Many cultures have their own techniques and reasons for tattooing, and the Japanese are no exception. What started very long ago as a way to blend in better with the fish they hunted turned into a more ornamental body decoration, known during the 18th and 19th centuries as an art form called horimono. Japanese tattoos in the horimono style are often very detailed, colorful, and full of meaning and significance, much like Japanese woodcuts and watercolor paintings.
Tattoos grew from hunting camouflage into a means of showing different ranks in society. Those of a high class received markings befitting their status. Criminals were inked so that everyone knew the crimes they had committed and made it so no one could escape their past. Samurai warriors had particular tattoos for identification in case someone fell in battle and their personal belongings were stripped before identification could be made.
Irezumi is a style of horimono that takes up a large amount of space, often resulting in nearly full-body tattoos. Highly detailed dragons are a common marking, sometimes showing only the face and mane, and other times showing the entire beast from head to tail on the wearer's shoulder blades, down the arms (sometimes extending all the way to the wrists) and down the back, ending around the hips and legs, or even as far as the ankles. Other common symbols include carp, leaves and trees, flowers, and Buddha.
These are often done using a technique called tebori, which uses bamboo needles to place the ink into the skin. Depending on the size of the tattoo, it can take up to 200 hours to put into place, usually spread out over a number of months so that the skin heals properly. With tebori, there is less bleeding, but it leaves the skin feeling bruised for longer than the burnt sensation after a session with an electric tattoo machine.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the government of Japan attempted to become more Western in nature and banned tattooing. Luckily, with the appearance of American soldiers, the Japanese horimono masters were able to share their art with a new crowd, who then brought the art back home and eventually led to large quantities of military men wanting the tattoos as well. The ban was lifted in 1948, most likely to accommodate the growing desire of the soldiers' to get Japanese art imbedded in their skin.
As Japanese tattoo designs became more popular, many tattoo artists began offering the beautiful styles, except they do not use tebori. Instead of the highly detailed designs, many more people are looking for kanji tattoos, which is, in a very simplified way, the Japanese equivalent to hieroglyphic writing. Common kanji tattoos include the words 'love,' 'honor,' or 'good fortune.'
Though beautiful, there are some issues with having these picture-words tattooed into your skin, especially if you don't read Japanese: due to miscommunication and mistranslations, there is a risk taken with kanji tattoos that it will not say what the wearer desires it to say. Another problem is that, due to the nature of Kanji and the way the script is put together, an incorrect stroke placement may change the meaning of the symbol.
Tattooing is an art -- an art that the Japanese have perfected over many thousands of years, making it quite possible for people to have beautiful works of art covering large portions of the body. So the next time you find yourself walking around Japan , take the time to think about getting a tattoo from a horimono artist, even it's a small one. You won't be disappointed.