was gained through the new found pertinence of their economic niche; as became manifest through the intensification of market economics. This created an underclass that increasingly grew in power and wealth; which helped to provided the budding impetuous for their notion of cultural autonomy.
The established feudal system based on the
authority of the ruling samurai class began to
stagnate, and in contrast to the martial upper
class the commoners of Edo began to develop
their own separate, unique culture for
Occurring contemporaneously with these counter-cultural developments, perilous restraints were consistently imposed upon the lower class’s civil liberties by the shogunate police state. As
put by Donald Richie:
….signs of individuality- the wearing of fine
cloths by any but the upper classes, or the
enjoyment of the populace of innocent spectacles
such as the Kabuki or fireworks displays-
were rigorously regulated and offenders punished
under a series of extremely detailed sumptuary
This contradictory atmosphere of severe state repression matched with increased economic independence set the stage from which the counter-culture of the lower caste flourished. As put by Richie, “authority creates that which rebels against it” (Richie 20). Due in large part to the nature of their restriction, seemingly innocent arts such as Kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e woodblock printing, literature and poetry were soon imbued with the spirit of rebellion and cultural sabotage. Within this setting the art of tattooing was taken back by the under classes and its implications altered from being a demarcation of criminals to a badge of proletariat solidarity and pride.
In studying the art of eighteenth-century
Japan one is dealing with a kind of popular
art that was interpreted as subversive by
the government and by accepted opinion. The
charge was that it was ‘deleterious to public
morals….. (Richie 18).
Rejecting the centuries- old strict ethics and
morality of the Confucian beliefs of the samurai
and taking up themes based on ninjo, fashion
and comedy, the townspeople of Edo
increasingly began to enjoy culture such as novels,
drama, comic tanka songs and theatre…..
[combining them] into a massive, never-seen-before
outlet of cultural expression for the ordinary
people of Edo (Shimada).
It was during the late Edo period, around 1750, that the tattooing which was occurring within Japan began to take the form of what has become know as Horimono- the Japanese tattoo. This was the birth period of the style which continues to be practiced in Japan two hundred and fifty years subsequent. The particular details and ascetics of this style will be discussed in depth later in this study.
The Aesthetics of Horimono
The visual aesthetics of, and artistic approach towards, horimono cannot be paralleled by that of any other tattooing tradition. Whereas other veins of tattooing frame each tattooed image as its own independent entity (with its own meaning, implications, ritual, etc…), horimono views the entire body as grounds for one single piece; a menagerie composed of a multitude of images and scenes played out across the breathe of the wearer’s exterior. These various images are assembled together in such a fashion that they appear to flow from one design to the next and accumulate to a whole, orgasmic display of art.
Typically the wearer of horimono has their arms, legs, and torso completely covered, without the relief of negative space, in tattoo. As it serves as a manner of clothing, this all encompassing piece is referred to as a ‘body suit. The entire surface of the back, from the top of the shoulders to the bottom of the buttocks is, generally, one hundred percent covered; serving as the mainstay for the rest of the piece. The design that is chosen as the back piece has the effect of surmising the total effect of the wearer’s tattoo repertoire; as the trunk is to the branches of a tree. The coverage of the arms and legs varies according to the aficionado’s preference. Some cover their arms to the wrist whilst others to the threshold directly above the elbow and still others carry out the inking to a midway point three-fifths of the way down the appendage. The same options also hold true for the covering of the legs. Often a blank area of a few inches wide running vertically down the center of the frontal torso from the neck to the groin, known as the river, will be spared the atoner’s needles. The rationale behind this is so that the tattoo can be concealed within a kimono, which opens as a robe. But, in contemporary times of western style clothing, this omission is primarily due to routine traditional observance rather than serving an actual purpose.
The perspective that is inherent to Japanese tattooing is that a tattoo implies a full body suit and any less is considered to be lacking the spirit that distinguishes horimono. This attitude can be acutely shown in the manner of language used between client and master when discussing partial, autonomously standing, point tattoos. If a client requested to be tattooed with a single image upon an isolate area of their body they would refer to the tattoo as karate (single arm design) whereas the artist would tend to speak of the same piece as katate-ochi (single arm omission); hence implying the underlying lack of reverence shown toward the proliferation of such Western- influenced pieces (Ritchie 88).
The various images of the body suit are tied together through the use of gaku- the background designs which move behind, around, and between the various images fronting the show of a single tattoo. These background adhesives commonly take the form of water, waves, clouds, storms, or even other images such as guild specified floral varieties.
The Technical Aspects of Horimono
The procedure of applying horimono into the skin came from the deeply enrooted, indigenous Chinese, art of ukiyo-e. During the Edo period from which the typical Japanese tattoo arose, the ukiyo-e woodblock printers, and all artisans for that matter, were ranked and filed among the lowest rungs of the caste system. Due to the aforementioned societal pressures they became a part of the growing counter-cultural movement of indirect rebellion and class conscience separation. As the tattoo was viewed as a poignant, yet non-risqué, manner for individuals within the lower tiers of the caste system to self-actualize the spirit of rebellion and group identity, many ukiyo-e artisans exchanged their carving razors for needles and put into motion the process which developed the model form of the Japanese tattoo.
Peering back into the recesses of Japanese history it is apparent that various forms of woodblock printing has been in practice for numerous centuries but were not perceived as a serious art form until the mid-seventeenth century, during the Edo period. As the climate of this period was one in which the lower echelons- of the societal pyramid rapidly accumulated an unprecedented measure of financial independence, a higher level of leisure was, inherently, also obtained. Along with many newly attainable recreational activities, the reading of books became an explosive trend. Due to the great upsurge in popularity a more efficient means was needed to illustrate these literary works. The woodblock print was found to suffice this demand. As the lucratively of these ventures grew the quality of the prints proportionately increased and ukiyo-e took its place as a serious, concerted, and structured form of art. Many individuals, even those who were illiterate, would purchase these books solely to enjoy the prints which were contained within them. Around 1660, ukiyo-e proclaimed its independence from literature as Hishikawa Moronobu initiated the printing of wood block images as its own autonomous medium (Stumma).
The label ukiyo-e is of Buddhist etymology and initially meant sad-world. This name eventually evolved to imply floating-world, as many of the images that were printed were of scenes of transient freedom; devoid of worldly concerns (Stumma). Other images that ukiyo-e visualized were of legendary proportions- great storms, mythological extravagances, and rogue warriors; the last of which will be discussed in extensive detail in a later section that outlines the influence which the woodblock prints from the book “108 Heroes of the Suikoden” had on Edo society and, by extension, tattooing.
The direct technical procedures behind the particularities of woodblock printing and Japanese tattooing are so similar that one may not necessarily be able to concede with complete confidence which art form sparked the initial influence for the other. Given the antiquity of tattooing and the similarities between the arts in approach and, to a large extent, medium, it is entirely possible that the tattoo may have played just as much of a role in the progression of ukiyo-e as ukiyo-e obviously had in the proliferation of the East Asian tattoo. Granted these are purely speculations from a lay observer but the fact remains that, from an Archaeological perspective, the carved woodblock stamp has a much greater shelf life than that of the tattoo; which can only quietly boast the longevity of the one who wears it. At any rate, it can be stated that ukiyo-e and horimono had a vast mutual influence upon each other; at least for the duration that both art forms were performed within the same guild.
The initial step that one must take to consummate the desire to indelibly incise their skin with a traditional Japanese tattoo is to find a master who will carry out the procedure. This is not, nor probably ever has been, a simple matter of receiving a service for payment. As Japan has its own tattoo tradition, the manner in which the art is carried out is inseparably intertwined with the Japanese mentality and cultural history. Even today there is very little held in common between the processes and dynamics of traditional Japanese tattooing and those of the West- one does not simply walk into a traditional studio as if it were a fast food restaurant, order a design, pay, and walk out tattooed. As put by Donald Ritchie:
Customers do not drop in off the street……The master
may or may not agree to tattoo the applicant. Refusals
are common. If it appears that the client wants the
tattoo for the wrong reason- to show off, for example- or
is otherwise frivolous in his attitude, he will be refused.
The master does not need the business (there are so
very few old style tattoo masters left in Japan that they
always have more than enough work), and even if he did,
as a man of probity and one dedicated to the mystique of
irezumi [horimono], he would not do work that he
thought might debase his art (85).
Once the client has selected a tattoo master and then subsequently procured an introduction, or an alternative method by which to initiate the relationship, a meeting is arranged to discuss the potential tattooing. This initial meeting consists of a question and answer period that is tantamount to an interview for employment- as long after the tattooing is complete the client will continue to represent the artist in all facets of life. The fact must also be taken into account that the master and client are entering into a working relationship and if the artist feels as if it would not proceed congenially then the client will usually be declined.
In my experience this process consisted of answering many questions which offered penetrating glimpses into my character. My introduction to the artists was through a friend who had a long term relationship with their studio. She accompanied me to the studio and introduced me as her friend and told of my intentions. This done, I then sat down with one of the apprentices and began going through various prints of what I wanted to be tattooed over the entire surface of my back. A few examples were laid out on the table surface before me and I was told to take my time while choosing one.
Traditionally speaking, the artist of horimono will not usually venture into the realm of custom tattooing but will rather use the time honed designs of past masters or their own renditions of such. To these base design templates the master will add their own touch, additions, and subtractions with the consultation of the client. But if discrepancies happen to occur as to the artistic direction of the piece the final decision is in the hands (quite literally) of the master and not the one whose body it becomes part of. Which is quite representative of the Japanese mentality; where the service provider takes precedence over the one who hires the service. This dynamic is very much in contrast to the viewpoint of the west where the exact opposite usually holds true.
The prints that were laid out before me were a variety of old, very traditional designs and one modern, spiced up, drawing by the international figurehead of Japanese tattooing, Horioshi III. As I was analyzing these prints the apprentice sat directly next to me participating in the process by giving the background information and implications of each drawing. Over this period he asked many questions as to the reasons why I wanted to be tattooed with the particular image and of my historical knowledge of whom and what the image represented. I subsequently overlooked the flashy, highly detailed modern print and choose one of the basic, bold lined and typical designs. The apprentice appeared to be thoroughly please with this decision. Then the question of why I choose that particular variant over the others was asked and I reciprocally explained my rationale. We then discussed the macrocosmic particulars as to how I aesthetically wished for it to appear: colors, background, other imagery, additions and subtractions to the chosen template, etc.
I found this to be a moderate challenge as I was not only designing a tattoo, which I would subsequently wear, but I had to do so within the unwritten guidelines of the art form. On various occasions I requested changes that could not be accommodated within the mold of the style. The times in which this occurred the apprentice simply looked at me, blankly confounded, and said rather curtly that my suggestion could not be done. His perspective was that of blunt reason- cherry blossoms and maple leaves are mutually exclusive and cannot be put into the same piece as they represent different seasons; and the hero is fighting the snake so he cannot be looking away from it. This straightforward approach to the implications of the design was completely devoid of any regard towards personally derived symbolism; the message is in the medium and the medium only has meaning because it is collectively recognized as having such. This outlook is in no way particular to tattooing but finds parallels in all facets of Japanese life.
The studio owner soon finished with the client that he was working on and came into the reception room to join the apprentice in the round of questioning. After we were introduced he began examining the tattoos which I have covering my arms, legs, and frontal torso area. He thoroughly went over them, grabbing and prodding as he did so, asking me about their meanings and why I sought to have them indelibly painted into my skin. After this inspection was completed he and the apprentice entered into a curtain-shrouded side room to deliberate as to whether they would accept me as a client. Upon arriving at a decision they reentered the communal room and told me to strip off my clothing so that I could be measured up.
After it is decided that the tattoo master will meet the request of the client the physical portion of the tattooing process begins. The master will then start drawing preliminary sketches of the client’s chosen image with the alterations that were decided upon during the introductory meetings. The client still retains a large degree of artistic influence as he is inherently a major part of this preparation phase; he will be called into the studio from time to time to observe and provide impute on the master’s drawings. Once master and client have reach consensus as to the specifics of the artwork the tattooing begins.
The tattooing equipment used is unique to Japan although rough parallels can be drawn with that of other cultures. The workhorses of the process, the needles (hari), are bunched in various groupings from two, for fine line work, to ten, for shading large mono-colored areas. These needle groupings are placed within the end portion of their own paintbrush-esque handles. This appears to be a spin off of a much used ukiyo-e carving tool in which a razor blade is inserted at the end of a similar handle; very much reminiscent of a hobby knife. The ink that is used is sumi which is charcoal based (Ritchie 85) and comes in hand held rectangular brinks that require the artist to grind down and mix with water to produce ink. This is the exact same ink as is used in the arts of sumi-e painting and shodo. Although many contemporary artist have transgressed this method through using industrially manufactured chemical inks there are still a few masters, such as Horiitsu, who maintain the use of traditional sumi. To keep the needles moistened throughout the tattooing process an inked paintbrush is utilized to run the needles through when they become dry (a method that will be explained later in detail). This method of ink reapplication is very similar to that of the western style electromagnetic tattoo machine in which the ink is held around the needles by a tube of metal that also serves as the handle.
Immediately prior to the actual piercing of the skin the client is called in to have the design drawn upon his skin with a felt marker. This serves the dual function of a stencil which the artist follows while tattooing and also so that both the master and the client can see a rough sketch of what the final result will be. This is the final opportunity for either party to make any changes. After this final creative stage the dye is cast.
The actual tattooing procedure is now ready to commence. The client is positioned upon the floor of the studio’s workroom in a position of optimum comfort for both the tattooer and tattoo-e, the needles are sterilized and assembled, the sumi is grinded and mixed with water, and the tattooing begins. Traditionally, the entire tattooing process was tediously carried out by hand (tebori). The artist holds the needled tool in the heel of one of his hands and uses the area between the thumb and forefinger of the other for support as he quickly and repeatedly runs the tool over this surface, puncturing the surface of the skin. The movement is similar to that of using a pool stick. In this way ink is inserted between the epi and dermas layers of the skin. The motion is very quick, smooth, and is repeated hundreds of times a minute. This method necessitates a large amount of contact and involvement of the hands which provides the master with optimal control. As Ritchie writes, ‘Among all tattooing methods, it is the Japanese that is the most complicated and the most controlled’ (Ritchie 85). As with many Japanese arts, from the brush strokes of sumi-e and shodo to the ridged mannerisms of tea ceremony to the practicing of chi-ong and tai-chi, the entire body is part of the process and holistic physical awareness is of absolute necessity.
The artist tattoos along the hand drawn stencil which serves as the image’s outline. As this is done the needles are recharged with ink from the moistened paintbrush which is held between the pinky and ring fingers of the support hand. It may take many months for even this outline to be completed depending upon the area it covers and it’s complexity. This stage of the process is referred as suji. Once the outline is completed it is analyzed for any area which may be in need of minor alterations or reapplication (Ritchie 96).
The second major phase of the tattooing process, referred to as bokashi, is now set to begin. This stage of the artwork consists of shading and filling in the pre-completed outline; much as one would a coloring book. This is looked upon as the most artistically intensive portion of the tattoo and the artist who completes the bokashi also signs the work with their stamp (Ritchie 97). The colors that are used for this process, by tradition, are restricted to sumi black, red, occasionally brown, and grey wash (usuzumi) -which is sumi black with an increase in water so that it becomes lighter in shade; the exact same method is used in sumi-e to create contrast. It is interesting to note that the vermillion red hue that is traditionally used, which is extracted from the , occasionally triggers an intense allergic reaction once inserted into the skin which has been known, in very rare circumstances, to lead to death. In lieu of technological advances, other colors and shades, especially greens and yellows, and chemical inks are now widely in use by traditional style horimono practitioners.
There are two uniformly utilized techniques involved in the bokashi phase of the tattooing. The first is for the purpose of coloring in a large section of the piece with the same shade of a color. To do so the artist will use a method called tsui-hari, or imo-hari (potato needle), in which the needles are rapidly inserted at very close intervals so that the result is a uniform, evenly contrasted, coloring of the area. The second technique is used for shading, which is intensely more complex and takes the aspiring tattoo artist many years of constant attention to master. The technique is referred to as haneru, or hane-bari, and involves the insertion of the needles into the skin in a sideways fashion so that the depth can be precisely regulated. Shading is based on the premise that the closer together, deeper and more frequently the needles are inserted the bolder the ink will appear in the skin and if the opposite was practiced the outcome would be inversely proportionate. This shading technique is what gives the finished piece its depth, realism, flare, and, put simply, life.
The Collective Interpretation of Commonly Utilized Imagery in Horimono
The imagery which typifies horimono was primarily influenced by Edo period literature, Buddhist iconography, mythology, and antiquated, culturally proliferated symbols. As was stated above, the inclusion of radically new imagery is rare and the designs that are used today are the regurgitations of past centuries.
Upon initial conception, Japanese arts tend to enter the sphere of public consciousness on the wings of gross creativity and rapid innovation and then, as the novelty begins to wane, the dynamic flow is harshly cut from below by the stifling hand of tradition. The art has then transgressed the bounds of expression and entered into the round of ritual. This repression of the creative flow seems to go completely unacknowledged by the art’s practitioners and requests for explanations are met simply with a reply of, ‘it is the way in which it is done,’ or, perhaps more cuttingly, ‘it is the Japanese way’. This explosion/ chastising process can be observed in any art or idea system that is indigenous to, or has been adapted by, the Japanese: tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, sumi-e, ukiyo-e, haiku, governance, sub-cultural youth movements….and the list continues. The meaning is in the form and the form is the meaning; without any inclination towards, nor acknowledgement of, independent personalization. Thus stated, in this sense horimono stands with the bulk of the rest of Japan’s arts; but this should not be looked upon with complete negativity as part of its charm, as with any Japanese artistic sect, lays in the cliché.
A symbol is little more than a harbinger for conceptualized ideas, thoughts, warnings, and emotions through a standardized framework. In order for an image to become a symbol a pan-cultural (or group) agreement as to its meaning and implication is necessary. If this were not the case then everything would be simply communicated as “that” (through non-verbal pointing)- there would be no images but only randomly assembled lines and colors, no significant bodily expression but only meaningless movement, no language or verbal directives but only unintelligible sounds. As written by Alan Watts:
Thus the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society
by persuading them to learn and accept its codes- the rules and
conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself
together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to
accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed sign for that (5).
Therefore, the role of the symbol is to break down, distinctify, and simplify the contiguous flow of reality into a communicateable format. The images used in horimono hocks their origins from distant East Asian history; where agreed upon meanings were applied to them.
Among the artist’s arsenal of designs, floral representations are very commonly utilized as both central and supportive images. Although East Asia can boast of a grand selection of varying flora the only species that usually appear on a dermal canvas are the peony, chrysanthemum, which is Chinese in origin, the cherry blossom, and the maple leaf. The reasons as to why other floras, even varieties which have very deep and widely known poetic symbolism, were initially excluded is unknown; but the role of convention is certainly a major factor preventing the contemporary expansion of represented species.
Imported from China during the eighth century, the peony and its symbolic implications have widely infiltrated Japanese society. Initially only the wealthy elite could afford to acquire and subsequently care for the flower, so its presence soon came to be recognized as a sign of affluence and, by extension, good fortune (Jardin Botanique de Montreal). But its association with wealth spans back much farther than this as it has been know in China for centuries prior to being introduced to Japan as the ‘flower of riches and honor’ (Chinatown online ltd). Other human attributes that the peony has come to personify are love and affection; due to the fact that it only blooms for a few days a season, thereby drawing parallels to the short fruition period of romantic infatuation. The flower also projects an image of femininity which was perhaps a metaphor drawn as much from the care that the plant requires as to the Japanese tendency to associate the visual and functional aspects of a flower with that of a woman’s genitals.
The manner in which the peony became connected with tattooing was through the card games of hana-fuda where it is one of the main images. The deck is divided into twelve suits; each of which is denoted by a different floral variety. One of the early societal groups that embraced tattooing were the professional gamblers of Edo and they often utilized this flowered card deck. As the peony is symbolic of luck and good fortune it is blatantly apparent as to why these gamblers would tattoo its image upon their skin. Other floral images that are present within the hana-fuda deck and are also used in horimono are the chrysanthemum, cherry blossom, and the maple leaf (Genjuro).
Another flower that is commonly utilized by the practitioner of horimono is the chrysanthemum. The blossoms of this plant are very bright, spherical, and very spectrographically diverse. In Japanese poetry it represents the nostalgia of autumn and the exertion of existence. The life of the plant is relatively long so therefore has also come to symbolize duration, steadfastness, and longevity. When applied to horimono the image predominately occupies a background role which serves to connect other portions of the tattoo rather than acting on its own as a central design.
The tattooed image of the maple leaf is another very common floral design. It obviously projects the coming of autumn and, by extension, nostalgia. It is very often tattooed in-situ with the carp and associated with other symbols which represent the continuously ephemeral nature of life, such as rivers and blowing wind.
The portrayal of the cherry blossom image transcends the boundaries between all the arts of Japan; from landscape painting to photography, from poetry to tattooing it is used to show the impermanent beauty of existence. The cherry trees blossom in the spring contemporaneously with the onset of temperate weather and represent the beginning of a new natural cycle. As the sacra (blooming) period only last for a couple of weeks a year the image has been associated with short, yet beautiful, life and the acknowledgement that the existence of everything is ephemeral- always fleeting. These blossoms have come to show the importance of perpetually relishing, and mentally living in, the eternal now. When tattooed the image takes on a very two dimensional appearance (as do all horimono pictographs to a certain extent) and is commonly paired with images of warriors; it was the samurai class that adopted the cherry blossom image as their own. As was implied above, this image resonates very strongly within Japanese society and the reason behind these flowers being worn in tattoo directly stems from their poetic symbolism.
Many of the images which are utilized in horimono are for purely aesthetic purposes; devoid of any symbolic connection nor underlying implication. The lion, or temple dog as it is commonly referred to, which is usually portrayed as a playful, joyous creature is one such image. Another is the tiger, which seems to have been initiated into the tattoo design arsenal in replication of one of the heroes of the Suikoden, who had the motif tattooed upon his back. These images are tattooed for the purpose of establishing a totem affiliation with the spirit of the design or simply for physical characteristics that the wearer finds astatically pleasing. This is very similar to western flash tattoos (the simplistic, bold lined style which is displayed upon the walls of western tattoo studios); as their purpose seldom traverses the realm of the aesthetic. But, as with all tattooing, there is some reason for the particular design being chosen; so it may be a very inaccurate analysis to state that some designs are purely aesthetic, as underlying reasons behind the choice may not be manifested publicly nor even conceptualized by the wearer themselves.
Other animal images are chosen as tattoos for the inherent totem qualities that they possess; popular examples of this are the carp and the dragon. The carp swims strongly against the river current and even climbs up waterfalls to complete its mission; when caught it does not flinch before meeting death by the cutting knife; it has come to represent bravery, perseverance, and strength- all qualities which the Japanese associate with masculinity. The tattooing of this image upon one’s body is to draw a connection between oneself and the qualities that the carp represents in an effort to show, perhaps solely to oneself, that they are what society has dictated to be the pedestal definition of a man. The meaning behind dragon motifs is endlessly more complex and not as straight forward. In traditional Japanese folklore the dragon is the binding between the elements of fire and water. It is representative of the non-duality of opposites, the blending of distinction- the creature lives in water but breaths fire. The dragon is usually shown possessing a spherical jewel in one of its hands. This jewel shows the closed-lotus form, commonly used in Buddhist iconography, which holds the essence of the universe (Ritchie, p45). The combination of these two symbols represents the non-duality, the fluidity, of all existence. The dragon also serves a unique form function in the conglomerating of separated designs. As the contour of the creature’s body can be manipulated in ways to fit between and around pre-tattooed designs, it is utilized to blend and connect multiple images. It is interesting to note that the use of the image in this manner physically manifests the image’s symbolic meaning of holistic unity; although it is doubtful that this is intentional. But the most probable reason behind wearing a dragon motif is due to creature’s obvious symbolic implications: it represents strength, wholeness, objectivity, and bravery (Ritchie 45).
Religiously influenced tattoo iconography is also widely used in horimono. Most commonly, the ideology represented in tattoo images are derived from Buddhist folklore and texts. Prayers using Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese writing systems are widely proliferated (Ritchie 48). These tattoos very often serve the same function as the prayer wheel does in Mahayana Buddhist practice- if tattooed on a body part the prayer is regularly in motion and is, therefore, made alive. Direct representation of Buddhist deities is also common. The muscular guardian pair of the Nio, the two deva kings, which can be seen throughout East Asia on either side of temple entrances, have become popular tattoo images. Their meaning is straight forward: they show that the wearer is also dedicated to the cause of protecting Buddhism. The Goddess of Mercy, who is known by the name Kannon, is also frequently depicted in the tattoo medium. One of the most regularly tattooed Buddhist deities is Fudo. It is difficult to be exactly sure of the exact implications of his image but he is most commonly referred to as the Guardian of Hell. He is often times displayed as having a flaming sword in his right hand and a rope in the other. Ritchie summarized the meanings behind this image as follows (Richie):
Despite such infernal trappings, however, he is quite different
from the imps and devils of Western Tattooing. He is not bad;
he is good. He upholds order by punishing the transgressors and
by delivering them to their fate; he loyally protects the faith and
steadfastly works for the acknowledgement of virtue (48).
Part of the attraction of a Fudo motif may be due to the fact that he is portrayed as having distinct social flaws but is, when all is measured and the results taken, righteous. He is also the supervisor of a negatively portrayed area (hell) and is working towards its improvement; through drawing distinctions between what is acceptable and what is not. The role of Fudo draws a correlation to the niche which many individuals in lower caste areas of Japan may feel they occupy and, henceforth, they identify themselves with the plight of the deity. The untouchable ghettos in which many lower casted Japanese occupy at the edge of opulence can be metaphorically associated with Fudo’s home in hell at the breeches of heaven.
Among the most popular images in horimono are those influenced from the woodblock prints of the Chinese novel “Shuihu Zhuan,” known in Japan as the “Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori” (108 heroes of the popular Suikoden all told). The origins of the stories spawn form the trials of Song Jiang and his legion of rouges, who took refuge in the mountains near Liangshan Marsh around the years of 1117-1121 in the present day Chinese province of Shandong. The deeds of the brigands consisted of fighting corrupt authority, assisting friends in need, confronting social injustice as well as many other righteous, self sacrificing actions which lead to the making of their legend. They were known as model rebels who were fighting for the cause of justice and in support of the common villager.
The proliferation of the Suikoden tales were first initiated by travelling raconteurs (shuhui), whom were entertainers who spread news and stories from town to town. These wandering grios, as are tale weavers of all times and nationalities, were very open to the practice of spontaneous improvision and their stories would evolve with each telling, taking on many different forms.
Various portions of these stories were sporadically put down in writing but it was not until 1368 that a complete compilation was assembled. These written versions also continued to evolve with, and adapt to, various social climates. In the original written compilation the story ends when all of the 108 heroes join together and a stone tablet with all of their names engraved upon it falls from the sky. This version only had seventy chapters. A variant form had another forty five chapters and ended with the rebels joining with the authorities, whom they fought against throughout the tale, to seek out and bring to justice “rogue brigands.” This shows signs of obvious political manipulation at the hands of state authority; which shows that the revolutionary impact of the story did not slip by unnoticed (a tactic of appropriation that the Chinese state has continually use to water down oppositional influence; another example of this is the Chinese state’s action towards Taoism). A third early version, with 120 chapters, also surfaced in China in which all of the rebels hold true to their convictions and die for the cause of justice.
In the mid-eighteenth century the Shuihu Zhuan hit an already socially turbulent Edo period Japan like wild fire. The particulars as to exactly where and how the story arrived are relatively unimportant in lieu of the fact that it spread very quickly throughout the country. Through the linguistic and cultural translation of the piece many more versions were created to fit the particular contexts of Japanese society – the story quickly became thoroughly Japified.
The already rebellious villagers of Edo-period Japan found that they could directly identify with the warriors of the Suikoden tale and they took real strength from the simple idea of emulating these heroes. The seemingly benign act of just reading and sharing this revolutionary book actually had the very real effect of dissolving the reins of Shogunate power. The fervor created by this book brought people together; it provided the medium by which the villagers they could feel united with their friends and neighbors against their oppressor- the ideal of “us” as opposed to “them” was sparked into fruition (which history shows to be the most revolutionary ideal of all time). In effect, this joking and jesting of the commoners targeted against the political elite consequently led to the actual deterioration of the elite’s power; as the only power authority has exists solely the minds of those that are obedient- if one does not actualize that they are ruled then they will not be (the state has no natural defense against those who simply walk away from it). In no small part did the Suikoden story assist in the formation of this new found class consciousness.
Soon after the story’s arrival in Japan wood block printed illustrations of the warriors and action scenes were included in the book. It could be said that these illustrations had as much, if not more, of a revolutionary impact upon Edo society as the text to the book itself. Words contain great power within themselves but in the end they are merely symbols that can often times not fully express what is intended, whereas an image can rile up the deepest of sentiments.
The images of the Suikoden heroes were soon transferred into the tattoo medium and became intensely popular amongst the tattooed segment of Edo society. During this period in Japanese history tattooing was illegal; but this did more to make the art grow rather than stagnate- in point, art became rebellion. The tradesmen of the lower classes sought out tattoo artist in droves to obtain the particular tattoos that were the mark of his profession. Firemen, carpenters, fishermen and gamblers all had separate design repertoires that would indicate their living; and hence, their social niche within the labor complex of the period.
These Suikoden woodblock prints also greatly increased the design repertoire of the horimono master; which would in turn increase interest in his craft. As the Suikoden story and images were intensely popular throughout proletariat Japanese society, the popularity of tattooing grew proportionately. It has been suggested by Japanese tattoo scholars that it was the Suikoden images that, in effect, not only pushed horimono into its mature form but saved the art altogether from the grasps of annihilation.
The Psychology of Horimono
The social psychology of horimono is as vast as the ones who has it etched into their skin, but, nonetheless, there does exist some patterns that can be isolated for the purpose of abstract discussion. When asked as to why one decides to be tattooed the answer is usually very difficult to come by as, by its very nature, the impulse to permanently adorn one’s body traverses the realm of logical thought and cuts deep into the very psychological make-up of the wearer. To pin-point and find the microcosmic reasons for this phenomena one must view the entire social/psychological/emotional and even sexual state of the wearer macrocosmically.
Donald Richie approached the topic of horimono’s psychology in a very lucid manner in his book, “The Japanese Tattoo.” He established a basic criteria by which the myriad of tattoo impetuous’ could be divided into. His categories were divided as such: 1. Tattoo as initiation, 2. Tattoo as communal membership, 3. Tattoo as indication of membership candidacy, 4. Tattoo as definition, 5. Tattoo as talisman, and 6. Tattoo as beautification. I intend to follow the above criteria closely (albeit omitting category number three) by providing a definition of each category and then expounding upon the frame which Richie has set up.
Tattooing as initiation simply indicates a process by which a pre-existing group tests the mettle of new members by putting them through a set of rites or acts; in this case the testing medium is the tattoo. Tattooing serves as an optimum initiatory practice as it is not only a painful, time consuming process but it leaves permanent markings upon the body of the initiate. The role of pain, or some other uncomfortable practice, in initiation ceremonies is almost uniform across cultures as it shows not only ones tolerance, endurance, and strength- which in many cases demonstrates their potential value to the group- but also how much they are willing to sacrifice of their body for the group. The fact that tattooing is a permanent sign of group affiliation (in this context) shows the extent of personal identity that the initiate is willing to sacrifice in order to be included within the community. This practice also demonstrates that something has changed; it is a marking point which concretely shows the end of one way of living and the beginning of another- the individual sheds layers of individuality to become part of a unit, sheds the “I” for the “us”.
Japanese society is wrought with social groups called nakama, which translates roughly to “circle.” These groups serve as the building blocks upon which Japanese society is based. Nakamas are centered around a certain practice, spatial or societal relationship, or interest that all the members of the group have in common. This common ground upon which structured groups are formed upon can be as diverse as a variety of music, a sport, a bar, an activity, or an art (such as tattooing), to specify just a few of, literally, thousands of examples. These groups serve the function of solidifying the amorphous dichotomy between those who are “inside” as oppose to those who are “outside” of a particular group. This iron clad manner of defining serves to show the members of a group what they are through a frame of what they are not. Life is flux, amorphous, ephemeral; this is secretly rebelled against by all humans who know death; to form concrete concepts of self is sadly only a reaction against this knowledge of “no more”. The delusional attempt to dip Achilles into the river Styx to preserve him against the roll of time represents the fallacy of cerebrally immortalizing life with fixed concepts; such as that of the self. The actualization of identity, or the notion of such, seems to be one of the strongest of human urges; which often accumulates in violence, competition, cultural fragmentation, and conflict- for there is no better way to solidify an ideal of who you are than by actively combating that which you think you are not.
Japanese society is very attentive to definitions of individuals as defined from society upon the individual; rather than the western angle of defining an individual from the individual projected outwards upon society. This results in the visual codifying of everyone in Japanese society. In explaining this pan-cultural costuming Richie writes, “Cooks still wear the kinds of hats cooks are suppose to wear; those going skiing or hiking dress up in full ski and hiking gear; company members wear the company badge in their buttonholes…(Richie 60).” This manner of dress-up is done almost for the sake of politeness, so that everyone else that one may come upon knows what they are doing. I remember when I travelled the 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku the Japanese people that I would meet seemed to get really confused, and almost offended, because I was not wearing the appropriate “pilgrim dress” and henceforth my purpose was concealed from them. They certainly looked upon me with suspicion as, “I could not really be a pilgrim because I did not look like a pilgrim.” In this manner tattooing serves to mark the wearer into a certain societal niche that is symbolically determinable- Yakuza have Yakuza tattoos, rockers have rocker tattoos, trendy west viewing kids have trendy western tattoos….etc.
Due to these strict standards of outwardly showing where one stands, tattooing is used as a way of marking communal membership. “If everyone in a group is to do something, then all must actually do it, since the action defines the group,” writes Donald Richie of this practice (Richie 64). Often when someone wishes to be a part of a nakama that is identified by tattooing they must also tattoo themselves prior to truly becoming part of the group. True group identity requires the conformity of all the members of the group to present themselves, not as individuals, but as a part of an organic whole. This is apparent throughout the west in the emphasis that team sports put on uniforms. It is obvious that much of the attention paid to the absolute visual conformity of all team members is practiced so that the individual members will view themselves solely through the lens of the team; and therefore only care for the concerns of the group. In this way the group becomes an individual living entity with its own needs and objectives- it becomes a monster as its human components give up their very ideas, identities and souls to its homage.
Richie’s Tattooing as Definition category deals with the human urge to form concrete concepts of all that surrounds us; with a particular emphasis on ourselves. To come to a self image that is considered “fixed” the Japanese tend to focus solely on the outer physical manifestations of the self (to the almost exclusion and denial of the inner concepts of self). Hence, the way that one chooses to adorn themselves is perceived to be who they are- the message is the medium, the medium the message. Tattooing fits in smoothly with this perspective to the effect that one actually becomes their tattoo- physically, socially, and intra-personally. The images utilized in horimono take on an almost inconceivable degree of pertinence, dare I say magic, as it becomes obvious that the art does not become the person but the person becomes the art. When the focus of societies is placed upon the outer manifestations of entities it is hardly surprising when the boundary between entity and function is blurred to the point of irresolution. When a man becomes what he manifests he exists solely as object.
The Tattoo as Talisman concerns the use of tattooing as a shield against the ideal of potential danger. These tattoos are often times provoked by an almost obsessive knowledge of death and therefore their subject matter is usually of a religious nature; as religion is a medium by which humans attempt to understand death. The very real effect of talismanic tattoos is that they provide the wearer with an increased sense of security and inner calmness in the face of adversity; which has a very real affect upon the action of the wearer (believer).
Donald Richie brings up a very interesting phenomenon that occurs deep in the psyche of heavily tattooed people across the world; which is the notion that one’s tattooed skin will be preserved after their death (Richie 69). This ideal is consistent with the theory that tattooing, in a very real sense, is a way in which people attempt to mark and solidify life as a constant; the pan-cultural urge to take life, the amorphous flux, and make it permanently sit still in our minds; in our skin. The concept of people dying is acceptable but the death of our tattoos is inconceivable; for tattooing is an outpouring of our conceptual mind, our delusional mind. To purely know our tattoos as ephemeral would be to know the true nature of reality; to take our hands off the ledge of concepts and fall into a world that is unknowable, inconceivable, and ever fleeting in a thousand directions- it would be to know flux, to know life.
Donald Richie writes (Richie 69):
One of the ways to read the myth is that tattooed men, in their efforts
to communicate their strong feelings about death, will even
vulgarize these into a concern for formaldehyde immortality or
the financial advantage of the next of kin.
Among the simplest seeming, but actually very deep, reasons behind tattooing are to make the wearer feel attractive. Even the most heinous of tattoos are beautiful to the one who has them in their skin. It is generally thought by the tattooed individual that their tattoos are sexually attractive to the opposite sex. Richie writes, “One remembers the Tokugawa- period stories of tattooed courtesans and tattooed roughs, and their being particularly desirable lovers.
Nowadays, however, when things are quite different, the tattooed still provide the same answer: it makes them attractive- specifically, sexually attractive” (Richie 76). Richie then asserts the idea that tattoos are far more attractive to the one wearing them than to any potential mating partner. He writes (Richie):
The prime reason [for tattooing] is thus narcissistic- that
well known erotic feeling aroused by one’s own body. It does not
follow, however, that the secondary reason is therefore homosexual,
though the mores of yakuza and workers include the homosexual to
a degree uncommon in the West. The primary eroticism aroused by
the tattoo is autoeroticism (76).
A man who elects to have himself tattooed is, whether he
realizes it or not, making himself attractive to himself alone (plus
a number of men, usually others who have tattoos) and forfeiting
the larger amount of social approval (Richie 78).
One must also note that another bond is the tattoo itself and the
degree of regard seen in the eyes of others. This is plainly erotic
but it would seem to be only rarely homoerotic in any physical
sense- homoerotic though it certainly is in essence (Richie 79).
Regardless of the deep psychological impacts of the tattoos upon the wearer, or to anyone else who views them, it can not be denied that traditional horimono is beautiful in a purely aesthetic sense. The long flowing integrating pictures that curve and bend around the human body’s natural curves and bends must strike one with a sense of pure artistic admiration- especially when one considers that these paintings are done with thousands of needle pricks into a living canvas. The art of horimono is truly unique in this sense; the art is literally alive, moving and ever changing- it becomes human, animate, living. No other art on the planet can boast this claim.
In Conclusion: The Modern Japanese Tattoo
With the opening of Japan’s borders to the West the art of horimono, as well as
the entirety of Japanese society, was subjected to many major changes. It is possible for one to use tattooing as a microcosm from which to view how traditional Japanese values have blended with that of the West. The impulse to be tattooed is deep and the designs that one elects to have put into their bodies can be used as a lens into the very heart of the wearer. This fact has immense Anthropological value, as particular styles of tattooing inherently carry the weight of the cultures in which they originated.
It is almost sad to note that the methods and approach of traditional horimono are quickly becoming obsolete. The use of electric machines, chemical inks, single point designs and walk in studios are quickly becoming the norm. The old masters are fading away and scarcely any new apprentices are taking their place. In fact most old masters claim that they are the last in the world; and this will very soon be a fact- the traditional art of horimono is dying and does not look as if it will be saved. The times in Japan have changed and new approaches to tattooing have been demanded. But this should not fully be looked upon with teary nostalgia: horimono is an art; and art is the creative outpouring of cultures and people, both of which are never static. For an art to be sincere it needs to be natural and in accordance with the mindset of the ones creating it; when the mindset of old Japan no longer exists then neither will horimono.