Irezumi - Scarred Beauty

by Nabanita Dutt, May 2, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Geri Halliwell has a small star tattooed on her back. Manchester United hero David Beckham has his son's name, Brooklyn, inscribed just above his derriere and actress Angelina Jolie carries a curious phrase -- "What nourishes me also destroys me" -- on her bikini line.

Until a few years ago, tattoos were considered shady business in the western world, and tattoo artists, like quack abortionists, worked quietly out of anonymous little joints. The guys who got them done were also deemed to be somewhat anti-social - truck-drivers, rock stars, druggies, hippies and the like.

The tattoo scene in the year 2001 is something totally different. Body art has become a fashionable means by which youth, the world over, are rebelling against social mores and seizing control of their bodies. They are decorating the navel, enhancing the biceps and encircling the neck.

The idea that permanent designs could be scarred on to the skin had occurred to many civilizations in different stages of their development. Notable among them is Japan, with its rich heritage of body art, known as irezumi.

Irezumi is not just art in ancient Japan - it is a way of life. The hothouse atmosphere of the country, sealed from foreign influences for many centuries, allowed irezumi to develop in a unique way that seems at once bizarre and fascinating to the outside world.

Embarking upon irezumi is a serious business and requires a great deal of planning. The work is executed by trained experts known as horishi. Within Japan today, there are perhaps a hundred recognized practitioners of the art. Horishi is often referred to as Sensei (Master), and indeed, he is master of all the ceremony attending the procedure.

You can't just walk into a horishi's parlour and ask to get yourself tattooed. You have to come through proper channels and seek a `first appointment', during which the master will study you and consider whether you deserve to get irezumi or not.

After you have passed the initial examination and the horishi has consented to embellish you with his art, matters will proceed very formally, with much bowing and scraping on the part of the client. The recipient's opinion on the choice of design is taken into consideration, but the ultimate selection lie in the hands of the horishi, who will decide on one from a collection of books, all hand-drawn by the horishi from traditional sources.

A number of sessions follow, depending on the intricacy of the design and how much area has to be covered. Completing an irezumi can take several years, during which the client goes back every week or whenever he has enough money to get a little more of the design done.

Over the years, a relationship gradually develops between the horishi and the client, and the latter often comes back to visit and to present their horishi with gifts on special occasions long after their irezumi is finished. It is notable that once the job is completed, there is less of a belief that the client owns the tattoo and more of a presumption that the client has become a piece of the horishi's artwork. Probably because of this, horishis are careful about who they choose to tattoo.

The earliest record of tattooing in Japan goes back to 500 BC, but the procedure in those days was hardly art. In a country where social ostracism was the worst form of punishment, tattoos were used to mark criminals. People found guilty of their third offence in some parts of northern Kyushu, for example, had the word inu ('dog') emblazoned on their foreheads. In southern Kyushu, criminals were tattooed on their left shoulder, in Kyoto, a double bar was scarred into the upper arm and in Nara, a double line encircled the biceps.

It was in the Edo period (1600-1868) that tattooing flourished, along with geisha, puppet theatre, kabuki, pleasure quarters and bathhouses. Criminal tattooing moved to a higher plane and began to take on an artistic overtone during this era. It was no longer associated with crime, and branded criminals were free to camouflage their marks with elaborate artwork surrounding them. The tattoo artists worked on prostitutes, actors, labourers and people from the lower working classes. Prostitutes in the pleasure quarters, and even some geisha, would have themselves tattooed to attract customers or to ingratiate themselves with their highest-paying customers by having their names tattooed on their inner arm. It was fashionable is some areas to have `promise' engravings - erotic or evocative phrases - tattooed into hidden parts of the body, which would be visible only when naked or in the act of lovemaking.

The unadorned body was not considered aesthetically appealing, and customers who came to tattoo artists were mostly people from the `naked' trades - coolies, porters, gardeners, rickshaw-pullers and like - the nature of whose jobs forced them to strip down to near nudity. Palanquin bearers with tattooed backs were far more likely to pick up fares than the ordinary ones. Other members of the hinin (non-people) classes, such as executioners, grave-diggers, slaughterers and tanners also took to tattooing with enthusiasm, in a defiant show of outcaste camaraderie.

The vogue for tattoos came to an abrupt halt in the 1850s, when the country opened up, for the time in its history, to the western world. Under foreign scrutiny, Japan became acutely sensitive to the opinions of the European visitors, and wanted to brush under the carpet, any activity they might consider primitive or barbaric. The practice of tattooing had the potential of embarrassing the nation, and police officials began raiding tattoo studios, destroying equipment and scaring away customers.

Foreign reaction, however, was quite contrary to what the administration had anticipated. They sought out colourfully-tattooed individuals to pull their rickshaws and do other menial jobs for them, and embassy people even went to tattoo studios to get their own tattoos to take back as souvenirs from the Orient. The ban was lifted, artists were allowed to re-start their studios and tattooing continued to exist quietly as an underground activity.

Irezumi's association with the fringe society continued nonetheless, and mainstream social attitude towards the art has not improved even to this day. Damaging to the art of irezumi has been its association with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

The yakuza is constituted of some 2,000 criminal organizations with an estimated membership of over a hundred thousand people - roughly 70 per cent of whom adorn themselves with irezumi. Yakuza usually opt for a `body suit', where the entire body is robed in a complicated tattoo. The procedure is long and expensive and the pain suffered after completion is excruciating, despite the lacing of some modern inks with cocaine.

The first session, like a driving licence, is looked upon by the mafia as a badge of maturity, and proves an individual is brave enough to enter the criminal world. Most mafia groups have their trademark designs, which work like a member's identity card. (The Japanese police have often used irezumi as a means of identifying corpses of mafia killed in an encounter.) The markings also symbolize the irreversibility of an individual's decision to enter the violent world of yakuza.

The body art also brings with it some fringe benefits. Special treatment for yakuza members are assured in beer pubs and hostess bars, once the staff have spied the irezumi peeking out from under T- shirts and hapi coats. Prison wardens go easy on corporal punishment for fear that severe beatings will damage the irezumi on the body of the yakuza prisoner.

While an exhibition of body art can guarantee privileged treatment for these criminals, life can be very difficult in Japan for tattooed people with no links to the mafia. Individuals with readily visible tattoos, according to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, may have difficulty in renting an apartment or even finding a job. Many of Japan's bathhouses, swimming pools and onsens (hot spring resorts) ban people with tattoos, out of fear that they will cause trouble.

While westerners look to Japanese irezumi as the pinnacle of the tattoo art, it is still something to be ashamed of in the island country.

Tattoos are currently all the rage in Europe and America, and the trend has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese youth - who like to be more American than the Americans. The recent surge of interest in body art that has resulted, however, has not gone the irezumi way. Instead of the hand-pricked, large, flowing traditional designs, Japanese teenagers are sporting Disney characters, skulls, crossbones and bleeding hearts. Known as wan-pointo, these are small, single-sitting applications, and today there are over a hundred one-point parlours in Tokyo alone.

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