The Woodblock and Japanese Tattoos
Kuniyoshi, a trained Japanese printmaker living from 1797-1861 depicts tales of ancient Asian heros. His images tell stories of hard work, good conduct and lessons learned through others. He illustrates mythical ghosts and demons, warriors, geishas and other muses. He touches upon the Kabuki theater which struggled in its histories to remain legal. A resolution was set to protect the identity of the actors and actresses while still allowing for the theaters to remain open. The delicate designs of woodblock prints such as Kuniyoshi’s infiltrated its way to the human flesh. Tattooing was another taboo that struggled with its social standing in Japanese culture. Moving from high society to the underground back up to the brave and couragous, tattooing was repeatedly outlawed. In 1854, after Japan’s isolationist policy ended, it began to accept modern thought, while symaltaniously loosing the floating world of brothels, tea houses and also Kabuki theater within cosmopolitan Tokyo. Ukiyo-e, the woodblock printing, was also beginning to fade with the aid of modern technology such as photography. And tattooing became the hybrid craft. Much like photographer and model, tattoo artist must break through an immortal barrier between canvas, the flesh, and craftsmen. Kuniyoshi broke through this barrier with his printmaking. Trust emerges between artist and subject when visual tales of the higher orders are told. And ultimately, trust in the trained hand with one’s own body is the highest level of trust. For ultimately, all we have physically is our vehicle for which to carry us through life.
While the Japanese style tattoo has become popular across some cultures, with no surprise does the western sailor style tattoo still remain repellent from Japan. The authentic methods of tattooing in the east is called tebori, or hand tattoo; a slow and painful process inserting ink one pain staking stitch at a time. The reluctance of purest Japanese tattoo artists to evolve towards new technology was linked to the status of Japanese tattoos as a craft. Tiger symbolism is commonly seen, yet first drawn from memory and not actual presence. The borrowed Chinese Lion or the Korean Falcon may also be seen. The dragon, the phoenix and various gods also encapsulate codes of honor stemming from Buddhist thought. As first a craft with hand held tools, does modern technology allow it to remain a craft ? Or is it now an art ? Or now commercial ? Or perhaps now an outlet.