Many cultures have body modifications that are very similar yet possess vastly different implications, meanings, and methods behind them. Tattoos have existed for thousands of years and with the abundance of time since their creation, their use and application have evolved. While many different cultures all over the world have practiced multiple forms of tattooing, there are a multitude that still see the art form as taboo. Tattoos are used for many reasons, whether it to brand criminals, or for the beautification of the human body. Two cultures that have vastly different traditions and views on tattoos are the Yakuza (the Japanese equivalent to a mafia) from Japan and the United States. Both have their unique reasoning, processes, and history to cause the vast variety in the art form, while still being the same form of modification.
The traditional form of Japanese tattooing, called Irezumi or Tebori has a rich and old history that shows the practice's evolution over time. The origins of this form of tattooing can be traced back thousands of years to around 5000 BCE. Several clay statues have been found possessing what appears to be tattoos on their faces. The tradition continued strongly for many years to come. A Chinese chronicle that is believed to have been created during the third century called Wei Chih, mentions the practice was still very common among the people in the area. As the chronicle states “men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.” (mymodernmet) Over the years, the view of tattoos in Japan has changed drastically. What used to be viewed upon as art and beautification eventually turned into a form of branding and punishment. The drastic change in attitude towards tattooing occurred during the seventh century around 720 CE. Criminals, prisoners, and courtesans would receive brands for punishment for their misdeeds. The tattooing of criminals remained commonplace and continued for over one thousand years in Japan and contributed to the creation of the taboo that exists around tattooing in the country. (mymodernmet) It is not until the eighteenth century that the use of tattooing in Japan changed yet again. Tattooing became commonplace amongst the lower class, particularly in the style of Ukiyo-e woodblock print. The colorful and detailed designs caught the eye of laborers, peasants, and even gangs. Around this time is when the Yakuza began to adopt Irezumi tattooing as a norm in their organization. Many of the men in the Yakuza had when to prison and were branded by the government with penile tattoos. The members quickly began to incorporate the penile tattoos into their own art and created their own tattoos to show their status within the organization. Tattooing began to further represent the unreputable part of society because of the association it tattooing had with the Yakuza. (Ratta Tattoo) Tattooing eventually became outlawed throughout the country because of its ties with the lower class and its distasteful history. The nation wanted to maintain a clean and civilized image to foreigners from the west that began to visit the nation. However, there was a loophole in this law. Japanese tattoo artists could still tattoo foreigners such as the sailors that constantly visited the island nation. (Bodylore) This allowed the art to exist to this day and it is still very prominent within Japanese society today as the ban on tattoos was lifted in 1948. Even with the lifting of the ban, there is still a taboo surrounding the practice of tattooing. Many inked individuals are barred from public areas such as bathhouses, hot springs and gyms thus requiring individuals with tattoos to hide their skin from the public and only show them to their close friends or families. (mymodernmet) Irezumi tattoos have a rich history and it is incredible that they have survived and are still very prominent in certain groups in Japan even extending outside of the Yakuza to the ordinary public.
Japan is not the only country with history with tattoos. The United States also has an interesting history regarding the body modification. Tattooing existed on the land that would eventually become the United States long before the European settlers landed on the eastern coast. The Native Americans utilized the art to help alleviate pain such as toothaches or arthritis. It was not until the nineteenth century that tattoos were beginning to appear on Americans. This is when the first professional tattoo shop was opened up in New York City by a man named Martin Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt opened the shop in order to tattoo identification marks on soldiers who were fighting in the Civil War. The opening of the shop and the invention of the world's first rotary tattoo gun in New York City is why the city is considered the birthplace of modern tattoos. Tattoos would not become mainstream in the United States for quite some time, however, they quickly became a commonplace among American sailors. It was during voyages to the southern Pacific lead by explorers such as James Cook that American sailors became enlightened by the tattooing practices of island nations such as the Polynesians and their pictographic tattoos.The sailors brought the tattoos back with them from their long journeys and tattooing began to spread to the rest of the United States population. 'Tattooing in the U.S. started along the East Coast and West Coast and then worked its way inland… how any new thing came to any place' . During the Victorian era in the nineteenth-century tattoos started to become a fashion statement for the high society in the United States, compared to Japan’s lower class. The popularity sprouted from the news that some of the British royalty possessed body art. This eventually evolved into what is known as circus tattoos around the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Men and women who were inked made a living performing for sideshows across America. This is very much in contrast with the Japanese tradition of keeping their tattoos hidden. While Japan still has a taboo surrounding tattoos, the United States has mainly left it behind. In more recent years, the nation has become a lot more accepting of what would be considered different or improper in earlier years, including tattoos.
While both cultures have a very similar modification, the process the modification is quite different. Irezumi is a long and painful process that is a stick and poke style of tattooing. The tattoo artist prepares their own unique tools and ink to have total control over the process. The tool that is used for tattooing is typically made up of a bamboo stick with several needles on the end held together with a silk string. There are normally eighteen needles in three rows on the end of the stick. These needles are sharpened on a file five at a time until the needles become stuck in the skin when inserted. The ink or sumi is created using a cake of pigment. The pigment is rubbed on a tablet called a suzuri. The process takes around thirty mins and the end product is sumi that is silky in appearance. With the tools and ink prepared, the artist begins to work on the client. The skin is punctured and lifted to insert the pigment deep into the epidermis to ensure the work is permanent. The process is very painful so sessions are short and spread out over months or even years. Typically the sessions last around three hours. The reason for the large amount of time is that most members would show their dedication to the organization by receiving full bodysuits. American tattooing, on the other hand, is a much simpler and quicker process. Modern tattooing machines allow them to be completed much more quickly than the traditional Japanese method. The machines operate at around eighty to one hundred and fifty strokes a second. Another significant difference between Irezumi and American tattooing is that the ink that modern artists use is typically not made by them. The pigment for the tattoos is held in a small reservoir on the tattoo machine and is pulled down by the needles that inject the ink into the skin of the recipient. The methods of application are not the only differences between the two art forms, they also have very different cultural meanings.
There are many reasons that the Yakuza gang members are drawn to Irezumi tattooing. It all revolves around what the tattoos mean, both in physical appearance and the process of receiving the tattoo. Traditionally, the tattoos that decorate the bodies of Yakuza members and others in Japan have a significant cultural background. The tattoos created by the Irezumi artists contain several cultural symbols showcasing Japan’s admiration for nature. Animals, both real and mythical are commonly found on Yakuza members as they have deep symbolism in Japanese culture. Some common symbols that are found on Yakuza members are the ryu and koi fish. The ryu or dragon symbolizes wisdom and strength. Oriental dragons are thought to be benevolent and manipulate the universe to benefit the people which is a foundation that the Yakuza were built upon. In tattoo imagery, especially in combination with flowing water, the koi fish symbolizes much the same courage, control, and ability to achieve goals with an understanding of life’s trials. The symbolism in Irezumi tattoos extends further than visual art. The process to receive the tattoos symbolizes a Yakuza member’s courage and determination to endure physical pain and prove their devotion to the organization as the tattoo can never be removed. Additionally, a member’s ability to receive a full-body suit shows the success in their business with the Yakuza.
American tattoos can also have the symbolism of the individual’s values similar to the Irezumi tattoos. Sailors for example, often received tattoos that they believed protected them while they were out at sea. Many received what many view as a staple for sailors, a tattoo of an anchor. They believed this to represent stability and to protect them from drowning. However, the focus of the tattoo was not just imagery. Similar to the Irezumi tattoos, the act of receiving the tattoo is symbolic. For many, the simple fact of having a tattoo represents the freedom of making their own choices or breaking away from the norms of society. This belief was especially popular with women as many utilized tattoos as a way to take back control of their bodies. A tattoo artist in the 1970s by the name of Ruth Marten said that many of her clients were in the process of getting a divorce and one of them said she, “wanted to be able to change her body to something that her ex-husband had had no experience with.' (Waxman) While the style, meaning, and application of the tattoos are different, they both symbolise the values of the society and the person who is receiving the tattoo.
Cultures all around the world use the practice of tattooing to display their values, seeing as Japan and the United States are no different. Each culture has grown with different ways of this practice to symbolize various things. Both have their unique reasoning, processes, and history to create the vast variety in the art form, while still being the same form of modification.