Irezumi's Connection to Crime
Irezumi has been connected to criminality and the stigma of criminals since its early history. The first time that it was associated with criminals was in 300 A.D. when tattoos were used to mark and identify arrested criminals. This was thr first time it was used for criminals and represents the turning point for irezumi. The association with criminality would continue throughout tattoo art's history.
Japan stopped branding criminals in the 1800s. people began trying to hide their criminal tattoos, known as bokkei, inside larger, more decorative designs. This practice led to the rise in popularity of tattoos.
The military dictatorship of the Edo period had a strict limited freedom of expression, which only incited the expansion of the practices of tattoo art and woodblock prints. The samurai made tattoos illegal, which was the first time that tattoos became legally regulated. However, this law was not well-enforced, and people continued to get tattoos.
The threat of colonization in the mid-19thcentury led to a focus on Japan’s national image. The government decided it needed to create a “civilized” appearance in order to avoid conquest, so they decided to eradicate all “barbaric practices.” This included tattoos, so a national ban was issued against tattoos in 1872. This ban strongly affected how tattoos are perceived today. This ban remained until the US occupying forces removed it in 1948.
The association with criminality became the strongest through irezumi's usage by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The Yakuza have used tattoos so frequently that the two have become synonymous and tattoos are a part of the Yakuza culture and identity.
The Yakuza began in the 17th century when people caught for stealing and gambling were sent to prison, where they were marked with ink to identify them. These people began to form organized gangs, and this background in tattoo culture gives them a distinct association with irezumi.
The Yakuza grew more powerful and play a large role in many aspects of Japanese life today. With this power, they were able to continue getting tattoos during the years of the ban. To them this was simply an act of rebellion, but they enabled tattoo art to survive.
Irezumi application became a part of their initiation since it was such a painful ordeal. This pain was seen as a way to test their dedication, discipline, and belonging to the gang.
Due to their association with the Yakuza and criminality, tattoos are seen as intimidating and are often hidden in order to keep the gang member anonymous. These factors have led to the Yakuza’s distinct design of irezumi, known as Horimono. With this design, the tattoo covers the arms, chest, back, and upper legs. The tattoo stops at the neck, wrists, ankles, and oftentimes a strip of skin on the chest is left bare to allow a traditional kimono to be worn without compromising the tattoo.
Today, tattoos are becoming more acceptable due to the acceptance of this practice by the younger generations. In addition, Western cultures have taken elements of traditional Japanese design and fused it with their styles, and this globalization has led to a more widespread acceptance. However, this association of criminality is still around today.
The association with the Yakuza has hindered the process of acceptance. The fact is that when a Westerner has a tattoo, it is interpreted differently than when a member of the Yakuza is has one. But the popularity of tattoos among the Yakuza has started to go down as a method of blending into the general public and avoiding detection. This decrease will most likely open up irezumi to the general public.