From the early seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries, during Japan’s Edo Period, Japanese tattoos were most often seen on Japanese prostitutes, who used them to entice customers; Japanese firemen were known for their remarkable horimono, or full body tattoos which were quite unlike any other tattoos in the world. The firefighters regarded their tattoos as signs of brotherhood and masculinity.
The other class of Japanese regularly tattooed during this period were criminals who for one hundred and fifty years were marked either with a tattooed ring, or tattooed character on the forehead, on the arm for each crime They may have resented being permanently marked, but prior to the introduction of tattooing, the usually means of identifying criminals was to amputate their noses or ears.
Japanese tattoos regained their popularity when a woodblock printed Chinese novel, “Suikoden,” illustrated with warriors bearing horimono of tigers, dragons, and flowers. The book was wildly successful with Japan’s lower classes, who began demanding similar tattoos.
But the only tattoo artists available were the woodblock printers themselves. Because the printers had no tools except the gouges and chisels with which they created their woodblocks, they used them and their special black ink which will change its color to a bluish green when it reacts with human skin.
All authentic Japanese tattoos are still applied by hand with “tebori”, groups of handmade needles attached to wooden or metal handles; it takes a great deal of practice to master the art of tattooing by hand. Having a “suit” of Japanese tattoos applied with tebori, as everyone who was tattooed in the mid-1800s did, was a time-intensive experience; an entire tattoo could take up to five years of weekly sessions to finish. As tebori are more likely to cause bruising than the tattoo machines widely used today, they were in many cases very painful years.
Japanese tattoos are rich in symbolism; one of the most popular is the koi fish, or carp, which can outlive many humans and represent endurance and wisdom. Dragons bring luck, and are often depicted with clouds or rivers and lakes, so necessary for the rice crops which have sustained the Japanese for thousands of years. Snakes add a negatic4e element to Japanese tattoos, and are included only when the artist can add peonies, cherry blossoms, or other flowers which bloom at the same time that snakes become active after the winter.
You may have to travel far and wide to find a tebori master to apply your Japanese tattoos, but you can find tattoos of traditional Japanese subjects at every tattoo parlor!