Irezumi, the Japanese word for tattoo (or, “to insert ink under the skin”), first appeared in Japan in 10,000 BC when artifacts showed people with patterns of intersecting lines on their skin. The practice was first documented by Chinese travelers in 300 AD during the Yayoi period, when they took note of the elaborate designs etched on the skin of the Japanese. Once done for spiritual reasons or as a status symbol, irezumi fell into disrepute starting with the Kofun period (300-600 AD) when tattoos were used to brand criminals. In Hiroshima, for example, lines would be etched on a convict’s forehead in the Kanji symbol of dog.
It wasn’t until 1805 when Takizawa Bakin translated the popular fourteenth century Chinese novel Shuihu Zhuan into Japanese that tattoos achieved cult status. The novel’s subsequent print series showed illustrated woodblock prints depicting warriors in acts of nobility and bravery. These warriors were drawn with explicit designs on their skin—mythical creatures, flowery landscapes, and animals. Nara ink, famously known for its blue-green hue once placed on human skin, was commonly used then.
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Irezumi was banned during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) to impress a respectable image to the Western world. Artists had to lie low to avoid persecution. It was only in 1948 that irezumi was finally legalized, but the social stigma attached to it persists to this day, especially among older Japanese. There are still bathhouses in Japan that ban the display of tattoos.
Currently, the most well known irezumi artist is Yoshihito Nakano, popularly known as Horiyoshi III, after inheriting the name from his master, Yoshitsugu Muramatsu, who was also called Shodai Horiyoshi of Yokohama. Nakano got his tattoo from Horiyoshi II, Shodai’s son. Nakano, who turns 68 this year, runs a studio in Yokohama and his current apprentices are his son Kazuyoshi Nakano, the probable heir to the Horiyoshi name, and a German, Alex Kofuu Reinke, who is called Horikitsune or “The Carving Fox.”
Horiyoshi III used freehand techniques to create the outlines of his work until he started using an electronic needle (kikaibori) in the mid-1980s to sketch the skeletal design. He still uses tebori (which literally means “handmade”), employing traditional chisels, bamboo, gauges, and needles to shade and color the outline of the tattoos he works on. He still incorporates traditional motifs in his work and designs.
Operating on word-of-mouth referrals, traditional practitioners of irezumi work only on clients who have been personally introduced to them. After agreeing on an intended design, clients make regular visits to complete the work before the artist places signature on his work as the final touch.
Today, tattoo shops offer traditional Japanese design using modern machines. Republic Tattoo, founded in 2010 by Paolo Dy, is one such shop in Manila. Its in-house artist Ding Fernandez specializes in color tattoos and can work on traditional irezumi design or variations of it to custom fit a client’s wishes or demeanor.
Popular designs include koi fish, lotuses, deities, and demons. The lotus symbolizes growth, “from dirt into something beautiful and pristine,” while koi means new life, knowledge, longevity, and loyalty. According to legend, koi turn into majestic dragons through their will and perseverance. Demons are ferocious and strike fear in enemies, qualities likened to the designs of samurai masks.
Tattoos can occupy a specific area of the skin or embellish every surface in what’s called a full-body “suit.” The length of time it takes to complete tattoo depends on the pain threshold of clients. “If they can endure much pain, we can finish a full section in a day,” shares store manager Marvin Brucal. However, arm tattoos are best completed in two to three sessions. Completely inking the back takes months; the skin needs to rest before work can resume. However, they recall working on a back piece that took only nine hours to finish, with only one break in between.
Unlike irezumi artists of the past, today’s tattoo artists avoid putting their signature on their work (unless requested by the client). Republic Tattoo also isn’t a fan of applying anesthetics before working on an area. “The pain is part of the process, the experience,” Marvin and Ding believe. To the Yakuza, an underworld gang, the pain that comes with irezumi, as well as the tattoo itself, symbolizes the dedication of its members.
The art of irezumi has had a rich and colorful history, telling stories on the skin and living on in Hiroyoshi III and his work, the innovations of modern times, within the walls of Republic Tattoo, and every other tattoo shop that draws inspiration from it.
Taking care of tattooed skin
You can keep your irezumi vibrant, says Republic Tattoo, with the following tips
After you get your tattoo:
• Leave the bandage or plastic wrap on. Don’t be tempted to take the bandage or plastic wrap out until after two hours. This is to prevent airborne bacteria from seeping into the raw skin and infecting it.
• Peel off the bandage carefully. Pouring lukewarm water on the area before peeling off the wrap prevents the skin from sticking onto the bandage.
• Wash the tattoo. Use lukewarm water and unscented antibacterial soap. Do not scrub. Let it air dry.
What to avoid:
• Do not pick on scabs. Small tattoos heal in about 10 days. However, you must wait for the scabs to fall off naturally. Don’t pick on them to avoid messing up the ink underneath the skin.
• Keep it clean and moisturize. Use soap and water to clean your skin. Using a moisturizer helps the skin from drying up, which may lead to cracks that could damage your tattoo. Use water-based lotions and creams so to avoid any chemical or allergic reactions.
• Avoid too much exposure to sun and apply sunblock constantly. Sunburn dulls your ink.
The best advice is to listen to your tattoo artist. Follow the rules, do not be impatient, and everything will be fine. If irritations occur, go directly to a doctor.
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.