Japanese Tattoos: History Culture Design by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny

Explore the light and dark side of body art in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Author info

Brian Ashcraft is the author of Arcade Mania! and Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, and the senior contributing editor for the gamer site Kotaku. He lives in Osaka with his wife and three sons.

Hori Benny is an American expat who began a traditional tattoo apprenticeship beneath the neon lights of Osaka at Chopstick Tattoo in 2004, and went on to open his own studio, Invasion Club, in 2014.

Here’s the stereotype: a tattooed dude in Japan must be a yakuza, a member of the finger-snipping Japanese mafia, a criminal element to be avoided at all costs. Many onsen (hot springs) prohibit tattooed guests from entering the public bath specifically because of this association. If you’re a law-abiding foreigner with uncovered tats, you may find yourself standing out. That’s because tattoos are still not widely accepted in Japan, and most natives usually keep their tattoos under wraps.

But the story behind the criminal connotations of the tattoo—or irezumi, as it’s known in Japanese—is much more complicated than the stereotype suggests, and co-authors Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny give us a practical crash course in this fascinating history, both the dark side (the unsavoury associations) and the light side (the stunning artistry), with their book Japanese Tattoos: History • Culture • Design.

Written in a friendly, witty style, the book begins with the history of Japanese tattooing, covering everything from the various aims of tattooing to the evolution of tools of the trade. Chapters 2 through 4 break down the symbolism of a wide range of tattoo motifs, from kanji idioms to cherry blossoms and other nature images, real and mythical creatures, Buddhist figures and folk heroes. Chapter 5 explores the tradition of getting a full-body suit and the social constraints that come with full-body devotion. Chapter 6 explores the art form’s contemporary innovations, including the “geek” tattoo culture of today’s manga and anime generation.

Each chapter includes plenty of photographs and fascinating informational tidbits. The book is also peppered with profiles of tattoo artists and clients, featuring interviews co-conducted in Japanese and translated by Ashcraft. The interviews provide a personal glimpse into the allure of tattooing, straight from the mouths of established and up-and-coming artists in Japan and abroad, and from dedicated clients who offer themselves up as living canvases. Because tattooing is such a private practice, these glimpses feel exceptionally intimate, and some are quite moving. One client, Aki, a health-care professional in a highly conservative field, spent almost three years getting a full back tattoo of Koyasu-gami, the deity of easy child delivery, in order to protect pregnant mothers—a dedication that could cost her job, if her employer were to find out.

The profiles provide a humanizing context that enhances the artistic beauty of the tattoos. That human perspective is timely, as the future holds the potential for both dark and light for Japanese tattoo enthusiasts. Some hope that the upcoming Tokyo Olympics will lead to a more positive attitude toward irezumi, but the recent crackdown on tattoo parlours suggests there’s plenty of pushback.

This would make a funky coffee table book for anyone interested in Japanese history, art and culture. And for practical reasons, it should be required reading for anyone thinking about getting a Japanese tattoo, especially anyone looking to get kanji (or Japanese characters). The authors note that the character for “big” (大) is almost identical to the character for “dog”(犬), which means the unprepared client is “one dash away from disaster.” The authors offer five key tips to getting a kanji tattoo, and extensive examples of native phrases that are much more elegant than any awkward computer translation.

More from Brian Ashcraft

P26-01Arcade Mania!

For overseas readers, a guided tour to the fascinating world of the Japanese “game centre.”

P26_02Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Go beyond the realm of everyday girls to the world of the iconic Japanese schoolgirl craze.