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

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

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