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

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

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