Tattoo History 5: Yakuza and Tattoos

The Yakuza are the main face of organized crime in Japan, and can be traced back to  two different groups samurai/ bandits as early as before the 1600’s. These outlaws were called Kabuki-mono, and wore fantastic costumes and carried long swords at their sides as they terrorized towns. These bandits had extreme loyalty to each other, as do the modern day Yakuza, swearing to protect each other even against their own parents, which was unheard of at this time. While the modern day Yakuza do identify with this aspect of the bandits, they really look back to these samurai’s enemies, the machi-yakko, or servants of the town. These townsmen formed groups to fight off these travelling samurai and defended their homes. These groups were made up of merchants, clerks, shopkeepers, homeless wanderers and stray samurai. These men quickly became folk heroes, seen as honourable outlaws.

ancient tattoo scene
Tattooed Tammeijirô Genshôgo, bare-chested, kneels on a fallen foe, a drawn sword in his hand.(from mid 1800’s)

These men were immortalized in stories and plays that are still popular today. These legends eventually passed down to another group of “chivalrous commoners and honourable outlaws”; Japan’s firemen, police detectives, leaders of labour gangs, sumo wrestlers, and members of Japan’s 18th century crime syndicates. These men formed the first groups of the Yakuza. Much like the Italian Mafia (as it is often compared to), the Yakuza formed families, with a father to child hierarchy.

yakuza family
Full Yakuza family portrait.

Like most cultures, criminals were often tattooed to distinguish them from proper citizens, but tattoos can be traced in Japan as far back as the 3rd century . In Japan, criminals started being tattooed in 1720 in order to identify, punish, and humiliate them. These tattoos were sometimes small lines on the arm,  or a black ring around the arm for each crime, or the more prominent forehead tattoo that was either the Chinese character for “dog” or the character for “evil”. After being tattooed, these criminals would be held for three days so that the tattoos would form properly under the skin and would be unable to pick them out of their skin. These people formed groups, and eventually created a subculture of tattooing, adding to their criminal tattoos, making their own art of defiant pride.

tattoo-local-209x300
Different arm tattoos for criminals. (taken from http://www.iromegane.com/japan/culture/history-of-japanese-tattoo/ )
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Criminal head tattoos (from http://www.iromegane.com/japan/culture/history-of-japanese-tattoo/ ) Top left: Inu (犬/ dog) Top right:lines each time they committed a crime Middle:lines on the forehead and the arm Bottom left:tattooed dots Bottom right: tattooed “x” meaning “bad”

Today when someone says Yakuza, people automatically think tattoo. By the late 17th century these tattoos moved away from simple lines or characters, to fluid pieces of flowers, gods, heroes, and animals, often creating full body pieces. Modern day full body pieces can take years to finish, and can cost upward of $50,000. Traditionally these tattoos or “irezumi” would be done with a bone or wood rod that has a cluster of tiny needles at the end. The rod would then be dipped in ink and jabbed repeatedly into the skin, which was very painful, and very slow. This method is still done today in Japan and other parts of the world, but most artists now use machines. Inks would be made by hand, mainly consisting of black, grey, red, and green. Though modern day Japanese tattoos are more colorful. Early red ink was actually toxic, so it would be a mark of strength and resilience to see how much they could endure.

yakuza backs
Full backs of Yakuza members.

Yakuza designs often feature flowers, dragons, tigers, namakubi, and folklore legends such as Chōbei Banzuiin and other warriors.

utagawa kuniyoshi
Chōbei Banzuiin woodblock print done by the famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi from 1845 in the Edo period.

A way to identify former Yakuza members other than their tattoos is if they are missing part of their pinkies. Members would have part of their pinky cut off if they did something wrong during their time, and many had it cut off if they wanted to leave the gang, though some ended off much worse.

kusters odo yakuza tokyo
Tattooed hands with part of a pinky cut off.

Today in Japan tattoos are becoming much more common and less associated with the Yakuza, with new members often even foregoing getting tattoos.

For more information on the Yakuza and on crime and punishment in Japan, read the books “Yakuza : Japan’s Criminal Underworld (1)” by Kaplan, David E., Dubro, Alec, and “Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan” by Botsman, Daniel V.

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Artist of the Month: Sergey Vaskevich

Sergey Vaskevich is a tattoo artist from Minsk, working out of Good Sign Tattoo. His work is dark traditional and neo-traditional. His work is dark both in colour, and in imagery. Often featuring devils, demons, ghosts,and occult designs, along with the occasional fetish piece.

sergey 1
Horrifying bat head.

 

He has a fantastic imagination, combining often mundane designs with a fantastic mix of death and horror.

sergey 2
Devil head and mountain range.
sergey 3
Vampiric looking ladyhead with her own great snake tattoo.
sergey 4
Knee mandala
sergey 5
Wicked throat piece of a fiery candle.
sergey 6
Beautiful harp.
sergey 7
NSFW fetish/torture piece.
sergey 8
Spooky occult piece featuring a demon hand making shadows.
sergey 9
Classic wolf head.
sergey 10
Fiery bold torch.
sergey 11
Well and ghost.
sergey 12
Classic bear head.
sergey 13
Banging elbow spider.
sergey 14
Fantastic demon head eating a naked woman.
sergey 15
Severed ladyhead with moon and crow.

Which piece is your favorite?

Pokemon Tattoos

Pokémon is a Japanese video game, card game, and television show, that was started in 1996 and is now one of the most popular forms of children’s entertainment in the world. Pokémon features fantastic creatures that need to be caught, trained, and battled against other people. In the video games, people can now even battle and trade with their friends, making it more of a community than it previously was.

pokemon Brandon Flores at Taiko Gallery in Berlin
Charizard done by Brandon Flores at Taiko Gallery in Berlin.

Fans of Pokémon are very dedicated, and some show that dedication by  having their favorite Pokémon tattooed on themselves.

pokemon Jackie Huertas at Davinci Tattoo in Wantagh, NY
Eevee and pokeball done by Jackie Huertas at Davinci Tattoo in Wantagh, NY.
pokemon Jan Veldman Gypsy Cat Tattoos Winnipeg
Raichu by Jan Veldman at Gypsy Cat Tattoos in Winnipeg.
pokemon Joshua Budgen at Electric Skull in UK
Squirtle and charmander with flowers by Joshua Budgen at Electric Skull in the UK.
pokemon Joshua Budgen 1
Pikachu also by Joshua Budgen.

The majority of these tattoos are from the first and second generation of Pokémon, but some people who are fans of the more recent games and generations will get the newer Pokémon tattooed.

pokemon Vince Rebel Waltz Winnipeg
Squirtle by Vince at Rebel Waltz Tattoo in Winnipeg.
pokemon Matt Daniels StickyPop Uk
8 bit pikachu and pokeball by Matt Daniels at Sticky Pop in the UK.
pokemon Michael Mankin at Studio 13 Tattoo
Magikarp sushi by Michael Mankin at Studio 13 Tattoo.
pokemon Nghia Chung in Westminister CA
Japanese style Gyarados half sleeve done by Nghia Chung in Westminister CA.

These tattoos are usually done in a new school or neo-traditional form as the subjects are cartoons and are bright and colourful.

pokemon Nicholas Keiser at Integrity Tattoo in Royersford, PA
Neo traditional Scyther and pokeball done by Nicholas Keiser at Integrity Tattoo in Royersford, PA.
pokemon Nick Solomon at Art Machine Productions in Philadelphia
Neo traditional Cubone by Nick Solomon at Art Machine Productions in Philadelphia.
pokemon Silvio Voodoo Valda at Voodoo Ink
Ghastly, Haunter, Gengar chest piece done by Silvio Voodoo Valda at Voodoo Ink.
pokemon Steven Compton in Texas
Bright Lapras done by Steven Compton in Texas.

Which is your favorite?

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