Tebori: Awesomeness in Ink


Lately all I seem to be thinking about are Japanese traditional tattoos. Now, as someone who’s body is currently naked of all things ink, this might seem a little odd. However, like most people, I have always been fascinated by things I wouldn’t do, and getting a full body tattoo rests high on that list. Besides, who can deny the allure of a beautiful (or maybe not so beautiful) man in a suit, impeccably tailored, perfectly fit, and underneath, unseen by all, lurks a gorgeous tattoo of a samurai warrior in a deathly struggle against, well, evil of course.

When I had to choose an art form to research for my introduction to anthropological research methods course (don’t ask me why I have to take general education classes in a MFA program, it’s a rant for another time), I immediately thought of tebori (hand-poked tattoos, the traditional Japanese technique). It is awesome. Not only does all the imagery have beautiful symbolism, the history of the Japanese tattoo is complex and rather convoluted. Of course, most of us immediately think of the Yakuza whenever we hear or see Japanese tattoos, those illusive gangsters that have captured most of our imaginations, but tattoo history doesn’t always neatly line up with the story of Yakuza. Instead, during the Edo period and the Tokugawa rule, tattoos rose up from the masses in combination with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) to become a defining feature of the working class’ opposition to those in power.

Horiyoshi III, called a “living legend of tattooing” put it this way, “Behind the development of tattoo art as a popular culture is the determination of outstanding tattooists who refuse to bow to authority and convention.” (Kitamura, Bushido).


Not only is it a form of cultural protest (you may try to control my every social behavior, but you sure as hell can’t control my spirit), it’s a crazy hard technique. Using needles at the end of a wooden handle (the tool is called hari) tattoo masters actually pierce the skin at an angle, by hand, to bury the ink deep into the pores. This intense process takes time and energy; a full body tattoo taking anywhere from 2 to 10 years. This technique though, creates the most beautiful shading in the world. I read that sometimes old men, who love the culture and process of the tattoo, actually get their entire full body tattoo done all over again, square inch by square inch, and that this practice creates an unparalleled patina and shine. I want to see it!!!

Here is a quote from Horihide, another preeminent tebori tattoo master (some argue that he is the best):

“Tattooing by hand, Tebori, requires special techniques. It should be done by puncturing the skin with the needles gently, adjusting the strength of the hands. Human skin is very soft and elastic. As the needles leave the skin, I can hear the sound, shakki. If I tattoo smoothly, I can hear a rhythmic sound like “sha, sha, sha.” I dip the needles in the ink, and a tattoo a line about one centimeter long. This same step is done continuously during sujibori (outlining). I keep the same speed (rhythm) to tattoo no matter what kind of designs or shapes, such as circles, squares, and lines are tattooed. I draw the outlines step by step on each part of the body, such as the shoulders, the arms and the back, and finally finish the artwork on the body. Then the full body tattoo is complete.” (Oguri).

Many masters talk about how mentally and physically they have to be in good shape in order to tattoo. In some ways the culture surrounding tattooing is similar to that of a dojo – both mental and physical training is necessary, and a culture of respect and honor is paramount. In fact, if they don’t like your attitude, or your desired design story, they won’t tattoo you! And why should they? This is art, and the client is the canvas.

From what I could find out, it seems like a lot of the people who receive tattoos do so because of this intense relationship with the master. Maybe they are like me, and feel a little adrift in life. Maybe they don’t really have a family and are lonely. Perhaps they have never been part of an “in” crowd. Somehow, getting a tattoo in such a dedicated and intense way lets them become a part of something, grounds them. They are now a part of a group, or nakama, for life. Their tattoo master will probably always be part of their life, as will other tattoo clients. They belong.

Of course the irony here is that though they now belong to this new community of the tattooed, they are marginalized in Japanese society. Tattoos are still banned from public places like bath houses, swimming pools, and gyms. Also, the traditional full, half, or quarter body tattoos seem the most feared/disliked/ostracized. Besides my general aversion to pain and inability to make up my mind, one of the main reasons I won’t get a tattoo is because I haven’t experienced the pleasures of a Japanese bath yet, and there is no way I am denying myself that wondrousness!!!

There is so much more to write about when the topic is Japanese tattoos, however, instead I’ll direct you to some other awesome websites, videos, and books. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back to this theme later!

Here is a list that I compiled and that you should check out:

Dinter, Maarten Hesselt van. The World of Tattoo – An Illustrated History. Trans. S. Green. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005.

Fellman, Sandi. The Japanese Tattoo. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers. 1986. (Though this book is as old as me, it has BEAUTIFUL photographs and some neat information).

Kitamura, Takahiro. Tattooing from Japan to the West: Horitaka Interviews Contemporary Artists. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2005.

Kitamura, Takahiro and Katie M. Kitamura. Bushido: legacies of the Japanese tattoo. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2001. (Really, really cool book).

Knight, Anthony. “Horimyo – Traditional Japanese Tebori Tattoo Artist Interview.” Tokyo Fashion, 19. July. 2012. <http://tokyofashion.com/horimyo-traditional-japanese-tebori-tattoo-artist/> (A pretty cool video interview)

McCabe, Michael. Japanese Tattooing Now. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2005.

McCurry, Justin. “Mayor of Osaka launches crusade against tattoos.” The Guardian. Tokyo, 17. May. 2012.

Oguri, Kazuo. Traditional Japanese Tattooing. Trans. Mieko Yamada. Web. 12. July. 2013. <http://www.tattoos.com/tebori-oguri.html> and <http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/ancient-art-of-the-japanese-tebori-tattoo-masters-ink-in-harmony/>.  (If you like this topic at all, you should really read what Horihide as to say in his own voice!)

Richie, Donald. The Japanese Tattoo. New York: Weatherhill, INC., 1980. (A really comprehensive book, a little old, but great information – especially on symbolism.)

Ruben, Arnold. Marks of Civilization. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, 1988.

Sebag-Montefiore, “Clarissa. Horihide still practices the dying art of hand tattoo.” Los Angeles Times, 24. June. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/24/entertainment/la-ca-culture-japan-20120624>

Westlake, Adam. “The view of tattoos in Japanese society.” The Japan Daily Press, 29. June. 2012.

Photo is from The World of Tattoo; it is beautiful and I had to share.


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