Though there’s not a lot of information about it on the books, there is some evidence that ancient Japanese regularly anticipated in tattoo. Artifacts resembling statuettes of people bearing tattoo like marks have been found in tombs. It is believed that the figures replicas of real, living (at that time) people and are there to represent them following a loved one to the grave or beyond.
The earliest mention of Japanese tattooing is actually in Chinese accounts around 297 A.D. The Chinese spoke of it in derogatory terms because they thought the practice was for the uncultured savages. Eventually Chinese culture started infiltrating Japanese society to a significant extent so that the art of tattooing was
degraded into a form of punishment. In one area, the symbol for the word “dog” was commonly tattooed on the offender’s forehead. Other symbols used were double lines, crosses and circles. The designs were usually places on the face, or noticeably on the arms so that the person was obviously and irreversibly branded a criminal for the rest of his life.
The tattooed often lived as lepers on the outskirts of society. No one would hire them do business with them. They were rejected by their friends and even their partners in crime. Their families tried to pretend as though they never existed. In a culture where family devotion and social status are everything, getting tattooed was more devastating than getting executed.
Eventually there was a shift in Japanese society’s perception of tattooing and there became two distinct styles of tattoos. One was still definitely used to disgrace criminal, and the other was to signify a man of the highest status. The practice became a ritual of the samurai warriors. Soldiers were sometimes tattooed so that their bodies could be easily identified if they were killed and stripped of their armor in battle.
In modern times, Japanese tattoos have gone from punishment to prize. The unique style is studies by tattooist of all nationalities. The word for it is “irezumi,” which literally translates “insertion of ink.” Though some Japanese tattooists have adopted the faster, American style of tattooing with and electric machine, it’s traditionally done by hand. The design is drawn or painted on by the artist, and then the ink is meticulously tapped into the skin by striking a small, sharp instrument into the flesh with a hammer.
Though Japanese tattooing is now a highly celebrated art form all over the world, it still has strong ties with the criminal element in their culture. One of the most widely recognized characteristics of the “Yakuza,” the Japanese mafia, is their tattoos. The more elaborate the designs, the more powerful the mobster.
Full fledged members are encourages to have full body suits. Much like American street gangs, the Yakuza view extensive tattooing as a test of a man’s strength, loyalty and masculinity. Being of common ink lends a sense of solidarity and unity to the group. However, the practice is fading, as the newest generation of Yakuza have come to realize that getting away with organized crime is much more lucrative that looking cool while you do it. The distinctive tattoos tend to draw attention in a business where it’s better to blend in. They also make it easier for victims to identify someone as a mobster, and maybe even as an individual. Today, most Yakuza have shed the idea of traditional pictorial tattoos in favor of more simple line drawings or phrases, but tattooing is still going strong in organized crime groups of all nationalities and cultures. It runs as deep as ink into skin.