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 info@jgauction.com 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: info@japanesegallery.com or call 02072292934 Mon – Fri (10 am – 6 pm).

In the meantime, find us online at japanesegallery.com 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

Japanese Woodblock Print Auction – Nov. 30, 2019

Japanese Gallery Kensington is announcing our first-ever themed live auction on the 30th of November 2019 at 2:30 GMT. On sale will be a collection of original woodblock prints by artists such as Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kunichika Toyohara and many more.

Lot viewing times:

25 (Mon) – 29 (Fri) November 2019

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.

Japan Art Expo 2020

Japanese Gallery Kensington is pround to announce Japan Art Expo 2020!

From the organisers of Samurai Art Expo, this is a unique event for anyone interested in Japanese art and crafts.

Following the success of Samurai Art Expo in 2018, the organisers are excited to break new ground with Japan Art Expo, the first largescale event solely dedicated to Japanese art held in Europe. Bringing together admirers of Japanese art from the Kamakura period [1185-1333] to the Present, Japan Art Expo promises to be an exciting opportunity to collect and learn, while networking with people from all parts of the Japanese art industry.

Tickets for Japan Art Expo (June 5-7th 2020) start at €20, with a discount 3-day pass on offer.

An Academic Symposium, Conference and Fair all in one.

Whether you’re looking to buy, learn about, or just have a chance to inspect Japanese art and crafts, Japan Art Expo has it all. Featuring a lecture hall for academic talks and a show floor for admiring and purchasing a diverse variety of art and crafts, this event has something for everyone with an interest in Japanese culture.

Specialized talks

The talks given will be relevant to what is on the show floor. Attendees are encouraged to apply their newfound knowledge immediately on the collections being shown and sold.

A worldwide collection in one place

Dealers and collectors from around the world will be gathering in Utrecht, a central hub for Europe, for this unique three-day event. Inspect, and purchase from, collections of Japanese culture brought to the Netherlands from over three continents.

Curators, Dealers and Restorers

Attendees hail from all fields within Japanese art, from scholars to vendors to restorers. Japan Art Expo is a great opportunity to exchange thoughts, opinions, and contact details with fellow enthusiasts.

A word from Eddy Wertheim, Event Coordinator:

“Following the success of Samurai Art Expo, which brought together an array of exhibitors, collectors and enthusiasts, and served to break down the boundaries between artworks, professionals and those new to the field, Japan Art Expo is driven by the desire to make Japanese art and culture more accessible to a European audience.”

Location: Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs Exhibition and Convention Centre, Utrecht, Netherlands

Dates: Friday June 5th, Saturday June 6th, Sunday June 7th 2020

Ticket Price: €20 Friday or Sunday, €25 Saturday, or €50 3-day pass

How to purchase: tickets available by clicking here.

About Japan Art Expo:

Once again coordinating the event is Eddy Wertheim, manager of the Japanese Gallery Kensington Ltd., London, a major destination for those with a passion for Japanese art and culture. At the heart of Japan Art Expo is Mr. Wertheim’s wish to make Japanese art more accessible to all audiences through a three-day event of symposiums and appraisal sessions working in tandem with a series of talks hosted by scholars and collectors. These will provide visitors with a wealth of knowledge they can use to engage with, and foster a passion for, the Japanese art on show at the event, as well as in their daily life.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and the Japanese Tattoo Legacy

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading figures in ukiyo-e during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and perhaps the greatest ukiyo-e artist among his contemporaries. Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. No other artist had produced ghost prints or included a range of different subjects in a single series before he did.

As a child, Yoshitoshi was enrolled as a resident student in the school of Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861), one of the most successful woodblock print designers in Edo (today’s Tokyo). In here, he was given the name ‘Yoshitoshi’, traditionally adopting the same characters as his teacher’s name. In this studio, Yoshitoshi learned how to design prints and he probably spent much of his time making draft copies of Kuniyoshi’s sketches, which would explain how he knew his teacher’s designs so well, often using them as the basis for his own designs. Kuniyoshi’s training included drawing from life and sometimes he provided human models for his students to draw. This may seem basic to us now, but drawing from life was not necessarily part of the training for schools of painting and illustration in Japan, where traditionally the artist was to capture the essence of a subject rather than give a literal representation. Recognising his talent, Kuniyoshi treated Yoshitoshi with great affection, often referring to him as his own son. After Kuniyoshi passed away, Yoshitoshi developed a personal style influenced by his own personal tragedies. The intense, disturbing images of his early career reflect turmoil and pain. His prints from this period have violent and gory designs, including corpses and decapitated heads, a reflexion of his state of mind.

Yoshitoshi, Sumo Wrestlers and Firemen Fight (1886)

However, Yoshitoshi was a product of his time. Horror and cruelty were common themes in a part of history when Japan itself was going through modernisation. The feudal world of Edo and the new Western values were often in conflict, and such themes were common in plays, literary fiction, and woodblock prints. Yoshitoshi was an emotional man with powerful visual imagination, which extended to the design of prints with cruel and brutal subjects.

The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular, and possibly best, series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (Tsuki Hyakushi) commenced in 1885. Consisting of one hundred prints, this series spanned a wide variety of subjects and became famous through its variety of subjects taken from Japanese and Chinese history and mythology, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by one hundred images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. This series also seemed to mark Yoshitoshi’s artistic independence and departure from a traditional ukiyo-e style.

During his career Yoshitoshi designed several prints devoted to the Suikoden theme, which is not surprising considering his apprenticeship with Kuniyoshi, the master of the genre. One of the best known Suikoden heroes, the tattooed Kumonryu Shishin, apparently is a Yoshitoshi favourite and he appears in the artist’s prints more than once. By far the most celebrated example is the portrayal that is part of the series ‘One Hundred Aspects of the Moon’. Usually Kumonryu is shown in spectacular fighting scenes, but in Yoshitoshi’s version the hero is seated on a bench underneath a weeping willow, calm and collected, on a moonlit night. His pose and facial expression are marks of self-confidence and toughness, with a touch of arrogance. Unlike Kuniyoshi’s version from Suikoden, Yoshitoshi managed to give his design an aura of serene expression and beauty, by combining only the most essential elements in a well-balanced composition.

Yoshitoshi, Kumonryu, ‘One Hundred Aspects of the Moon’ (1885)

Yoshitoshi also designed ‘bijin-ga’, or images of beautiful women of their time. Courtesans were a large part of the world of entertainment, alongside performers such as geisha and actors. Courtesans were sophisticated and refined women, trained in the arts of calligraphy, poetry, flower arrangement, conversation, dancing, music and worked from specially allocated quarters. In the environment they operated, there was a growing desire to put seals on feelings to make them ‘everlasting’. While around the beginning of the Edo period tattooing was still used for punishment and identification, it also became popular among the female population of the entertainment centres to decorate their bodies. The practice of ‘irebokuro’ involved tattooing dots at the base of the thumb that would be connected when the partners joined hands. ‘Irebokuro’ eventually evolved into short texts or names, and courtesans themselves would sometimes tattoo their lovers, in a ritual of mutual love confession.

Yoshitoshi, ‘Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners’ (1888)

In one design by Yoshitoshi the girl depicted bites her handkerchief in distress as her arm is tattooed. The tattoo appears to be the opening strokes of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom), and is probably the name of nickname of her lover. As tattooing was a practice of the demimonde and gangsters, labourers and courtesans were the most likely groups be tattooed.

To this day, Yoshitoshi remains one of the most acclaimed ukiyo-e artists who often used tattoo designs in his prints. With his talent, imagination, and attention to detail, he carried on a legacy that continues to fascinate woodblock print collectors and tattoo enthusiasts alike. 

Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, July – August 2019