Tattoos are complicated cultural symbols, simultaneously representing both belonging and non-conformity. 
In Japan, tattoos have had a remarkably unique Journey, starting with the Edo period. Shaped by a long era of symbolizing shame and punishment these Japanese tattoo forms made it through history and are particularly popular now for their diverse colors. So let’s get into the history of this art form a little bit .
Back in the Edo period, when Edo, now Japan, had cut all ties with the world outside of its border, tattoos were used to mark criminals. Murderers had head tattoos and rapists or pedophiles had penal tattoos . Known as Irezumi Kei – the tattoo penalty, tattoos were a common form of punishment back then .
So you can probably imagine how stigmatized tattoos were in Edo. Criminals would often try to hide these rather absurd-looking tattoos with more meaningful ones, but it was still known that if you had a tattoo, you were indeed a criminal at some point. To put it more clearly, tattoos were looked down upon and considered a taboo of Edo .
So what changed? And how did tattoos become a symbol of beauty and personality in Japan?
Well, we have ukiyo-e, the pictures of the floating world to thank for it! Back in the 17th century, when the Irezumi Kei was a public showcase, a Japanese woodblock artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi published his series Suikoden, depicting the stories of bandits from a Chinese war, who fought against the injustice of their corrupt leader . And the heroism wasn’t even the most interesting part. What stood out, more than anything else, was that Kuniyoshi depicted these bandits as very honorable men, and yet they had tattoos all over their bodies . And that’s when the Japanese view about tattoos began to turn around, and a notion that even good people can have tattoos was born. Since people were fans of these heroes, they wanted the same tattoos on their bodies or even tattoos of the ukiyo-e that featured these heroes. And from here and onwards, ukiyo-e became the inspiration for Irezumi – the tattoo art form of Japan was born . And in a short period of time, this art form truly exploded, going hand in hand with how the Japanese woodblock prints progressed over centuries.
And it didn’t really stop with Kuniyoshi. Artists like Yoshitoshi and Toyokuni III also passionately began incorporating tattoos on the bodies of the characters that they featured in their prints .
The Irezumi tattoo form of Japan is pretty much ukiyo-e, except, these pictures are on people’s bodies and not on paper . Full of mythical creatures of Japan, flora, and fauna, and even war heroes, these tattoos could potentially be called a tribute to Japanese woodblock art. The intricacy and detail-orientedness of these prints are just as though you’re seeing Japanese woodblock art being made, except on skin instead of paper .
As a matter of fact, people have now accepted this art form so whole-heartedly that they tend to get these prints on their entire bodies, or specific parts of their bodies where the Irezumi colors really show!
Feeling inspired by the colors and the vibrancy of these prints? Go pick out your favorite Japanese woodblock print and show it to a Japanese Irezumi artist. They’ll probably bring their contemporary approach to the print and make it look even more magnificent for you!
 Admin-Austin. “Ukiyo-e & Kabuki: Origins of the Irezumi Japanese Tattoo Style.” Cloak and Dagger Tattoo London, 20 Oct. 2022, https://www.cloakanddaggerlondon.co.uk/ukiyo-e-kabuki-origins-of-the-irezumi-japanese-tattoo/.
 “Tracing the History of Tattoos in Japanese UKIYOE.” Spoon & Tamago, 17 Feb. 2015, https://www.spoon-tamago.com/2015/02/17/tracing-the-history-of-tattoos-in-japanese-ukiyoe/.
 “Taboo: Ukiyo-e & the Japanese Tattoo Tradition.” Juxtapoz Magazine, https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/taboo-ukiyo-e-the-japanese-tattoo-tradition%20/.