Although Japan has a long and rich history of using tattoos, today's tattoos are associated with criminality and especially with the Japanese mafia, called the Yakuza. One type of tattoo in particular indicates a level of dishonor and that is the irezumi, which refers to a method of inserting ink underneath the skin for decoration. If Japanese tattoos began with perfectly honorable intentions, then how did they gain their notorious reputation?
Some scholars believe that markings on figures dating back to about 10,000 BC represent tattoos, but this has not been definitively proven. Around 2,000 years ago, Japanese tattoos served both spiritual purposes and to signal the wearer's status. Soon afterwards, the Japanese began tattooing criminals as a form of punishment and this began the negative connotations that modern citizens associate with the practice.
For centuries, tattoos went in and out of fashion but truly began to evolve in the 1600s. Thanks to the innovative woodblock printing, a popular Chinese novel was distributed widely. This tale featured illustrations of brave men bearing images of dragons, tigers, flowers and religious images on their bodies. This started an instant trend with fans wanting the same type of body tattoo as their heroes. Woodblock artists were only too happy to satisfy the demand, using their woodwork tools on human flesh to create elaborate irezumi.
In the late 1800s, the Japanese government outlawed tattoos in an attempt to improve the country's image. As a result, irezumi became limited to the realm of criminals, with traditional tattooing techniques continuing underground. In 1948, tattooing was legalized again by the occupation forces at the end of World War II.
Today, tattoos, and in particular body suit tattoos, still retain their image of criminality. For this reason, those who indulge in traditional tattoos often keep their art concealed, especially around older individuals and in the workplace. In keeping with their outcast status, many Yakuza have full-body tattoos created in the traditional fashion. They hide their markings carefully in public, flashing them only as needed to indicate affiliation, but display them proudly in closed gatherings.
With such a detailed but negative history, body tattoos are often overlooked as a form of art. When done properly, body suit tattoos are a thing of beauty.