Taboo: Ukiyo-e & the Japanese Tattoo Tradition

Mar 05, 2015 - Apr 30, 2015Ronin Gallery, New York City

In an upcoming exhibition this March, Ronin Gallery in New York will be exploring the history of Tattoo in Japanese Ukiyo-e.

"Tattoos are complicated cultural symbols, simultaneously representing both belonging and non-conformity. Appearing in countless cultures across the globe, the tattoo is an indelible form of human expression. While a tattoo may signal membership to a group or subculture, it may also define its owner as outside mainstream society. In Japan, the art of tattooing, or irezumi, burgeoned during the Edo period. As the world of ukiyo-e flourished, irezumi and printmaking became deeply referential, sharing themes and styles on paper and skin. This rich tradition continues today, engaging photography and mixed media into the age-old artistic dialogue.

As one of the oldest forms of body modification, ritual scarification and tattoos have been found on mummies dated to the 2nd millennium BCE. In Japan, irezumi (the insertion of ink into the skin) existed as long ago as Neolithic times. Over the centuries, the practice has assumed multiple forms and carried with it a myriad of meanings. The traditional Japanese tattoo and its associated aesthetics are now hugely popular, and masters of the traditional tebori (hand tattooing) technique command immense respect worldwide.

The intricate full-body designs of leaping koi fish, coiling dragons, roaring tigers and the gods of heaven and hell are all products of the long and varied history of the art. Prior to 1700, irezumi was primarily used as a permanent punitive mark on the body of a criminal. By the middle of the Edo period, it had adopted multiple connotations: it could now act as a sign of romantic love or symbolize one’s affiliation with Edo’s emerging urban classes.

The art of irezumi, woodblock printing and kabuki intertwined in Edo’s exciting, chaotic “Floating World.” With common themes and aesthetics, these three arts formed a creative cycle. For example, a tattoo could act as an important narrative device in a popular kabuki play and inspire woodblock prints. In turn, these prints could become the visual inspiration for new tattoo designs, which could then inspire costumes for new kabuki plays. Additionally, irezumi artists were often initially trained as ukiyo-e woodblock carvers. Horimono, an alternative term for tattoo, is derived from the verb horu, or to carve, gouge or engrave. This etymology suggests that perhaps the skin and the cherry woodblock were considered parallel surfaces. 

Ronin Gallery’s exhibition Taboo: Ukiyo-e & The Japanese Tattoo Tradition celebrates the enduring conversation between ukiyo-e and irezumi. The works of print masters Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi, and Kunichika explore the world of tattoo during the Edo and Meiji periods, while the original paintings and drawings of the acclaimed master of tebori and tattoo art, Horiyoshi III, offer a current interpretation of this centuries-old tradition. The contemporary art photography of Masato Sudo continues the conversation while the mixed-media work of artist Daniel Kelly speaks to the universally inspirational power of the Japanese tattoo. Today, tattoos are less a taboo performance of otherness and increasingly an appreciated form of artistic expression. As the Japanese art of irezumi persists, adopting new forms in today’s culture, this exhibition considers the marriage of tradition and innovation through both the lens of ukiyo-e and contemporary art."

via spoon & tomago and ronin gallery