japanese tattoos
November 30, 2002 5:44 AM   Subscribe

When I was nine, I saw a woman in a traditional Japanese bath house, covered with a full-body tattoo.[more]
posted by hama7 (29 comments total)
"Tattooing was copied from the Chinese system in the early 10th century, but soon fell out of favour when the Chinese revised their criminal justice system later. Tattooing as a form of marking criminals in Japan was revived under the Tokugawa Shogun in the 17th century, as a replacement punishment for severing the ears or nose (hana-sogi mimi-sogi) and also to help stamp authority on the growing population of Edo."

Which might explain the stigma attached to tattoos in East Asia even today.

More at: links, , keibunsha, about.com, and at vanishingtattoo
posted by hama7 at 5:46 AM on November 30, 2002

Tattooing as a form of marking criminals in Japan...

Which makes the de rigueur trendy fashion-tats them young folks is a-sportin' these days all the (unintentionally) funnier. Not that I have anything against decorating yourself any way you damn well please, of course. I just find it amusing.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:54 AM on November 30, 2002

Ever notice lots of old guys with tats on their forearms that they got overseas as young men in the service -- how they tend to bleed and fade until it's kind of hard to see what the original design was? Is it normal for a tat to do that over time? If so, that lady's going to be mighty disappointed when she's much older.
posted by alumshubby at 5:55 AM on November 30, 2002

Incidentally, the "when I was nine" quote came from here.
posted by hama7 at 6:03 AM on November 30, 2002

My back.
posted by adampsyche at 6:10 AM on November 30, 2002

The first time I went to a hot spring in Japan, There was a guy with a big scary dragon tattoo going over his shoulder, which I was told meant he was yakuza. Some baths don't allow people with tattoos, which is just a convenient way of excluding mafia types.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:44 AM on November 30, 2002

About a year ago a friend of mine got a tattoo covering one of his arms, his full back, and one of his legs. Although he designed it himself, it is still a dragon. I don't think he realised quite how similar to the Yakusa clan dragon he had made it (almost exactly the same). Oh, but we laughed!

Fortunately he is Thai rather than Japanese, and utterly inoffensive, so he can get away with it...
posted by bluejoh at 6:44 AM on November 30, 2002

Basically what happens with a tattoo is that dye is injected into subdermal cells, giving them the distinctive coloration we're all familiar with. Over a lifetime, of course, these cells divide and divide again, and into each of their daughter cells goes a portion of the original pigmentation.

Thus the bleed and blur; I've got a very precise Tibetan knot on my right forearm circa 1990 that has blurred only a very minor amount in the intervening twelve years. I fully expect that it will be a dark smear by my ninety-fifth birthday, but that's part of the adventure, life being a one-way street and all.

Outright fading is probably UV.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:51 AM on November 30, 2002

But one can always get his tattoos redone. Which is a real hassle if you have many or big tattoos, of course. The best way to avoid this specific problem is to include the principle of natural fading into the original idea of motiv and colour of the tattoo. Some tattoos can get some kind of dignity or other very interesting aspects together with their fading over the years, if their fading was a foreseen element in the creation of the original draft.
posted by zerofoks at 7:19 AM on November 30, 2002


Yeah, I agree. A sword on the hip at 23, a butter knife on the hip at 90. Just tell the folks at the old folks home it was your shank of choice in 'da Max.

I have a friend who was in the marines, and has an eagle on her hip. (Wings spread, ready to fly, you know...) Unfortunately, she gained around 45 pounds after getting out of the marines.... so now, it looks as if the eagle is holding up a big fat roll with it's wing tips. Kind of cool, if you ask me. There's a desperation in that eagle's eyes...kind of as if the bird sees the inescapable death by suffocation that awaits.....
posted by bradth27 at 7:46 AM on November 30, 2002

There's an interesting Japanese noir mystery, set in post-WWII Japan, revolving around the tattoo subculture: Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case. It features a fair amount of discussion about the tattooing profcess (especially Japanese vs. Western methods), tattoo fetishes, tattoo museums, tattoos and gender roles, etc., etc.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:54 AM on November 30, 2002

A Chinese friend has told me, another point of the stigma of tattooing for women in ancient China was that the only way it was bearable was to have sex while having the tattoo. She says there is a movie about this as well, one which I can't find at the moment.
posted by the fire you left me at 9:42 AM on November 30, 2002

Have people seen The Pillow Book? It's a pretty weird film (all Greenaway films are) but it features a lot of writing on the skin, turning people int objects (letters). Maybe there was a similar cultural relevance to that. Or maybe Greenaway was trying to be weird...
posted by CommaTheWaterseller at 9:48 AM on November 30, 2002

I don't know if it's a big trend in the rest of the country but a number of guys in Seattle who happen to be white are getting tattoos with the characters for things like Truth, Wisdom and Courage and all that.

My friend always jokes about getting a tattoo that said in Japanese, "stupid white boy."
posted by Slimemonster at 10:51 AM on November 30, 2002

Slime, I see the same thing on the far side of the country, here in Boston. I can probably think of more women with ideograms than guys, though.
posted by whatzit at 11:07 AM on November 30, 2002

Like real estae, tattoos are all about location.

I always wonder why girls line up to tattoo around their navels, knowing what can happen to that part of the boddy after giving birth.

Flipper the dolphin becomes a Sigmund the stretch-marked sea monster.
posted by Fupped Duck at 11:18 AM on November 30, 2002

some of those were really amazing... i always liked the kabuki noh tattoo myself
posted by lotsofno at 11:53 AM on November 30, 2002

When I got my tattoo (after making the design and keeping it around for a few years to be sure I still liked it) I took into account fading, stretching, and discretion. The design is a simple abstract line drawing, with only black ink, so it will fade less dramatically than color and the blurring with work with the lines. I chose to put it between my shoulder bladesd, where there will be less potential for stretching, but is also easy to cover with a short collar anywhere that a tattoo would be considered in appropriate (while still allowing it to be displayed w/o getting naked).

I've been fascinated by Japanese tattoo ever since seeing Sandi Fellman's book on the subject in a college photo class (I had her professor).
posted by kayjay at 1:30 PM on November 30, 2002

Ok, so the men do it in Japan because they are Yakuza.

So why do the Japanese women do it? Just to be cool and pretty?
posted by nyxxxx at 1:36 PM on November 30, 2002


For your friend, the tattoo would say "baka shirio no otoko no ko", or stupid white boy. :-)

My Japanese isn't as good as a native speaker, but I'm pretty sure that's the correct translation.
posted by SweetJesus at 2:01 PM on November 30, 2002

I'm haunted by the specter of my father's 75-year-old patient who had "Missile Tits" tattooed across her chest.
posted by hippugeek at 6:01 PM on November 30, 2002

I think I'm in love.
posted by homunculus at 6:32 PM on November 30, 2002

I've been thinking more about this tattooing-as-criminal-marker thing, and would like to propose that corporate scumbags like the Enronistas and such are punished (in addition to imprisonment or castration or whatever else the criminal injustice system can come up with) by tattooing a big freaking logo of their company on their foreheads.

Give it some time - it might even become a fashion trend. Oh, sorry, too late.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:37 PM on November 30, 2002

I suppose I should slip my foot into these murky waters...

As a tattoed American woman who has lived in Japan for many years, my personal experiences (re: tattoos) have run the gamut from outright sabetsu (discrimination) to total acceptance. Yes, there are a great many bath houses that prohibit my entrance, and yes, there are times when I have overheard comments questioning my health ("most people with tattoos have AIDS" said one old woman to another...rolled right off my back like so many other ignorance and fear based comments I have heard.)

And yet, my favorite bath houses have no problem whatsoever with my presence. There is currently a resurgence in tattoo culture in Japan and while some of it is impersonal flash art (like everywhere in the world) some young Japanese are going back to the traditional mythology based imagery that was typically found on the backs of firemen during the Edo period.

No, tattoos have not *only* been associated with the Yakuza in Japan.

As for a "Yakuza Dragon"...the dragon motif exists, but is not a trademark in any way. The koi fish (which was known as the "water dragon") is much more common and was the tattoo of choice for the aforementioned firemen as it was considered their protector.

Through a strange twist of fate, I have been present during the tattooing of several members of local yakuza. All the designs were mythology based, most of them incorporated chrysanthemums and waves...not one of them was a dragon. I was also present one night when a chinpira (low level hood) was put on the spot after inquiring about a dragon tattoo...the artist was demanding to know *which* dragon, and why he wanted a dragon, and what his personal relationship to the dragon was and the kid had no answer. He was already pretty nervous. The artist called his 8 year old son into the run and said "this punk wants a dragon, but he doesn't have any personal feelings about it so why don't you make him the design?" The kid offered up a very cool, manga-esque dragon that was more Godzilla than anything else. Everyone laughed (including the son, who had obviously been through this before) and the chinpira was still talking his way out of it when we left.

I don't think the issue was the choice of a dragon so much as the fact that the kid's reasons for wanting the tattoo were superficial and had no honor. This tattoo artist didn't know what to make of my tattoos when he first saw them, but appreciated the art and the fact that they all have very personal meaning to me.
posted by squasha at 8:40 PM on November 30, 2002

Best... Thread... Recently...
posted by botono9 at 9:50 PM on November 30, 2002

For your friend, the tattoo would say "baka shirio no otoko no ko", or stupid white boy.

Ha! Lots of stupid white boys get kanji tattoos with this kind of dictionary translation without having a native Chinese or Japanese speaker check them. Did you ever try to read a Japanese web page through the babelfish trasnlator? It doesn't work. Be careful, "boy" doesn't translate in japanese like "one of the boys/guys," but actually means child. He could just go with baka na hakujin, stupid white person/guy, but rather than self-effacing good humor, he'll just be announcing that he's a fuckin' idiot.

So why do the Japanese women do it? Just to be cool and pretty? I've never seen a woman in japan with the extreme stuff like those pictures, that's a subculture with "be different, reject expectations" motivations like any other. Most young women getting tattoos and piercings would correspond quite neatly with American or British ones doing the same thing: small and cute tattoos to be a little rebellious in an acceptable way. Serious runaways/delinquents often hook up with Japanese bosozoku (check google) biker gangs and sometimes get nihilistic/violent/antisocial kanji roughly tattooed on their arms.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:18 AM on December 2, 2002

"Bosozoku" as in the "fast tribes" David Mack's Scarab and cyberepunk novels rather than the Hell's Angels' Biker gangs, right?

Google had a bit of trouble with the word because of the kanjii pages.
posted by nyxxxx at 2:56 AM on December 2, 2002

"Bosozoku" as in the "fast tribes"

Well, they might not be fast, but a gang of hundreds of mini-bikes and scooters modified and without mufflers can certainly be loud.
posted by hama7 at 3:41 AM on December 2, 2002

"Fast Tribes" was a term that I think William S Gibson coined for the changing fashions and fads of Japan that he saw coming to the US. Like the Panther Moderns in Neuromancer or the Shibuya-kei or Kogals of Japan.

I get all my info about Japan second hand but it's fascinating. I Import strange things from there and resell them, like hello kitty vibrators and such.
posted by nyxxxx at 1:34 PM on December 2, 2002

« Older Art goes to Mars.   |   UK millenium engineering projects Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments