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Irezumi Tebori Horimono

By Joshua Mayhem

The Japanese word irezumi refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent, usually decorative mark, in other words, tattooing.

Japanese TattoosThe word can be written in several ways, each with slightly different connotations. The most common way of writing irezumi is with Chinese characters literally meaning to "insert ink." The characters(also pronounced bunshin) suggest "decorating the body." is more esoteric, being written with the characters for "stay" or "remain" and "blue" or "green," and probably refers to the appearance of the main shading ink under the skin. (meaning "tattooing") is rarely used, and the characters combine the meanings "pierce," "stab," or "prick," and "blue" or "green," referring to the traditional Japanese method of tattooing by hand.

At the beginning of the Meiji period the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the West, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.

Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but unfortunately has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the yakuza, Japan's notorious mafia, and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.

Tattooing and other forms of body decoration and body modification, as in much of the western world, are gaining in popularity in Japan. However, Japanese young people who choose to get tattooed are most often choosing "one point" designs -- small designs that can be completed in one sitting -- usually in the American or tribal styles. More recently, however sanskrit Siddham script tattoos are becoming more and more fashionable.

Traditional irezumi is still done by specialist tattooists, but it is painful, time-consuming and expensive: a typical traditional body suit (covering the arms, back, upper legs and chest, but leaving an untattooed space down the center of the body) can take 1-5 years of once-per-week visits to complete and cost more than US$30,000.


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