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

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

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