Today, there are about 100 tattooists in Japan, and it is estimated that there are between 75.000 to 100.000 tattooed people: this is a very low percentage considering the population of 127 million people. Japanese tattooing has a very contradictory reality: whereas throughout the world it is considered to be the most refined and elevated form that the tattoo world has ever been able to express, in Japan it is sometimes still seen as a sign of the yakuza.

Despite that and with some difficulties it is still legal to practice tattooing. Prejudice on the part of well-meaning Japanese people is still very strong, so strong that many Japanese multinationals do not hire tattooed people, not even in their European or U.S. headquarters. The subjects of yakuza tattoos derive from the tale 108 heroes of the Suikoden: folk stories that take place in feudal China regarding the adventures of a group of “good bandits” who defend the poor from mistreatment on the part of those in power. The first edition was illustrated by Hokusai, and after that followed many others by many other great engravers, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The subjects of these tattoos come primarily from his works. Another source of inspiration is the popular Kabuki Theater whose protagonists are often tattooed. Kabuki masks are the backgrounds in large tattoos, whose central figure is a character from the Kabuki Theater. One of the most popular characters is Benten Kozo: a thief who is arrested and forced to take off her clothes only to reveal that he is not a woman, but a man whose body is completely tattooed. Other subjects from yakuza tattoos are mythological figures: dragons, carps, divinities and, in the background, clouds, whirlwinds, waves, mountain scenes with rivers and streams, leaves and flowers.

Each image has a precise meaning, a quality, a talent, a power that one would like to gain, or a danger that one would like to avoid.

Peony: symbol of health and good luck.
Chrysanthemum: represents determination and steadfastness.
Cherry flower: symbol of life’s transience (the samurais had made it their symbol because of the real possibility of dying in battle at any moment).
The Foo dog: the lion-dog, guardian of the Temples, is a symbol of those imminent dangers which one must always look out for.
The Tiger: a tattoo on the back of one of the Suikoden heroes.
The Carp: represented while it swims upstream in rivers and streams, or as a couple in which one swims upstream and the other swims down. It is a symbol of strength and power.
The Dragon: symbolically represents wealth and power: it’s considered to be a talisman which has the power to protect samurais in battle, as well as firemen. Its body is made up of six animals, each one of which offers a different quality or power to the dragon. It has the face of a camel, the horns of a deer, the body of a snake, the scales and antenna of the carp, and an eagle’s talons and flames emerge from its shoulders and hips.

… The End

“Draadlogger: Tattoo History” (on the internet)
“Tattoo Irezumi, Oldmind” (on the internet)
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