Irezumi: Traditional Japanese Tattoo Art – The Suit of the Nine

irezumi tattoo

Irezumi is a world-famous term for traditional Japanese tattooing. Age old styles and designs, along with certain modern forms draw inspiration from the ancient art of tattooing in Japan.

Traditional Irezumi is a decoration of the body with spiritual and symbolic meaning. Mythical animals and beasts. Dragons, faces, beautiful flowers. Delicate leafs, as well as other imagery derived from traditional myths and tales. These are the main palettes of this ancient Japanese art form.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo

In old times tattoos used various marks and symbols, rather than imagery. This is especially true when we look back to the Edo period in Japan (1600–1868).

This was a very special period for tattoo art in Japan. “Decorative” tattooing began to develop into the advanced fine art form we know as today all.

An interesting fact is that in Japan woodblock artists were among the first to start tattooing over the skin. They used many of the same tools and methods for tattooing. This included chisels and gouges. Most importantly, these old masters used a unique substance, known as Nara ink (or Nara black).

Irezumi Tattoo
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This special ink turns blue-green when placed under the skin. This specific discolouration is known and desired as “the true look” of an authentic Japanese tattoo.

The suit of the Nine Dragons

There is a certain academic debate in Japan over who wore these elaborate designs in ancient times. Some say that it was the lower class who got tattoos. Others scholars claim that the wealthy people had the privilege of getting these complex artistic images under their skin.

Irezumi is a form of spiritual aid and protection. The Japanese tattoo tradition also refers to as the “Suit of Nine Dragons”. Its’ goal is to “give power over wind and water” to the person who wears the ink.

Irezumi in modern Japan

At the beginning of the Meiji period (1869), the Japanese government and officials took a crucial step toward tattooing. The authorities wanted to make a good impression on the West and thus outlawed the age-old tradition of tattoos. This is the time that Irezumi took on connotations of criminality.

Nevertheless, these measures had quite the opposite effect on foreigners. Fascinated westerners went to Japan seeking the skills of traditional tattoo artists. Authentic tattooing continued its’ life, but it went underground. Somewhere in Meiji ink was considered a sign of the criminal circles and the Mafia.

This, however, didn’t make tattooing much less desirable, especially for Western body art admirers.

Tattooing was again legalized by the occupation forces in 1945. It retained its’ image of criminality years after that as it was associated with Japan’s notorious Mafia – the Yakuza. Many businesses in Japan still ban customers with tattoos even today. There is a strict policy against tattoos in public baths, fitness centers, swimming pools and hot springs in many places in Japan.

Yakuza tattoo
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Masters of skin art

Tattooing and skin decorating in Japan date back to approximately 10 000 BC (the Paleolithic period or Jōmon). The highly recognizable cord-marked patterns that are observed in some figures dated to that period represent tattoos, some scholars suggest. There are striking similarities between these markings and the tattoo traditions in other cultures.

Traditional Japanese tattooing is an art form by itself. It is still done today by highly specialized tattooists, in a very conservative manner. Irezumi is an all-manual way of tattooing. It is expensive, very painful and time-consuming procedure. The typical traditional Irezumi bodysuit can take from 1 to 5 years to complete. It takes a weekly visit to finalize the project.

This dedication is a crucial part of the philosophy of this ancient art form. It shows that the person who wants to get a full body traditional tattoo done the old way is very serious about it. In the end, such dedication earns a mutual respect between the wearer and the artist.

Becoming a traditional tattoo artist

Japanese traditional tattoo artists are trained for many years under strict rules and a guiding master.

The apprentice often lives in the master’s house. Future tattoo artists and may spend years doing simple, sometimes unrelated tasks. Apprentices clean the studio, observe, prepare the needles and tools, mix inks. They are painstakingly copying traditional designs from old books and often practicing on their own flesh.

Pupils must master all the intricate skills and before they are allowed to tattoo clients. When a pupil is considered ready to tattoo over clients, he must be ready to execute all unique styles of shading and fine techniques of tattooing by hand. After that, the apprentice is given a tattoo name by their master.

These traditional names often incorporate the word “hori” (which means “to engrave”) as well as a syllable derived from the master’s own name. Sometimes the pupil will take the master’s name, and become the 2nd of the 3rd (and so on).

Getting a traditional Irezumi tattoo

Going through the process of getting a traditional Japanese tattoo is highly individual. Most of the respected Irezumi masters in Japan will suggest a couple of face-to-face meetings before they agree to do the work. There is none of the usual “email/call to book an appointment” procedure that we know so well in the Western world.

After the initial contact usually the client and the tattooist hold a consultation. This is the time and place to discuss and agree on the designs. The true work begins with tattooing of the outline. It usually takes one sitting.

Most traditional masters will work freehand and would rarely use a stencil. The following shading and colouring take place in weekly visits or when the client has money to spare.

When the Irezumi tattoo is ready, the master artist signs his name, much like under a canvas painting. Usually, the artist leaves a blank space left somewhere on the back of the client for that sole purpose.

A well-kept secret

Most often than not wearers of Irezumi tattoos keep their tattoo art a secret. This is especially true if they live in Japan. Tattoos are still a sign of criminality in Japan today.

This is especially valid with the older generation and in the workplace. An interesting contemporary fact is that many true Yakuza and generally people involved in crime will now avoid getting any tattoos for this very reason.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo
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Japanese Tattoo for women
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Japanese sleeve Tattoo
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