The Beautiful and Shrewd Fox

Japanese folklore is rich in stories of creatures, real and mythical, that come to life in tattoo designs. While dragons, tigers, and koi fish are some of the most popular choices for symbolism, none can match the mysterious aura of the fox. Depicting a Japanese fox in a tattoo can be quite tricky as one needs to be aware of its various interpretations. ‘Kitsune’, as they are known in Japan, are one of the most curious animals and perhaps more than any other, they have also fascinated people outside the country. Their dual nature switches between a cunning trickster and one possessing good fortune and wisdom. According to folklore, they can be a dangerous shape-shifter that can possess people, but they are also associated with Inari worship, acting as servants to the Gods of fertility and agriculture, with stone statues of kitsune can be seen at Shinto shrines throughout Japan.

Koson Ohara, Dancing Fox

In Western culture werewolves are humans who become a wolf, however in Japan opposite transformation happens. ‘Kitsune’ are creatures of the night with supernatural powers. Many early Japanese stories tell of legends of them taking on the form of beautiful, seductive women or the form of monks. However, their true appearance is often reflected on a paper screen behind them in a silhouette with a long tail or pointy ears, to the horror of those that notice.

A kitsune needs to cover its head with leaves and reeds to transform. In Japanese art, foxes are often depicted on their hind legs with the top of their head covered, hinting at this supernatural ability. Other abilities include creation of illusions, manifestations in dreams and mind control, taking on the form of inanimate objects, and seeing the future.

The supernatural powers of a fox increase with age. It is said that when a fox reaches the age of one hundred it grows another tail and receives the power to transform into a human form. When they reach the age of one thousand, they grow nine tails and gain infinite wisdom, these are known as ‘kyubi no kitsune’ (nine-tailed foxes).

While often mischievous, foxes have a positive interpretation: if a human helps a fox, it will try to repay any favour and will always keep its promise.

A famous legend is that of Yasuna, noble samurai, who was due to be married. Unfortunately, his fiancée passed away in an accident, and his father-in-law to be offered his other daughter. One day on his way home Yasuna saw a group of men chasing after a fox. He quickly hid the creature under his robes until the danger had passed and released it to safety. Some days later a beautiful lady appeared and introduced herself as Kuzunoha. The two immediately fell in love and she looked after him. The two had a child together. Some time passed and the father of his deceased wife-to-be found it strange that he had not heard back in regard to his offer and went to visit Yasuna only to find Kuzunoha. When he confronted her, she admitted that she was in fact the fox that Yasuna saved and had returned to thank him by looking after him. With her secret revealed and knowing this was not her place, she sadly returned to the woods. Their son, Abe no Seimei, grew up to become the most renown fortune-teller in Japan’s history.

However, a fox’s trickster nature can also win out, a classic example is the well-known story of Tamamo no Mae, a dutiful nine tailed fox who took the form of a courtesan, used her supernatural abilities to possess an emperor in the 12th century driving him to illness, and was only driven off thanks to the efforts of a great warrior.

The fox is an ambivalent animal and with its duality of interpretation of good and bad that makes the imagery of the fox tattoo complex, enshrouded in wit and mystery.

Originally published in Tattoo Life November/December 2020.

Firemen and Tattoos in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Kunichika Toyohara, Japanese Firemen, Tattoo, New Year

Back in the 17th and up to the 19th century, the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo) was under constant threat of fire. Closely built houses were made of highly flammable materials and the presence of candles, paper lanterns, charcoal braziers and open stoves added to the danger. Frequent earthquakes, wind and lighting completed the list of elements that could lead to disaster. The Great Meireiki Fire of 1657 caused the greatest damage to the city and shortly after, the government established the first professional fire brigades in Japan.

The high authority established the first citywide firefighting organization: the jobikeshi, or ‘regular firemen’. These groups were assigned different sections of the city and strategic locations around Edo Castle where the shogun lived. However, dozens of independent companies existed as well, which sometimes created conflicts among the competitive groups. Companies were identified by a decorative standard (matoi), which the bearer carried up onto a roof as close as possible to the fire in order to establish the company’s precedence on the scene.

Firemen were often called Edo no Hana, translated as ‘flowers of Edo’, but also referring to the spot closest to the fire, also called hana, where a representative fireman would stand with a matoi and signal the rest of his team members which direction to proceed and tackle the flames.

Kunichika Toyohara, Japanese Firemen, Tattoo Design
Kunichika Toyohara, Kunichika Toyohara, Firemen and Sumo Wrestlers, 1890

Because independent firefighters were more skilful, by the beginning of the 19th century, they had become the city’s dominant firefighting force. Drawn from the city’s guild of construction workers and roofers, the town brigade firemen (known as tobi, meaning hookmen, after their fire hooks), were more used than samurai to dangerous work in high places.

As fire was a constant source of menace and danger, firefighters were increasingly looked upon as rescuers and heroes. At the same time, firefighters themselves bashed in the glory and accentuated their image. Similar to the otokodate (street knights), firemen were often tattooed with a religious conviction that it would act as a shield against danger. Tattoos became synonymous with bravery. Enduring the pain and burning of having their entire bodies tattooed was a symbolic way of showing their defiance and their lack of fear of fire.

Given the danger, brave firefighters came from lower classes who could now prove their courage, command respect and become heroes. As some of these classes already had tattoos, voluntary or penal, the images that adorned their skin soon became symbols of their livelihood. As tattoos were seen more and more often, they became socially accepted and they became common feature and part of downtown Edo.

Another important and distinctive feature of firemen was the hanten, the protective coat that was usually immersed in water before being worn. These coats carried lining designs that most of the time reflected the very tattoo designs they were covering. As such, the coat acted on two levels: first it would offer the practical protection much needed when battling the flames, second it would act as psychological protection through the imagery weaved into its cloth.

Restrictive laws imposed during the Edo period prohibited the display of luxury, including expensive clothing. Wealthy merchants took to wearing plain coloured kimono on the outside, but with decorated lining underneath. This applied to firemen also, and their hanten would be beautifully decorated with mythical heroes and creatures believed to bring them luck in their dangerous profession. For festivals and other special occasions, they were worn inside out to show off the designs which resembled the tattoos they had underneath.

Dezomeshiki (New Year’s Parade of Firemen) was an annual event that saw firemen performing acrobatic tricks and balancing acts at hair-raising heights to the astonishment of the public. The festival still takes place today and with historic roots, this January entertainment draws crowds by drawing from the past. Firemen would often have themselves tattooed not only with dragons and koi fish, but also with characters associated with fire, such as Fudoo Myo, hoping this would enhance their protection in their hazardous job. Apart from that, frequent visits to the temple and offerings enhanced the tattoos’ ability to protect their wearers.

An artist who often featured tattoos in his woodblock print designs is Kunichika Toyohara (1835 – 1900). One of the last artists at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), he continued to make ukiyo-e prints with the full respect to the old school, traditional ways. He was of central importance for the production of actors’ portraits and pictures of theatre performances at that time. Kunichika recalls that his father was the proprietor of a public bathhouse called Oshuya, popularly known as Darumayu (‘The Daruma Bath’). A shop curtain illustrating a bobbing toy in the shape of Daruma or Bodhidharma (the founder of Zen Buddhism) hung in the doorway. Kunichika described his father as a dashing man, who was nicknamed ‘Kyuju the kappa’ because he had a kappa (a type of mythical beast) tattooed on his thigh. Kunichika was extremely fond of drinking and partaking of life’s more ephemeral pleasures. Surrounded by a tattoo culture from an early age, many of his woodblock prints show tattooed actors and firemen proudly displaying their ink.

Text: Geanina Spinu for Japanese Gallery Kensington

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, Jan-Feb 2020

Dragons in Japanese Tattoos and the Oyama Pilgrimage

Kunisada Utagawa, Mount Oyama, Japanese Tattoo

In Edo-period Japan (1603 – 1868), dragons had special importance for ‘hikeshi’ (firemen), as they were seen as creatures of the sea and therefore not being affected by fire. In Japanese belief, dragons are associated with koi fish. Legend says that a koi fish’s ability to swim upstream and over waterfalls without ever giving up in the face of adversity brought with it admiration from the gods who have granted the koi eternal life as dragons. It is also said that if a koi is caught, it will await the cut of the knife without fear, displaying courage and tenacity, attributes naturally embodied within the koi carp. This clearly portrays the cultural beliefs in the strength of the koi. As dragons, you can see the resemblance of their past life in their whiskers, trailing and coiling just like the rest of their scaled and slender body.

kunichika toyohara, japanese tattoo, irezumi
Kunichika Toyohara, Mount Oyama, 1882

Unlike western dragons that are seen as threatening, in Japan dragons are defending beings and in the case of firemen and tattoo designs, they are a protective force that also offer strength of character to their wearer. These men believed that the tattooed image of the dragon would act as ‘omamori’ (talisman) as they fought fires in the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo). For those men tattoos became synonymous with bravery. Enduring the pain and burning of having their entire bodies tattooed was a symbolic way of showing their defiance and their lack of fear.

As mythical creatures that live in all elements, dragons are highly regarded as symbols of an unwavering spirit and wisdom. Just like Japanese swords are forged in all five elements and depend on them in the production process, this is how dragons are also able to live in any kind of medium, including skin. Japanese tattooists trained in traditional Japanese aesthetics and imagery and who follow traditional techniques will usually leave the eyes blank until the very end, believing that the dragon’s spirit will come to life once the eyes are drawn in. As dragons are imagined beings, they can only exist in the artist’s rendition and the person receiving the tattoo becomes a living canvas, infused with a spirit and respect for tradition that have been passed down through generations. Despite the image being permanent the spirit’s lifespan is forever bound with the wearer.

Mount Oyama and its waterfall, located in today’s Kanagawa prefecture, have been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and hold special importance for tattooed people since the mid- 19th century. This has been historically documented within woodblock prints produced during that period, showing pilgrims making a journey to Mount Oyama, displaying elaborate tattoo designs on their bodies.

Yoshitora Utagawa, Mount Oyama, Japanese Tattoo
Yoshitora Utagawa, Mount Oyama Pilgrimage, 1862

The shrine on this mountain is dedicated to Fudo Myoo and houses a rare statue of this spiritual figure. It is also dedicated to Sekison Daigongen, a local deity taking the form of Fudo Myoo, reflecting the conversion of local deities when the teachings of Shinto and Buddhism merged. The founder of the mountain as a religious centre is said to be monk Roben (良弁, also known as Ryoben) who encountered a dragon one day during his meditation. The dragon told the monk that the waterfalls on Oyama had the power to purify all beings and bring enlightenment and protection to them. Oyama therefore became a preferred place for pilgrimage for firemen given the mountain’s association with water and fire. They saw the journey as a ritual of purification and a communion with the spirits. For firemen heavily tattooed with intricate designs of dragons, bathing under the waterfall would make the mythical creatures beneath their skin feel in their element and be blessed by the power of the mountain.

Oyama attracted a large number of visitors from Edo, including merchants, artisans and fishermen who believed in the healing powers of Fudo Myoo and the dragon deity’s ability to offer protection from fire. The pilgrims going to Oyama would carry a large wooden sword and dedicate it to the shrine and this appears depicted in woodblock prints very often. Due to the popularity of the pilgrimage and its protective qualities, imagery of heroes of the day under a waterfall are common.

Oyama pilgrimage is still practiced and its association with tattoos remains until today. This tradition was solidified in the 20th century when the Kanda Choyu Kai was founded, the first tattoo club of its type in Japan and coordinated by tattooist Horiuno I. Despite the stigma associated with Japanese tattoos, Mount Oyama still acts as a safe haven for those wishing to gather to cleanse, appreciate the art of tattoos out in the open, and provide a deeper spiritual meaning to their designs.

Text: Geanina Spinu for Japanese Gallery Kensington

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, July-August 2020

Hokusai Katsushika – Master of Drawing

Hokusai Katsushika, Mount Fuji, Japanese Landscape

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is considered to be one of the greatest artists by the entire art world. He devoted almost all of his 90 years of life to drawing and painting. Never satisfied with one technique or mastering one style of drawing, he always sought to improve as an artist. Every sketch, painting, and woodblock print is proof of his relentless pursuit of artistic perfection.

British Museum has recently added 103 block-ready drawings dated 1829 by Hokusai to its collection, representing a major new discovery to the life and work of the late master. A wide range of subjects are represented in these drawings, from religious and mythological figures, to animals, birds, flowers and landscapes. Subjects relating to China, Southeast Asia and India are abundant, with themes previously unseen in Hokusai’s work.

While these drawings were intended for publication under the title ‘Great Picture Book of Everything’, for an unknown reason, this never took place. As a result, the drawings were not destroyed during the process of carving, making them extremely rare.

Other similar examples from Hokusai’s work that did make it to print include his wonderful ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ (1835-1880) published in 3 volumes and ‘Hokusai’s Manga’ (1814-1878), comprising literally thousands of images in 15 volumes.

Hokusai had a deep connection to Mount Fuji, which had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for ascetic Buddhists and Shinto sects alike in the Edo period (1603- 1868). The series followed Hokusai’s successful colour prints of ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. Though in absence of colour, the one hundred views series displays Hokusai’s unique composition, sometimes challenging the viewer to spot the playfully concealed peak of Mount Fuji.

As for ‘Hokusai’s Manga’, it was originally intended as a drawing instruction manual but Hokusai almost immediately removed the text and republished the drawings alone. The series took the artist on an encyclopaedic venture, from seemingly insignificant depictions of everyday objects to spirits and historical figures.

Browse a selection of prints from these series in our online catalogue.

From Woodblock Print Art to Japanese Tattoos

japanese tattoo, irezumi

For the longest time, Japanese decorative tattoos were called horimono (彫り物, ‘carved’ ‘thing’ or ‘object’) while those used for punishment irezumi (入れ墨) which is why tattooists refused to use this term, wishing to distance their art from the rather brutal practice of punishment tattooing. Irezumi is the kun-yomi, or Chinese reading of the kanji 刺⻘, that can also be read shisei following the on-yomi, or Japanese reading. Either way, the kanji refers to the act of inserting (ire) ink (sumi) into the skin. The second reading, however, takes another layer of meaning as the character for blue, ⻘, is read as sei. Despite being black, when inserted into the skin following the tebori (hand poked) technique, the pigment comes out blue-green, a characteristic that only Japanese tattoos have and that is highly praised.

Horimono is also used as a term for carvings in general, such as the engraved images in the blade of a Japanese sword, which elevates the practice and sees tattooing as a craft. The first Japanese tattooists began to call themselves horishi, and assumed titles based on the prefix hori (彫り) derived from the verb horu (to dig or carve) the same title used by the carvers of woodblock prints. These tattooists also began organising master- apprentice relationships. Nowadays, the practice can be seen in many recognised tattooists such as Horitoshi, Horiyasu, Horikazu, Horicho, who still follow traditional nomenclature and hierarchy. The term irezumi has lost its negative connotations, though the term tends to be avoided by those who practice Japanese traditional tattooing exclusively.

Artists involved with the design process of woodblock prints were organised in schools. An apprentice might choose a school according to personal preference for artistic style or subject: musha-e (warrior prints), bijin-ga (beautiful women), yakusha- e (actors), fukei-ga (landscape). There are often cases when apprentices chose a school based on the fame and reputation of the master. In the tattoo world, these apprenticeships are still organised in ‘families’ rather than schools, as the apprentice would often live in with his master. This gives both parties a sense of artistic legacy, most evident in the practice of students taking up the name of their master, followed by a number that indicates the lineage. Profound knowledge and understanding of various aspects of Japanese culture, such as history, folklore, artistic and seasonal motifs, even the position of the tattoo design on the body are of highest importance.

Japanese tattoos have a very similar process with printmaking, from the outline system to large areas of pure colour and style of shading. As the popularity of tattoos rose, the designs themselves developed accordingly and became more embellished and beautiful. Tattooists trained in the tebori technique, even today, will draw directly from one of these woodblock prints, and they form the basis of the classic Japanese tattoo.

Many tattooists were formerly woodblock engravers and they hoped to achieve fame and success through this art which in woodblock printing were solely reserved for the designer. The woodblock carver, whose job was to follow the lines prescribed by the artist, had very little artistic freedom. Many prints did credit the carver, but the primary artist of the woodblock print was considered to be the designer of the original drawing. When the townspeople of Edo began looking for individuals to tattoo woodblock designs, they drew upon craftsmen already familiar with the visual vocabulary. As a result, woodblock carvers, painters and other such artisans were among the first tattoo artists. In this way, ukiyo-e influenced the design and composition of large pictorial tattoos.

Tattooing tools evolved from those used in traditional woodblock printing.

Text: Geanina Spinu for Japanese Gallery Kensington

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, May-June 2020

Printing Methods and Effects in Ukiyo-e

Following our guide on ‘How Woodblock Prints are Made’, in this article we present a few printing methods and effects often employed in the production of ukiyo-e. Carvers and printers needed excellent skills and attention to detail, indispensable for bringing to life the world of the artist who envisioned the design in the first place.


Mica is a shiny silicate mineral. Powdered Mica was scattered on the surface of prints, which employ rice paste with pigments. Mica became common from the late Edo and many Shin-hanga artists also use this technique. Mica backgrounds are often found in beauty portraits, such as those by Utamaro and Goyo, adding a shimmering or mirror-like effect to the print.

Goyo Hashiguchi, Woman Applying Make-up, Mica Background, printing techniques
Goyo Hashiguchi, Woman Applying Make-up

Blind Printing/Embossing (karazuri)

The technique of blind printing implies a raised design into the paper. It is most often seen in kimono details, animal fur, snow and clouds, but also on other elements of the woodblock print design that are meant to stand out. This gives texture and adds depth to the image and its designs and outlines.


Bokashi, the technique of colour gradation, is usually applied in the wide background (uncarved space) of prints such as the sea, sky and ground. This achieves a variation in the colour, from dark to light. As the technique had to be repeated for every sheet of paper, consistency and a highly skilled artisan were key. Even so, there are often slight variations, and the degree of bokashi is sometimes what determines an early edition for a later one.

hiroshige I utagawa, mount fuji, landscape, edo period, bokashi, printing technique
Hiroshige I Utagawa, Tago Bay and Miho no Matsubara, 1855

Burnishing Effect

The burnishing effect allows black pigment to be polished. At first, non-shiny black pigment is applied onto the printing surface and once the colour is dried, a second layer is applied and polished with a bone or ivory in order to give shine on the same surface.

Circular Baren Traces (‘baren sujizuri’)

Another special effect that can be achieved by the printer is the appearance of having added ‘texture’ or variation to the print’s surface via the technique called ‘baren sujizuri’, or ‘circular baren traces’ printing. This technique is said to have first been used in Ito Shinsui’s 1916 print, ‘Before the Mirror’ (or ‘Red Geisha’) where publisher Watanabe urged his printer to experiment with the addition of ‘texture’ by holding the baren tool on its edge rather than flat as was always previously done. The result was a pleasing random circular pattern that gives the print’s background added interest.

Since the printing of Ito’s ‘Red Geisha’, these circular baren tracings have been used very effectively to produce the appearance of texture to rock walls, paved surfaces, and other background areas.

Visible Woodgrain

A final printing technique to be discussed in this brief article is the thoughtful and deliberate incorporation of visible woodgrain into the print’s design. In Japanese, this technique is called ‘kimetsubushi’, or ‘uniform grain printing’. Such highly visible wood grain is also one of the hallmarks of early edition prints, since later editions which are subsequently printed using the same blocks will often exhibit much less or no visible wood grain as the pores of the woodblock’s printing surface later become plugged and layered with pigments.

Here, it seems, praise must once again go to the carver, for perhaps he (or in combination with the printer) is responsible for this artistic use of the woodblock’s natural and beautiful woodgrain. Such visible use and incorporation of the wood’s natural woodgrain is certainly not just an accident. It seems very clear that even back to the days of Hiroshige’s fine landscapes, careful thought was given to the selection of the single one or two woodblocks that would produce much of the large un-carved surface background to either the print’s sky or water areas. The resulting effect is most delightful, and reminds us lest we should for a moment forget that these prints are indeed printed from wooden blocks.

Although less common to many of the prints of the early Meiji period (1870-1880’s), the deliberately artistic emphasis of visible woodgrain again became commonplace during the war prints of the mid-1890’s, and then again to many of the finer shin-hanga prints of the 1910’s/20’s/and 30’s. Many fine examples can be seen from among the ‘kacho-e’ (bird and flower) prints by Koson Ohara.

Japanese Kimono Themed Auction – April 4th, 2020

Japanese Gallery Kensington is announcing the next themed live auction on Saturday 4th of April 2020 at 2:00 GMT. This time we have curated a collection on the theme of Japanese kimono featuring woodblock prints with colourful kimono patterns, accessories such as inro, netsuke, as well as swords and sword fittings. Our catalogues are now live and you can browse featured artists – Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Utamaro Kitagawa, Eizan Kikugawa, Chikanobu Yoshu, Toshi Yoshida and more. 

We are also pleased to share with you the full set of Yoshitoshi Tsukioka’s series ‘Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners’ published in 1888 by Tsunashima Kamekichi (Lot 207). The rare series includes all thirty-two prints with title page in very good condition.  

Lot 207 – Yoshitoshi, full set of the series ‘Thirty-two aspects of Customs and Manners’, published 1888

Lot viewing times by appointment only:

30th of March (Mon) – 3rd of April (Fri) 2020

10 am – 6 pm

Please send us an e-mail at or call 02072292934 to arrange a viewing. 


Japanese Gallery Kensington, 66E Kensington Church Street, W8 4BY London

Register via the links below to bid live on the day:

The health and safety of our visitors is our top priority. In order to stop the spread and impact of Covid-19 virus currently affecting everyone across the world, we will only be able to welcome you in our gallery by appointment only (until further notice).

For general enquiries not related to our upcoming auction or if you wish to see specific items, please send an email to: or call 02072292934 Mon – Fri (10 am – 6 pm).

In the meantime, find us online at and explore our collection.

Thank you 🌸

Best regards,

Japanese Gallery Kensington Team

Japanese Woodblock Print Auction – 21st Feb 2020

Japanese Gallery Kensington is announcing the second themed live auction on the 21st of February 2020 at 2:00 GMT. On sale will be a collection of original woodblock prints by artists such as Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Chikanobu Yoshu, Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kunichika Toyohara and many more.

Lot viewing times:

17 (Mon) – 20 (Thu) February 2020

10 am – 6 pm


Japanese Gallery Kensington, 66E Kensington Church Street, W8 4BY London

Tel: 0207 229 2934

Register via the links below to bid live on the day:

Click here to view the catalogue on Live Auctioneers.

Click here to view the catalogue on Invaluable.

Click here to view the catalogue on Easy Live Auction.

Kunisada and the Tattoos of Kabuki Theatre

The urban culture that developed in Edo city (today’s Tokyo) in the 18th and 19th century was a pleasure seeking one as townspeople saw kabuki theatre as the ultimate entertainment. Kabuki and its lively and daring performances offered a break amid a restricted lifestyle with plays largely inspired by everyday sensational events. Actors were the real stars of the day, just like today’s movie or pop stars, and their fame reached such heights that woodblock prints depicting actors in their roles became collectibles and souvenirs for the fans. Kabuki also became a medium for tattoos with many popular roles having tattooed heroes and ruffians with flamboyant costumes and extravagant poses.

Omatsuri Kingoro and Kakuno Kosan, 1858

Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1865) stands as one of the most recognised artists that designed woodblock prints centred on the colourful world of kabuki. Passionate about the art form from a young age, he was accepted as an apprentice around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Toyokuni I (1769 – 1825), and became one of his chief pupils. In keeping with a tradition of Japanese master-apprentice relations, Kunisada’s talent and popularity would lead him to be honored with his master’s name and become the head of the Utagawa art school himself.

Life for everyday people in Kunisada’s time was strictly controlled by corrupt authorities and there was little leeway to express themselves freely. However, a new group began to distinguish themselves and challenge the injustice faced by commoners – the otokodate. Roughly translated as ‘street knights’, their confidence and bravery made them popular among the merchants, clerks, shopkeepers, and artisans who would often rely on them for protection against injustice. In this way, the samurai and otokodate were natural rivals, and as each group banded together into teams under leaders, fierce and bloody clashes broke out frequently.

Ichikawa Ichizo III as Nozarashi Gosuke, 1858

The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognisable feature in tune with their fearless personalities and were so idealised and romanticised by common people that they became part of ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas. In this political environment, Kunisada often depicted actors in imagined settings and resembled their personalities to great heroes that ordinary people would praise and root for when they were performed on stage. The actors often showcased striking tattoos on their bodies, capturing to a great degree a sense of social decay and public discontent, making them, like the dramas they represent, quite modern in their questioning of established values. It is no wonder that from time to time the government of the time found it necessary to censor a theatre that seemed to call into question its authority.  

An iconic kabuki play that was often the subject of woodblock prints was ‘Summer Festival: Mirror of Naniwa’, focusing on an exciting character named Danshichi Kurobei, a fish seller by trade and an otokodate. This powerful drama revolves around Danshichi’s loyalty to his former master Tamashima, the strong bond he shares with his friends and his fatal relationship with his vicious father-in-law, Giheiji. The first act culminates with a scene in which Danshichi, tries to retrieve the courtesan-lover of Tamashima’s son from Giheiji who has abducted her out of revenge. The performance ends in a thrilling fighting scene in which Danshichi, unable to reason and enraged by Giheiji, chases and kills the wretched, mud-drenched old man. Stripping to reveal his magnificently tattooed back and limbs, Danshichi strikes heroic poses while stabbing Giheiji to the sound of the festive drums in the background. Danshichi takes the old man’s life with a thrust of his sword, then washes splattered blood and Giheiji’s muddy hand prints from his body, using water from a nearby well. He escapes by mingling with the large crowd of festival celebrants. In stage performances during Japan’s hot summers, the use of real mud and real water would have given the audience a pleasant feeling of coolness, but also the satisfaction that justice had been done on their behalf.

Kunisada’s rendition of an actor in the role of Danshichi shows him bearing a lobster tattoo on his forearm, a reference to the character being a fishmonger, but also a symbol of strength and protection. On his shoulder and chest are the feathers of a phoenix. Unlike the western counterpart, the phoenix in eastern mythology is said to appear only in times of peace and prosperity. It is also said that the phoenix is a creature of morality, shunning those who do not meet its high moral standards, it does not tolerate abuse of power and stands for justice and graciousness.

Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi Kurobei, 1859

Played by handsome actors, the otokodate became a focus of romantic desire. These warriors were viewed as folk heroes and seeing them in prints or on stage inspired fans to get tattoos of the same imagery that their fictional role models had tattooed on their bodies. Eventually, the same engravers who once created woodblocks took their craft to a new medium – human skin. Ukiyo-e and traditional Japanese tattoos are so intertwined that the word for hand-poked tattoos, tebori, a technique that is still practiced today, means ‘to carve by hand’.

Kunisada’s world was there to be enjoyed. He gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives, and his images, with their optimism and verve, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Whether through kabuki theatre or the production of powerful images in ukiyo-e or tattoos, these art forms were crucial in creating myths central to Japanese history, reflecting both the ideals and dreams of the people.

Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, Jan – Feb 2020

History of Japanese Pottery (Yaki)

Yaki (焼) is a Japanese word used to describe porcelain, pottery and earthenware. Producing all of them has been a vital and successful art form in Japan, even though earthenware has been widely produced on the archipelago from the Jomon period (from 10,000 to 300 B.C.)- Japanese neolith.

Vase by Shoji Hamada, 20th century

The real boom started in 17th century. At the dawn of Edo period, in 1598, the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) invaded Korea. During a short occupation period (1592-1598) the Japanese brought over a few families specializing in traditional arts, such as pottery making: art they again learned from the Chinese. Brought over to Kyushu, they started production on Japanese soil, founding a basis of the Japanese porcelain production. The location proved to be perfect, as local lands were rich in kaolin clays. Porcelain is baked in higher temperatures than pottery, and kilns built by the Korean potters allowed achieving phenomenal effects. In later years, Japanese artisans became artistically independent, but the continental influences have always been present.

Kakiemon Plate, 17th century

In late 16th century the tea ceremony culture gained popularity in Japan, being one of the factors propelling the porcelain production. The Japanese exported their products worldwide, continuing the trade even during the isolation of Edo period (1603-1868). The Dutch East India Company was the major consumer of Japanese pottery, stimulating development of that art craft; their first big order was placed at Arita in 1656.

Arita Teapot, early 18th century

17th century was the time of a great prosperity in Europe, an époque called baroque by latter generations. People came into possession of great fortunes and a demand for things unusual, oriental and foreign was tremendous. Factories in Delft in the Netherlands, Meissen, Vincennes, and finally Worchester in 19th century were established to produce copies of Japanese pieces trying to meet the immense need for oriental style porcelain in Europe. 

Satsuma Ware, end of 19th century