History of Tattooing – Samurai, Yakuza, and Ink
The history of tattooing is incredibly complex, and every part of the world has its own techniques and stories attached to the art. Whether you lived in ancient Britain, ancient Egypt, ancient China, or ancient Indonesia, you’d still be very familiar with tattoos. It seems that tattoos are as old as tools themselves, and the first people to discover that a needle and ink made a permanent mark on their skin were so excited by it that it spread into a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if tattoos were around before arrowheads…although such a conjecture is difficult to prove, since mummified remains from so long ago are few and far between. They didn’t have the luxury of tattoo numbing cream when they invented tattooing, that’s for sure!
Originally, this post was going to be just one long article for you to read. But, as I studied further, it became apparent that I’d need to split the story into many different parts. The history of tattoos is complicated, convoluted, and incredibly different depending on what region you’re focusing on. While many places today use detailed tattoo aftercare lotions, other places rely on mother nature to do her work in a traditional way. There’s just no way for me to fit it into one piece. So, here we go. This is the first installment of a longer series that focuses on the history of tattoos.
Out of all the different regions I could choose, I picked the one that piqued my interest the most. It deals with something most people have heard of by now: the Yakuza. Haven’t heard of them? Well, how about samurai? If both of these words aren’t ringing a bell, don’t worry. We’ll follow them through history to see how they affected the world of tattoos, and how they left a lasting memory on the world. Let’s talk about Japan.
Although our story starts in 600AD, it’s quite easy to track compared to other regions of the world. Ancient Japan had its fair share of astronomers, physicists, and historians, which makes dating events with our modern calendar quite easy, even though it was so long ago. Roughly 400 years before the first events of our story, Japan and China (which was then known as the Han dynasty) began exchanging written communications. These communications were written in kanji, a special kind of combined character that illustrates their concept. Every word has its own kanji, and each kanji can have multiple meanings and pronunciations. In example, let’s look at the kanji below:
The first kanji represents ‘sun’ and is pronounced ‘ni.’ The second is ‘origin’ and is pronounced ‘hon.’ Combined, they are pronounced Nihon, which is what the Japanese call Japan. In other words, it’s Japan’s real name—the land of the rising sun. You might recognize similar characters from many tattoos that you’ve seen. This pictorial writing is very similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics, although modern Japanese now includes two other alphabets that help with pronunciation, grammar, and foreign words (which was very important once poetry rolled around and the island started to interact with other areas).
So, back to our subject at hand—because the Japanese had adopted this writing style, we have very detailed histories of ancient times. We know that samurai were originally of humbled beginnings—1 in 3 (or 4) men were drafted into the Japanese army, and the sixth lowest rank held the title of Samurai. These samurai were more like policeman or diplomats than the sword-wielding warriors we imagine today…but we’ll get to that soon. The world of technology and lidocaine cream is still far, far in the future.
Much later in history, at the dawn of the Hei-an period (794 AD), the emperor sought to expand his rule north. Since a drafted army isn’t the best at showing enthusiasm, he appointed a Shogun—someone who led a clan in a designated area. The Shogun was responsible for his army and their movements, and they successfully drove the Ainu tribes northward into Hokkaido. Because of this success, the Shogun and his followers were granted more liberties. They were now allowed to collect regional taxes, rather than just taxes for the country. The modern American equivalent would probably be state and federal taxes. Point is, the samurai now had strength, money, and power. Still, they didn’t have as much power as the nobles who paid them to work.
As time went on, the nobles became complacent and the warriors beneath them grew to hold greater respect in the public eye. Eventually, two of the largest clans clashed, and the victor became an imperial advisor—the first warrior ever to do so in Japan. Although the emperor still ruled, Shoguns and their samurai now held the greatest respect. Samurai started to pick up the skills that only nobles had been able to do—poetry, calligraphy, and anything involving the semi-expensive paper. Nobles began to imitate the samurai as well, and respect was exchanged between the two classes.
The Samurai And Their Tattoos
Now, let’s get back into the tattoo part of this. Up until this point, tattoos were associated with criminals. It was hard for someone to escape their confines and go into hiding when they had the symbol for ‘SLAVE,’ ‘THIEF,’ or ‘MURDERER’ imprinted on their cheek. Although there was a period of time where tattoos were ceremonial and respected features, their usefulness outweighed this and they gained their negative connotation. Something changed when the samurai decided to take up tattooing.
Throughout history, the armor and weapons that samurai carried were worth a pretty penny. Samurai that were slain in battle often had their belongings stolen, either by fellow warriors or by people who scavenged the battlefields and hoped to increase their living by selling off the metal. One theory that draws a connection between samurai and their tattoos is that it was a means of identifying bodies after the armor and clothes had been stripped away.
Instead of having rings or jewelry that could be used as a toll in the afterlife, as was common in western sailors, the importance of the body took precedence. In many dominant religions of the region, the body is required for funerals. You are expected to perform certain rites a certain amount of time after the death, always in the presence of the dead body. For samurai who could be far from home, this was their way of ensuring that their family both knew of their demise and knew where their body was located.
Now, I could go into full detail of the samurai for several periods after that, but all you really need to know is that they were a respected rank among the Japanese that commanded power, wealth, and strength…until the Meiji era (roughly 1873). The samurai were forced to disband during this time, and they were no longer permitted to carry their weapons. Blacksmiths who had previously relied on samurai for their work were limited to creating a certain amount of blades, and those who owned them could only use them as decoration. They were no longer nobles—they were relegated to war veterans, and not permitted to pass on their millennia-old traditions and fighting styles.
From Samurai to Yakuza
Some of them went on to become businessmen, scholars, and poets—after all, they were the most literate class in all of Japan. Others went on to enlist in the new, modernized army—which exists to this day.
Others were dissatisfied with their fall from power, and it is there that we see another theory as to why the samurai are so closely associated with tattoos: they became Yakuza and inked themselves as a way of showing that they were true to their origins, rather than the law. At the start of the Meiji era, tattoos were outlawed as a show of civility to the west. Even today, plenty of businesses ban the showing of tattoos—including many public pools, where no one really cares about your business sense. Samurai who flaunted their older tattoos, as well as samurai who inked themselves as a show of solidarity, were now considered outlaws.
Of course, the Yakuza existed prior to this—they were known for small peddling, and were even permitted to carry smaller blades to protect themselves. When the tattoo ban and weapon ban occurred, their very livelihood was put at stake. They were granted permission to wear those weapons for a reason, after all—traveling the road alone, dragging along countless valuables, was incredibly dangerous. Now, they had no protection. It was only natural that the Yakuza would reach out to the samurai in a show of support. These two groups combined to become the Yakuza we know today. But, more on that later.
Tattoo Style Irezumi
The method used by both Yakuza and samurai are an identical technique called irezumi. The kanji that are used to spell irezumi describe the permanence and usual color (blue/green) of the tattoos, along with the process of inserting ink. Quite a lot to get into two symbols, don’t you think? Irezumi is a painful technique that uses no machines and simply inserts the ink the traditional way—with needle and hand. The process can be quite painful, but the result is always stunning. Although it’s common to present your own design to a tattoo artist, or even pick from a selection, it’s not so with irezumi artists. They usually make up their own design, and you stick with what they give you. Among their common tattoo themes are dragons, flowers, and koi fish. These designs tend to be detailed and look excellent, even though they use a limited color palette.
Even though tattoos are heavily condemned in Japan, the art is still popular enough to have its own vocabulary. Kakushibori means to tattoo anywhere hidden, as well as tattooing hidden words in the tattoo. Sujibori is just the outline of a tattoo, with no coloring involved. Shakki is the puncturing noise of a needle going through skin. Yobori is the term used when using a tattoo machine, since it’s not comparable to traditional Japanese tattoo methods.
Finding a tattoo artist in Japan can be insanely difficult. Since tattoos are still considered taboo, artists don’t have their own shops, and introduce themselves by word of mouth. Oftentimes, they use a different name than their own, but to call it a fake name would be insulting. The names are chosen after they practice for years to master the art. Sometimes, it’s one that they or their teachers make up, while other times they just take the name of their teacher. The names usually have a tattoo theme, with ‘ink’ and ‘piercing’ being a common part of it—which means that it’s easy to tell when a tattoo artist is introducing himself.
The Dark Side of Tattoos in Japan
So, after all this time, why are tattoos still considered an unmentionable? The answer is simple: the Yakuza are still around. If you already know who they are, then good on you for paying attention to politics. If you don’t, here’s the scoop: they’re the Japanese equivalent of the mafia. They are high-profile criminals that make crime their career. With many different sections all throughout Japan, they have managed to retain their political presence from ancient times, despite living on the other side of the law. Their influence is so widely known that plenty of Yakuza executives don’t go out of their way to hide their affiliation.
While we associate the mafia with murder and theft, and while the Yakuza do have associations with those high-profile crimes, they are better known for their business tactics. In this modern day and age, the easiest way to grab power is to control companies. The Yakuza managed to figure out a way to do just that: they blackmail companies. But getting negative info on companies is difficult for outsiders to do, so how do they go about it? Well, quite simply, they purchase stocks and become a company stock holder.
Once they have enough stocks to be a shareholder, they can attend company meetings and listen to all the juiciest bits of information that the company doesn’t release to the public. As soon as they hear some dirt—whether it’s about a defective product, an executive affair, or tax evasion—they strike. No, not with guns blazing or burning buildings or anything explosive. They send a polite letter asking for a certain amount of money per month to keep their company secrets, well, secret.
If that wasn’t surprising enough, the companies are usually forced to comply. They make bogus property purchases, attend incredibly overpriced events run by the Yakuza, or just straight up send some hush money their way. The amount of blackmailing going on eventually became so extreme that Japan made a law against it. Tracking down blackmailers, or even finding evidence of blackmail in the first place, proved to be too tricky for law enforcement after this law was created. What’s more, if a crime was reported, it wasn’t unusual for the police to blab about what company secret was being hidden—which means it was advantageous for both the Yakuza and the company to continue their relations quietly once they had begun.
Tattoos and Dress Code
The most effective method for keeping the Yakuza out ended up being simple—all of the companies had to cooperate and hold their stock meetings on the same day. The idea was that the gangsters couldn’t be everywhere at once. Attempts to infiltrate companies from within were quickly thwarted because Yakuza members often had tattoos or missing fingers. Any employees found to have a tattoo would need to get them removed or fired in order to prove they weren’t some kind of criminal. That’s a lot harsher than the dress code we have in the west, isn’t it?
While it’s quite possible to work in a company while wearing a tattoo, you won’t be able to avoid suspicion and nervous glances from your coworkers. As recently as 2012, the mayor of Osaka (a Japanese province) went on a personal crusade against office workers with tattoos. He surveyed all of the public workers and managed to find 126 people who were willing to admit that they had a tattoo. Most of these government workers worked in public transport and garbage disposal—hardly a career that a Yakuza could glean information out of. It goes without saying, that particular mayor was a little crazy. When he pressured teachers to reveal if they had any tattoos, he was finally refused and a local law group came to their rescue.
Code of Honor
Of course, the Yakuza do plenty of positive things. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated Japan, and one of the first groups to respond and offer food, water, and aid to affected areas was none other than this bunch of gangsters. While they run their business based on blackmail and violence, they also retain the code of honor that the samurai once held. Rather than see their communities rely on government assistance, they were more than happy to step in and help with their resources. To further improve their appearance, they actually have a magazine dedicated to Yakuza topics. It’s called Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo, and it contains poetry, fishing tips, and a wish for its readers to do good in this world. Despite being funded and published by the most feared Yakuza group in Japan, it reads like something the nobility and samurai of ancient times would have been interested in.
Naturally, the Yakuza eventually figured out that having a tattoo is like asking for trouble from police or company executives, and ironically avoid the whole business today. But there are plenty of people in Japan who get tattoos, whether they are honoring age-old traditions, or simply enjoy the art of inking. The tribes that were driven north by Shoguns still practice traditional tattooing, despite the fact that it gives them trouble when they visit the main island. Their tattoo traditions are just as elaborate, and retain much of the significance that they held thousands of years ago. In fact, mummified remains in the region show chain-like imprints on the skin—these were likely ancient tattoos from 10,000 years ago!
How Is It Today?
It’s a little unfortunate that Japanese people can’t wear their tattoos without being associated with crime and violence, and even more unfortunate that tattoo artists basically have to do their art in secret. Worrying about your job just because you decided to permanently paint your skin is foolish—but it’s a sentiment that’s shared globally because of ancient associations with paganism and crime. Businesses—both western and eastern—are still adamant that your tattoos don’t show while you’re working.
When you get a tattoo, it’s always important to consider the history of tattoos. Seeing a tattoo will have a huge impact on the people around you, and sometimes that impact can even be negative. Staying aware and educated about issues will go a long way towards earning respect for yourself. If you see someone giving you one of those looks—you know the one—now you can go into detail about the history of tattoos, and just how foolish it is to judge people based on the content of their skin. And, if they still judge you, just be proud that even after you’re dead, a part of your personality can still be shining on your skin thousands of years after you die.
The First Part
This is just the first piece of history that I’m going to write about on this site. There are many other places in the world that use tattoos to show their art, their spirit, and their pride. Starting with the land of the rising sun seemed natural—and as this day goes on, we’ll learn more and more about the different cultures and traditions surrounding tattoos. Updates will be posted here soon enough, and in the meantime, there are plenty of other tattoo articles you can read about at our site.
If you have a suggestion for where I should cover next, feel free to leave one or more in the comments. There are so many places that have their own specific customs, you could throw a dart at a world map and find a unique tattooing tradition no matter where you hit. Covering these different topics is incredibly exciting, and hopefully spreads information about the history of tattooing! If you are an artist trying out new techniques, consider checking out some specialized tattoo chairs and tattoo tables. As always, I hope you enjoyed this article, and you can look forward to our next one soon!