Kuniyoshi Utagawa – Master of Japanese Tattoos

Many would recognize Kuniyoshi as one of the most iconic Japanese woodblock print artists, yet he is also credited with influencing another visual art form, that of traditional tattoo designs. These are still a source of inspiration and are followed with precision by tattooists practising Japanese style tattoos worldwide. In this article, we look at how Kuniyoshi depicted the heroes of his time in woodblock prints and how he skilfully integrated tattoos in designs that still carry a meaningful message.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Ariwara no Narihira Ason (1845-1849)

Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861) was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) as the son of a silk-dyer. It is said that he had a great interest in drawing from a young age. Even though Kuniyoshi eventually became a well-known and respected artist, the way to success and acknowledgment was a long struggle. His break-through came in 1827 with the series of ‘The 108 Heroes of The Tale of Suikoden’, which is based on a Chinese novel of the same name from the 14th century about brave rebels who fought against injustice and corrupt government officials. The story struck a sensitive chord within the common people of Edo, equally repressed by a military government and unable to openly show their dissent.  

In Edo Japan, the samurai class had yet to adjust to the daily routine of peacetime and grew frustrated with the loss of status and usefulness. Bored and idle, they frequently caused trouble in towns and were involved in street fights and robbery. At the same time, the commoner otokodate (street knights) were gaining confidence in their strength among the lower classes and were seen as the natural rivals of the samurai. The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognizable feature and they were idealized and romanticised in ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas.

The rise of the otokodate, the new hero figure in Japan, most likely contributed to the overwhelming success of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden series. The characters are adorned with intricate tattoos that were emulated by common people and Kuniyoshi’s bold, dynamic and sometimes lurid style, were novel and captivating.

The popularity of Suikoden also developed on a backdrop of political instability and laws that banned the portrayal of actors and courtesans by woodblock print artists. Instead of feeling restricted, Kuniyoshi took advantage of the ban and looked towards the heroes of the past in order to disguise political disaffection. The public of the day knew immediately how to interpret these subtly conveyed messages, often with humorous and satirical designs.

The behaviour of the otokodate and the Suikoden heroes closely resembled and stimulated the popularity of the other. As a result, Kuniyoshi’s designs came to be immortalized on paper as well as on skin, contributing to the development of the Japanese pictorial tattoo as a fashionable item.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Tanmeijiro Genshogo Fighting Under Water (1856)

Most of the motifs that appear in the Suikoden tattoos are animal and floral designs, but mythical characters such as the god of wind, Fujin, or the god of thunder, Raijin, also appear. Furthermore, it is during the time of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden series that different tattooing techniques and set-ups, the use of backgrounds and compositions found in modern Japanese tattoos arose.

It is assumed that Kuniyoshi himself might have been tattooed, which explains the high level of detail brought out by his designs. Nicknamed ‘scarlet skin’, some depictions of the artist testify to his playful nature. Few portraits of the artist exist, but they all show Kuniyoshi engaged in what he loved most – designing woodblock prints or teaching students. His clothes were richly decorated with patterns that may have been an indication of more designs hiding underneath. Because of the laws of the time, common people were restricted from wearing overly decorated clothing, yet Kuniyoshi was never afraid to walk a thin line and cleverly challenge rules in his own eccentric way.

Other students of Kuniyoshi drew sketches and used tattoos as a theme in their woodblock print designs and Kuniyoshi himself revisited the topic many times in other series with the same recognition.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Danshichi Kurobei (1852)

Kuniyoshi had a great passion for his craft, as is evidenced by the large number of prints he produced. He was a simple, straight-forward and broad-minded man who educated many artists including Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku and Yoshitora. It is thought that Kuniyoshi particularly favoured Yoshitoshi, the best student among them who would become a great ukiyo-e master himself.

There is no mistaking the fact that Kuniyoshi’s interpretation of the Suikoden heroes had a major impact on tattoo culture in Japan. The intense swirling patterns, colours, and motifs, that are so iconic today might not exist as seen and practiced today were it not for this novel and the associated artwork.

Consequently, many Japanese tattoo artists still render their own versions of popular themes, stories, or prints from Suikoden, becoming their own contemporary telling of a timeless story that has indelibly influenced their craft.

Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, May – June 2019

Wabori & Ukiyo-e

The Art of Traditional Japanese Tattoos and Woodblock Prints

Japanese Gallery Kensington were proud to share a collection of extraordinary traditional woodblock prints at the London Tattoo Convention in September 2019. Featuring works by the great masters of ukiyo-e such as Kuniyoshi, Kunichika, and Toyokuni III, as well as prints made by contemporary artist Paul Binnie, these prints offered an insightful view to Japanese tattoo culture through the ages in the most fitting environment.

Kunichika Toyohara (1835-1900)
Suikoden Yuki no Danmari (Silence in the Snow), 1886

[The Floating World of Edo]

Traditional Japanese tattoos in the form we know today evolved alongside the popularity of ukiyo-e (prints of the floating world) in mid-18th century Edo period (1603- 1868). In a time when the strict, controlling Tokugawa government supressed any signs of individuality, tattoos and printmaking were proof that the working classes found their own way of expressing themselves through the vibrant world of popular art. Extremely elaborate, both artistically and culturally, the purpose of Japanese tattoos shifted over time from a form of punishment to beautification, with designs depicting religious and symbolical meaning. Even today, their designs still stand out as some of the most elaborate and technically challenging in the world, demanding not only skill, imagination and dedication, but also fine aesthetic values.

At their inception and during their development, woodblock prints and Japanese tattoo art were interdependent. Both enjoyed grand status as popular art forms of the Edo period and both exerted political influence, depicted social change, and reached a broader audience than could the more rarefied art forms of the time that were only available to the nobility.

Ukiyo-e reflected the colourful world of the Edo period, a time when prints were mass produced at a low cost which made them affordable to the working classes. These prints depicted everyday urban life, teahouses, kabuki actors, warriors, battle scenes, courtesans and stylish people, themes easy to relate to by all walks of life. The stories told through woodblock prints involved sensationalism, including murder, sex, greed, the pursuit of power, but still valued the traditional ideals of strength and loyalty.  

[Heroes of the Suikoden]

It was the introduction of Suikoden, the classic literary tale from China, coupled with the imagination and skill of Japanese woodblock artists that really elevated Japanese tattooing into a fine art. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861)’s first great artistic breakthrough came with the publication of the 108 heroes of Suikoden (‘Stories of the Water Margin’), having the greatest impact on the evolution of tattoo designs, as some of the heroes themselves displayed the most striking back pieces. These outlaws and brigands were seen as men of honour who would rebel against bureaucracy, a Robin-Hood-like band that made the story of a revolutionary novel with implications resenting the authority of the time.

Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Narita no Shinzo, from ‘A Modern Water Margin’, 1862

Alongside Chinese rebels, other famous characters from history and legend were soon used in tattoo designs including Fujin and Raijin, Shoki the demon slayer or Kintaro. They were often surrounded by floral motifs like peonies, chrysanthemums, maple leaves and cherry blossoms. Besides them, creatures both mythical and real featured heavily in tattoo designs, such as dragons, phoenixes, tigers, karajishi (Chinese lions), koi fish, falcons, or snakes. Most of these motifs lived on through the centuries and can still be rendered on skin in the same style by tattoo artists that practice wabori, or traditional Japanese tattoo designs.

[From carvers to tattoo artists]

It is said that woodblock artists were the first to begin Japanese tattoos, employing the same tools they used in their art such as chisels and black ink. When the townspeople of Edo began looking for individuals to tattoo woodblock designs, they drew upon craftsmen already familiar with those designs.

Since irezumi originally referred to tattoos as a form of punishment, tattooists refused to use this term, wishing to distance their art from the rather brutal practice of punishment tattooing. They began to call themselves horishi, derived from the verb ‘horu’ (to dig or carve) the same title used by the carvers of woodblock prints. This re-titling emphasised the skills tattooing required and linked the tattoo to the woodblock. The term irezumi has lost its negative connotations and today refers exclusively to the highly developed Japanese decorative tattoo in general.

In order to do wabori, the tattoo artist needs profound knowledge and understanding of various aspects of Japanese culture, such as history, folklore, artistic motifs, the importance of seasons and how they influence the relationship between motifs and even the position of the tattoo design on the body. Even today, tattoo artists who practice wabori will very often turn to woodblock prints for inspiration.

[Today’s Floating World]

It was only following the World War II that the practice of tattooing was freed from government restrictions and also the time when Japanese mafia (yakuza) proliferated, as their love of tattoos. Given the associations with the underworld, there are still echoes that can be heard today against tattoo artists in Japan, leaving the industry in the shadows for the most part. On-going debates whether tattooing should be considered a medical practice as well as social sanctions against artists can only be reminders of similar conflicts that sparked in the past. Nonetheless, Japanese tattoo artists who still employ traditional designs in their work stay faithful to values that were brought down through generations.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III) (1786 – 1864)
Ichikawa Ichizo III as Nozarashi Gosuke, comparable to Shi Jin the Nine Dragoned, 1858

Even though Western tattoo styles are becoming more popular with the youth, Japanese tattooists have historically been reluctant to mix styles coming from different cultures, showing instead great pride in the allegiance to traditional designs. Japanese tattoo styles have remained relatively pure, still reproducing images previously created by ukiyo-e.

Both wabori and ukiyo-e reached high levels of popularity because of the way they depicted the humanity of the time. While ukiyo-e relied on mass production and technology, tattoos embodied the very human aspects that its visual images represented. Repeatedly outlawed and pushed underground, in some respects Japanese tattooists managed to strengthen their culture which withstood the test of time. Tattoos are perhaps the best contemporary expression of a floating world, in their transcendent beauty on an ephemeral material such as human skin.

ukiyo-e relied on mass production and technology, tattoos embodied the very human aspects that its visual images represented. Repeatedly outlawed and pushed underground, in some respects Japanese tattooists managed to strengthen their culture which withstood the test of time. Tattoos are perhaps the best contemporary expression of a floating world, in their transcendent beauty on an ephemeral material such as human skin.

Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, March – April 2018

Komai metal inlay jewellery

The history and production of metal inlay in Japan.

Metal inlay jewellery is created through a process called damascening. It involves inlaying a steel ground with thin threads of gold and silver. The ground is then sealed through either oxidisation or via use of lacquer.

The Japanese term for damascene work is zogan (象嵌). The latter encompasses not just metal inlay, but can also describe other inlay techniques. One such example is Gohon Mishima ware, which refers to a type of pottery that is decorated via an inlay technique. In the case of Mishima ware, the material used as both a ground and inlay is clay. Another example is Shibayama inlay (Shibayama zogan), which describes lacquer inlayed with shell, coral, tortoiseshell and ivory.

Komai goods

The jewellery and small items we are displaying on this page, are largely so-called Komai goods, produced by the Komai family or their firm.

Historically following the development of the Komai family’s craft, gives us an interesting insight into the development of Japanese art as a whole. This family had produced metal inlay items for generations, well before the Komai firm was founded in 1841, but these items initially took the shape of sword furniture for the Samurai. Sword fittings could be very ornate and personal in design and required a high degree of skill to produce. Due to various changes in Japanese politics over time, Otojiro Komai eventually transitioned from creating sword furniture to other items, using the same technique.

The emergence of metal inlay techniques

Craftmanship commissioned by the Samurai class was prevalent during a very particular, if long, period of time in Japanese history: the Edo period. It began with the unification of Japanese feudal lords under the Tokugawa government around 1603, which calmed the constant warring factions and allowed for the arts to flourish. Among these artistic disciplines were pottery, metal work and woodblock printing.

The Edo period continued for roughly 250 years, coming to an end in 1868. At this point in time, the isolationist government of the Edo period was replaced by the new governing system of the Meiji period.

The Meiji period brought many cultural changes to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West, as well as structural changes to the government, with it. What most critically impacted the arts, was the new ruling outlawing the carrying of swords by samurai. This ruling suddenly put sword smiths and sword furniture artisans into a tight spot, as they lost most of their clientele.

Luckily, these sword smithing and metalworking skills could be used to produce a variety of items. Upon realising this, craftsmen started making various every-day metal objects that featured inlays. Among these objects are vases, mirrors, cigarette/tobacco cases, make-up cases, cufflinks and jewellery.

Today, these objects can be found in different countries, while a few remain in Japan. The reason the majority of them is abroad is that they were made for export and take the shape of distinctly Western items, as you can tell if you pay close attention to the list above. Cigarette cases, make-up cases, mirrors, vases and jewellery had a vastly different shape in Japan and cufflinks largely didn’t exist, because there was nowhere to fasten them on traditional clothing.

In this way, the Meiji period meant both lost and new-found opportunities for smiths, as this kind of international trade only became possible once Japan opened its borders. The Komai family then participated in several international expositions and gained renown and recognition for their craft.

The process of creating metal inlay:

  1. Double-hatch lines are cut into a steel ground.
  2. The design to be created is drawn on paper and is then transferred onto the steel ground with the help of a fine pin.
  3. Gold or silver wires are hammered into the surface of the steel ground and the entire piece is baked on a fire around 30 times. Afterwards, the lacquer is rubbed and polished off with a steel stick. Another finish can be created via oxidisation: The steel ground is oxidised with a chemical instead of lacquered over.
  4. Sometimes, the lines created by the wires are engraved to give the design the desired look.

Inro: a functional art

Contact us to find out about our current selection of inro.

Inro are small containers that could be roughly described as the handbags or pouches of ancient Japan. They had both practical and esthetical value. Though they usually were square, round or polygonal in shape, a variety of special animal shapes also exist. Over time, these containers came to be extremely luxurious and extravagantly decorated gadgets.

Consisting of a few compartments, the containers are joined by a silk string running through hollowed out channels on both sides of the object. As Japanese clothes (kimono) did not have pockets, inro became a substitute for the latter.

Kimono are fastened with a sash that sits at waist level, which was where an inro would be hung from. The inro was suspended at the bottom of the sash, a netsuke securing it in place, while an ojime bead at the top of the inro protected the container from opening accidentally. Initially worn by men, they filtered into female fashion over time.

Inro were perfect for insulating items such as medicine against Japan’s particularly humid and hot climate, because they were largely made of wood and leather coated with lacquer, which is a material that is known for its preservative qualities. Occasionally, ivory, paper, cloth or ceramics were used as additional materials to make these cases.

Lavishly decorated with various types of lacquer work and sometimes supplemented with inlays of ivory, mother of pearl and coral, an inro could be a very personal item. Even today, it has the potential to reveal a lot about the person that it belonged to. While the first motifs that were used for the decoration of inro reference ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), the number of inspirations and designs grew countless, only limited by the owner’s circumstances and the artist’s imagination.

Woodblock printing – an overview

Many of the visitors who come to the Japanese Gallery Kensington are surprised to hear that all of our stock consists of original artwork and that the bulk of it is antique. Considering that we mostly carry works on paper, this is not surprising.

Due to the materials that are used to produce woodblock prints, they are much more durable and longer-lasting than artwork that is printed on Western paper. The materials used in the production also contribute to the uniqueness of these already hand-printed items.

Here is a summary of the materials that were used by master printers in the past and that continue to be used by contemporary woodblock print artists today with minor variations due to advancing time:

  • Japanese washi paper (mulberry tree paper)
  • A separate carved cherry woodblock for each colour to be printed
  • A barren. A round disc with a handle that is used to press the paper to the woodblock to facilitate the colour transfer
  • Nori (rice glue)
  • Powdered pigment
  • Water

The paper needs to be damp in order for the printing to happen correctly and the pigment needs to be mixed with nori glue and water. The resulting liquid colour is spread on the block of wood, onto which the damp paper is then pressed.

Next, the barren needs to be moved across the paper in circular motion with regular pressure. This takes a surprising amount of strength to carry out properly. Once the printing is done, the paper can carefully be detached from the block of wood and the process can be repeated with the next carved woodblock and corresponding colour. This goes on until the print is completed and can be left to dry.

Art as literature, literature as art

Balance and beauty

Particularly in the West, we are always interested in the dichotomy of Japanese culture, how it can aspire perfection and celebrate imperfections all at once. This same attitude can be perceived in calligraphy. While it resembles regular writing in that you draw a character top to bottom and left to right, taking care to make certain parts larger than others, another part of Japanese calligraphy is to even out the gaps between strokes, angle each part of a character in relation to another and write powerfully or softly, sometimes carefully or messily, according to the word you are depicting or maybe to suit the special paper you are using. The goal is to combine method, personal judgement and inspiration to create something beautiful. Writing becomes art in a way that is different from Western calligraphy.

Nowadays, brush calligraphy is something special even in Japan. There have always been all levels of practitioners of this discipline, but before pens, word processors and printers existed, everything was written using a brush and ink: Epic novels, names on wooden boards hung on houses, letters, price tags, notes and anything else you can think of.

A quick note about written Japanese

There are 3 alphabets available.

1. Katakana is arguably the simplest one and
consists of 48 characters. It is reserved for foreign words and onomatopoeia.

2. Hiragana has the same number of characters as Katakana and is purely
phonetic. The symbols have no meaning of their own. This alphabet is most
widely used and is usually the first to be studied by foreign students.

3. Kanji. This last alphabet consists of roughly 50,000 symbols and was adapted from China a long time ago. A lot of these symbols still resemble the original Chinese characters, but both the pronunciation and attached meaning have changed, the latter less so than the former. Not only are there numerous ways to pronounce any one character, each one also has a variety of meaning.

In calligraphy class, there are rules as to how to lay down the strokes for each of these alphabets, but what I was really interested in was trying my hand at Kanji. Each character can consist of anything between 1 stroke and over 20 strokes and each form is governed by rules of balance, as well as the way you hold your brush.


Lastly, we would like to briefly introduce the tools that are necessary to practice Japanese calligraphy:

  1. A mat made of felt to place atop your table to protect the surface and absorb surplus ink.
  2. A long rectangular weight to place at the top edge of your paper to hold it in place.
  3. Japanese paper. Also called washi paper (和紙) ‘wa’ is often used to indicate that something is traditionally Japanese, whereas ‘shi’ means paper, though you would call the latter ‘kami’ in conversation.
  4. A calligraphy brush. They have a particular pointed shape.
  5. Traditionally ink would come in a compressed dry block that would need to be rubbed in water in a circular motion to produce liquid ink. The contemporary version comes pre-prepared in a plastic container.
  6. An ink stone. It can hold a small amount of ink and is used to control how much ink the brush absorbs.
  7. A case (suzuribako) for all of these tools, minus the paper, which is kept separately.

The calligraphy cases (suzuribako) our gallery carries are all beautifully decorated antique lacquer boxes.