Feature: irezumi

By Jay Brown

The Japanese have tattooed for centuries. Tattooing for decorative and spiritual purposes in Japan is thought to go back to the Jōmon period (approximately 10,000 BC, Paleolithic period). Irezumi are Japanese traditional tattoos. Irezumi is the word in Japanese for tattoo, and Japanese tattooing has its own visual style created over 100's of years.

In the following Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD), tattoo designs were talked about and observed by Chinese visitors to Japan. These designs were thought to have spiritual meaning as well as a status symbol. In the Kofun period (300–600 AD), tattoos started to have negative connotations. Instead of being used for spiritual or status purposes, tattoos began to be placed on criminals as a punishment.

Until the Edo period (1600–1868 AD), the place of tattooing in Japan fluctuated. Tattoos were still used as punishment, but fads called for tattoos as decoration. In the Edo period, decorative tattoos started to develop into the expert art form it is today. In the Meiji period, Japan’s government, to protect its image and make an impression on the Western world, outlawed tattoos. Irezumi then took on the taboo of association to criminal acts. None the less, foreigners would go to Japan looking for skilled tattoo artists, but traditional tattooing stayed underground.

Tattooing was then legalized in 1948, but has kept its taboo of criminal association. For years, Japanese traditional tattooing was associated with the yakuza, or the Japanese mob. In some public bath houses and hot springs, tattoos are still banned. Even though most of modern tattooing in Japan is done by machine, irezumi is still done traditionally. The tattoo style is still done by specially trained tattooists, who might be hard to find. Not like the Tattooist of today here in the US...

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Irezumi hand tools in the museum’s collection.

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Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814 

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