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Exploring the Cultural Significance of Irezumi: Traditional Japanese Tattooing in the Modern Era

Updated: May 28


In today's Blog we want to share with you the history of Japanese Tattooing, also know as Irezumi - Japan's ancient tradition of hand-carved tattoos (Tebori). These vibrant body suits of ink hold deep cultural significance, woven through centuries of adversity into a modern art renaissance. As far back as the Edo period, warriors and working class citizens of Japan wore their tattoos with pride, while also being oppressed for their views and aesthetics.

Full Body Suit by Horisuzu
Full Body Suit by Horisuzu


A History of Violence and Beauty

For working class citizens of the centuries past, bold full-body Irezumi conveyed strength, lineage and sacrifice through painstaking applications. Horiyoshi III, grandmaster born in 1960s Tokyo, apprenticed for over a decade learning tebori - "hand method" carving designs with sharpened steel tools. His neo-traditional works invoke old spirits with fine linework and vivid colors within compositions chronicling seasonal flowers or mythical imagery.

Japanese Tattoos in History
Japanese Tattoos in History

Today fewer endure the arduous process, yet for every sensei, there are apprentices and other foreigners in Nihon that keep the ritual alive. Artists like Horisuzu in Yokohama craft awe-inspiring bodysuits over dozens of sittings, their mastery elevating skin into a living canvas. They honor ancestors while broadening ancient stories for moderns drawn to tattoo culture's spiritual powers of permanence and transformation.

Across the Pacific, younger traditionalists lead Japan tattoo's global renaissance. Shige at Black Arrow uses Horiyoshi's techniques innovatively within classical forms, his works treasured internationally. Yet yakuza ties still carry stigma in Japan despite shifts towards acceptance. These artists walk a line preserving tradition yet uplifting ink's appeal as high art for all.

When I think about the time and effort it takes to finish a body suit, these thoughts often comes to mind - perseverance through adversity, this tradition evolved for the present times, legends made of flesh in vibrant living memory. I tip my hat to all keeping mystery and mastery alive through the needle's song. A body suit or larger tattoo can take multiple sessions over years of dedication and pain.

Three Tides Tokyo in Shibuya
Three Tides Tokyo in Shibuya

Three Tides Tattoo is a renowned tattoo studio located in Tokyo, Japan. It is known for its Western-style tattooing and has gained international recognition for its exceptional artistry and craftsmanship. The first time I went to this studio I was in awe of how many cool pieces of art work and "flash"adorn the walls. The overall vibe and energy is unreal, and is a true testament of hard work and commitment to the trade. They have an amazing crew, and often have guest artists from around the globe that share the love for Japanese tattoo style.

Bell Flower Design
Bell Flower Motif Design

We often talk to other travelers about getting tattooed while on vacation. It's not always easy, and can be uncomfortable if you are constantly on the go. I've personally chosen to collect tattoos when I travel, and endure the pains and struggles of healing the tattoo in a foreign land. While it can be a painful healing process at times, it's an experience and souvenir that will literally last a lifetime.

Here are the 5 things to keep in mind while traveling and getting tattooed in Japan.

Carefully select your artist. Instagram and Pinterest are common ways to seek out your tattooer, but there are books and more old school ways to find the right fit. Looking through portfolios shows care commitment and clear communication helps ensure the telling matches your intent. It's important to not waste anybody's time. As this is a quick way to be rejected from ever booking appointment with any respected Tattoo artist in not only Japan, but the entire world.

  1. Book well in advance. Popular studios like Three Tides fill swiftly! Reserve early and stay flexible - serendipity may lead to pleasant surprises too.

  2. Bring a Gift. It's a part of tradition and just a great way to respect your craftsman. I've seen this personally go really well.

  3. Respect cultural customs. Learn proper greetings and modest attire. Tattoos hold layered meaning here, so honor traditions which uplift the craft.

  4. Prepare for ceremonies. Some studios maintain rituals - from tea to musical accompaniment. Calm the spirited mind; open the vessel to absorb ancient ways. It'

  5. Embody mindfulness in sitting. Breathe through intensities with presence, finding gratitude even in small moments. Your living canvas will reflect the depths within you unveiled. Bring Headphones or a way to distract yourself from the pain and allow your Tattooer to focus.


Well thats all for now, we hope that when you travel to Japan you are ready for an awesome experience. We really hope that you support local artisans and are able to handle a real Tattoo experience. It's a completely different experience and approach than how we see Tattoo shops in the West. Be sure to do your homework and learn a little Japanese before visiting as well.

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True Story Design LLC 2024
True Story Design LLC 2024

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