“Inserting Ink”: the Hidden Ties Between Japanese Woodblock Prints and Traditional Tattoos


Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833-1904) triptych of tattooed firemen, available in Fine Asian Art, April 26, 2019.

Irezumi, the art of Japanese tattoo, translating literally to “inserting ink,” is an ephemera that has lasted hundreds, if not thousands, of years in Japan’s cultural history. No definitive reason has been discovered for the very first tattoos of prehistoric Japanese peoples; the scholarly pendulum swings between forms of spiritual protective symbols to markers of criminality. Even during the Edo period (1603-1868) it is not completely clear as to what members of society would undergo the long, detailed, and often painful process of traditional Japanese tattooing. However, one thing is very clear about irezumi during the Edo period, and that is its inseparability from the art and manufacturing of Japanese woodblock prints. Both woodblock print artists and tattoo artists took on the title hori, meaning ‘to carve’. Many of the same tools and ink used in printmaking workshops, specifically nara ink known for turning blue-green on skin, were utilized in tattoo shops.

Man with irezumi, c. 1890. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

It was not until the Meiji period (1868-1912) that tattoos were outlawed in Japan and associations of tattoos turned seriously to criminality and the Yakuza. Preceding this, Edo period laborers and firemen have been the most identified customers of irezumi shops, decorating themselves in intricate tattoos as a form of spiritual protection. Firemen themselves were seen as roguish, handsome characters of society and thus incorporated into prints as dashing heroes, richly dressed in irezumi. Regardless of who the customers were, most levels of society during the Edo period were consuming irezumi art one way or another. The relationship between irezumi and woodblock prints is circular. Many popular tattoo designs first appeared in the woodblock print novel Suikoden, the designs from which were adapted for actors in Kabuki theater. Scenes from theater were reused in woodblock printmaking, and the tattoos were then further developed and copied onto human skin.

The irezumi designs came from many sources, not unlike the woodblock prints that catapulted them into popularity. Designs and imagery themselves varied widely and were never an isolated element in the tattoo itself. Many full body tattoos incorporated multiple themes and motifs, brought together by a color palette dominated by blues, reds, and blacks. Mythical beasts such as dragons and foo dogs were fashionable, but more common animals like birds, koi fish, tigers, and snakes were favored too. Flora was as important as fauna in irezumi. Specific species of flowers were singled out including peonies, cherry blossoms, lotuses, and chrysanthemums, for their different spiritual properties and symbolic meanings. Figural images were not unusual either; characters from the woodblock print novel Suikoden, samurai, geisha, and Shinto spirit masks also made appearances. Tattoo scenes were then often detailed with clouds, waves, and wind bars.

The middle of the 19th century facilitated much change and evolution in attitude toward irezumi as it was adapted by Westerners and became more of a tourist industry. Although contemporary tattoo methods are now practiced in Japan it is still possible to find a true irezumi shop. You can still be tattooed with traditional woodblock chisels and nara ink, and at the end feel like an Edo period fireman emerging from a woodblock print.

Please contact Revere Auctions if you have a Japanese woodblock print you are interested in selling or getting appraised.