Like many of its fellow eastern lands, tattoo art in Japan has a rich and far reaching history. Although it has never been proven conclusively, it’s believed that the art of placing permanent markings on the body began in this area of the world around the end of the Paleolithic era, circa 10,000 BCE. In Japan, the art of traditional tattoo is known as irezumi, with modern tattoo falling under a completely different umbrella called yobori, and there are certainly a number of very distinctive differences.
For the Japanese, tattoo art in general is still a very secretive enterprise, due to the negative connotations placed upon it by a checkered past. Although tattoos have gone in and out of vogue for centuries amongst the social elite, for much of the Edo period leading up to the late 1800s, ink had become synonymous with deviant behavior. Criminals were being branded with specific designs or lettering, and as the lower castes grew into what would form the basis for the modern yakuza, body markings amongst the ranks began to hold social significance. Even today, the style of full body irezumi known as horimono, is still often associated with the mafia or criminal activity.
From the end of the Edo period up until the 1940s, tattooing in Japan was literally outlawed by the government. Those who practiced this amazing art, along with any of their remaining clients, moved their operations underground to avoid exposure. Enthusiasts who wore horimono hid it skillfully underneath their clothes, to ward off serious legal and social repercussions. After American occupying forces reinstated the tattoo’s legality following World War II, the stigma surrounding visible ink remained, and even today there are establishments in Japan that refuse entry or service to tattooed individuals.
The main difference between the traditional art of irezumi and the modern tattoo style that’s grown popular across the globe is the method of application itself. To create true horimono, the artist must use hand tools in a method called tebori. This employs the use of needle tipped, chisel-like instruments in a variety of distinct motions to create the tattoo’s lines and shading. The differences in both coordination and timeframe are daunting comparative to machine tattooing, and artists will be apprentices for sometimes decades before striking out on their own as a master.
Since the style of irezumi art work has been popularized in the west, many American artists have become skillful at faking it. A good number of the traditional motifs are even still employed, such as mythical and sacred animals, waves, sakura blossoms, and fabled heroes. Today there are only an estimated 300 tattoo shops in the entirety of Japan.