To celebrate and accompany the Tattoos in Japanese Prints exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, four tattoo artists discussed art, culture and tattoos to a sold out capacity crowd. Don Ed Hardy, Junii Salmon, Mary Joy Scott and Taki Kitamura had a discussion about the enduring legacy of Japanese woodblock prints and their influence on tattooing, past and present.

Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum
Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum

This exhibition originated at the Boston MFA and features more than 60 superb prints by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) and his contemporaries from the noted collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Experly curated by Sarah E. Thompson of the Boston MFA, this exhibition showcases some of the finest prints in the extensive Boston collection. Many of the characters in Kuniyoshi’s Water Margin prints sport elaborate tattoos.

Other artists, seeing the popularity of these works, made their own prints of tattooed Water Margin heroes and went on to depict historical figures and Kabuki actors with prominent inked embellishment. The iconography of the tattoos in these prints, also found on the bodies of real-life Japanese urban men, included lions, eagles, peonies, dragons, giant snakes and the fierce Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo. These motifs — still popular today — evoked bravery, valor and strength.

Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum
Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum

The vogue for tattoos in Japan lasted until the early Meiji period (1868–1912), when the Japanese government prohibited them as part of its effort to modernize the country. Woodblock prints are some of the best documentation we have of real-life tattoos of 19th-century Japan, and they continue to provide models for worldwide tattoo artists today. The panelists discussed this at length, including their own experiences and favorite prints used in their own work. This was a groundbreaking event and it is a huge boon to tattoo art worldwide to be hosted by the largest Asian art museum in the United States. It was an added bonus to hear “the godfather of the modern tattoo” Don Ed Hardy speak, even with his busy schedule preparing for his retrospective at the DeYoung museum next month.

Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum
Tattoo panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum

The Tattoos in Japanese Prints exhibition invites the viewer to discover how printmakers in 19th century Japan transformed eye-catching tattoos from a passing fad into a lasting art form. On view at the Asian Art Museum till August 18th, 2019. The museum is open till 9 PM Thursday nights as well! For more info on programming, including live tattooing July 13th, please visit www.asianart.org

Tattoos in Japanese Prints
May 31 — 
Aug 18, 2019
www.asianart.org