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The History of Japanese Irizumi

The History of Japanese Irizumi

Irizumi is the Japanese word for tattoo. It has taken centuries, but Japanese body art has grown and developed into a very distinct style. It is said that Japanese tattooing began in the Jomon Period (10,000 BCE - 300 CE). The styles we see today actually came from the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), when tattooing in Japan became illegal. Japan’s history of Irizumi is dark and shrouded in controversy. You would think that modern Japan is more accepting of body art, but they're not. In 17th century Japan, criminals were branded with Irizumi as a form of punishment. This recognizable form of branding was used to alert the public to a criminal’s lawlessness. Fast-forward to the 19th century. At that time Japan created an absolute ban on all body ink (large or small) that lasted until 1948.

Why Was The Ban Lifted?

In 1948 American forces occupied Japan, and most of those military men had tattoos. In order to provide services to these occupants, the ban had to be lifted. Japan did so, but with a condition. The Medical Practitioner’s Act of 1948 was created. It stated that no one but a medical practitioner could provide tattooing. Later on in Japanese history, the Yakuza (gangs) began using body art to mark themselves. The Yakuza used tattoos for initiation. They represented a painful way to prove someone had courage and strength. Since tattoos were illegal, the Yakuza were permanently marking themselves as outlaws.

Today’s Japanese Irizumi

To this day, Japan culture does not look favourably on those displaying body art. Because of this, many artists have moved their practices underground. They fear losing an important form of art that represents Japanese history. To this day they cannot practice or display their art in public. There are still tattoo artists being prosecuted for practicing Irizumi. Body art is still not allowed in public swimming pools, hot springs, beaches, and even some gyms. The law enacted in 1948 is still the law today, and if you are not a medical professional you are not to provide body art. In spite of this law, there are still about 3,000 tattoo artists practicing in Japan. These professionals are not willing to let the Japanese style of tattooing die.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo Styles & Their Meanings

The Edo Period gave us tribal designs and classic Japanese tattoos we love today. The meaning behind these popular symbols is the reason Irizumi is so popular. A traditional Japanese tattoo is large, covering the entirety of one's chest or back. They are vibrant in colours that also have meaning. The popular styles include:

Ryu (Dragons)

The Japanese dragon represents wisdom, power, and strength. The Japanese honour dragons as kind creatures that once protected the people. Black dragons represent wisdom and experience. Gold dragons stand for value and virtue. If your dragon is green it links you to nature. Color Back Piece Japanese Dragon

Koi (Carp)

The Japanese Koi fish will bring success and bravery to the one who wears it. If your Koi tattoo is red, it represents love. Koi Tattoo

Zugaikotsu (Skull)

A Japanese skull represents death, but not in the way you think. A skull tattoo symbolizes a natural part of life. It usually is a show of respect for a great person and used to celebrate their life. Asian Skull Tattoo

Tora (Tiger)

This is one of the most commonly seen Japanese tattoos. A tiger is meant to bring strength, courage, and good luck. This tattoo is said to chase away evil spirits and diseases. Asian Tiger Tattoo

Karashishi (Lion)

The Japanese lion is meant to bring courage and strength to its owner. It’s also said that the lion will protect the person wearing it for the entirety of their life. Foo Dog Chest tattoo

Closing Thoughts

Although Japanese Irizumi has a dark past that doesn’t mean the body art itself is bad. Japanese tattoos are bold, bright, artistic, and have a rich history. They are an important part of Japanese culture and history and should be celebrated by all. If you’re looking for a tattoo that’s full of meaning, a Japanese Irizumi what you want. In Japan, they say everyone has three faces. The first face is the one you show the world. The second face is meant for your close friends and family. The third face is the one you never show anyone. What face will your Irizumi reflect?

Ready to get your next Japanese tattoo?

Do you live in the Toronto, Mississauga or Kitsilano Vancouver area and are interested in learning more about Japanese-style tattoos? Reach out to Chronic Ink and Tattoo today and talk with a passionate and talented Japanese-style tattoo artist that can help you find the perfect design for your next tattoo.

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