A MILLION QUESTIONS
Port Townsend, Washington
BAD BOYS AND THEIR
TATTOOS IN JAPANESE PRINTS
BUT FIRST FOR THE GIRLS
THE BOYS WILL FOLLOW
None of the examples
shown on this
page or future tattoo
pages is for
sale - unless
ISN'T IT IRONIC
that the earliest
image I could find of a tattoo in Japanese woodblocks appears on the arm of a woman, a courtesan, who is showing off the name of
her lover to her companions? After a fair amount of searching I consulted an expert
on ukiyo prints and he sent me this example from an 1802 edition of Toyokuni I's illustrations for the Ehon Imaya sugata (絵本時世粧 or えほんいまようすがた) 'Picture
Book of the Forms and Figures of Today'. Jack Hillier refers to this two
volume set as Toyokuni's "finest achievement in book form" with the
exception of his books of actor prints. The text states that the subjects represent "All types of women, from the noblest to the lowest
class, virtuous or immoral..." Volume one is devoted to the ladies of virtue
and volume two to the other side of the tracks. Naturally our image
appears to be from the latter
Update: Make sure
you read the section with new information at the bottom of this page. It
features a detail from an Utamaro print. 1802 is no longer the earliest
date of a print with a tattoo.
A BURNING NEED
There is a print by Utamaro
from ca. 1802 entitled "The Inept One" (Fudekashi-mono - 不作者 or
ふでかしもの) in which a "...courtesan had the name of the man with whom she made
a lover's pact tatooed onto her arm. But now the affair is over, and the
picture shows her trying to burn the tatoo out with moxa." There are three
known copies of this print. One is in the Cincinnati Art Museum, another in
the Chazen Museum of Art and the third in the Takahashi Seiichirō
Quoted from: The
Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, published by the British Museum
Press, London, 1995, text volume, p. 117. (The spelling 'tatoo' and tatooed'
in the citation above is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as an
obsolete form of 'tattoo'.)
In a 1994 article by Lawrence Rogers he discusses the Shikidō Ōkagami
(色道大鏡 or しきどうおおかがみ: ca. 1680) or 'Great Mirror of the Erotic Way' by
Hatakeyama Kizan (畠山箕山 or はたけやまきざん: 1624 or 26 to 1704). Kizan lists 6
shinjū* (心中) or 'sincere proofs of true love' "...in ascending order of
gravity: tearing off a nail, the vow, hair-cutting,
tattooing a lover's name,
cutting off a finger, and piercing the flesh with a blade tip." [The italics
and highlighting are mine.]
Tsume-hanashi is tearing
off of a fingernail.
Kami-kiri (かみきり) -
cutting off all or part of the hair.
In The Life of An Amorous
Man by Ihara Saikaku two grave robbers are confronted after digging up
the remains of a beautiful young woman. They did this so they could harvest
the hair and fingernails to sell to prostitutes in the pleasure quarter.
When asked why they would do such a base thing they responded: "It is this
way. When courtesans pledge their fidelity to a favorite patron, they
usually clip off strands of their hair and fingernails too and let the
favorite keep them as a kind of momento..." The man who caught them knows
this asks "...but what has that to do with the dead woman's hair?" Since
beautiful women have many suitors this way they can dole out the hair and
nails to unsuspecting dopes who won't know the difference and will think
that they are special. Besides, for the grave robbers such work could be
Yubi-kiri (指切り or ゆびきり)
is the cutting off of a finger of a finger joint. [I am not absolutely
positive about the Japanese for this practice because today 指切り means'
linking fingers'. However, 切 by itself means 'to cut'.]
Kiseru-yaki (煙管焼 or
きせるやき) branding with embers from a pipe.
Later Rogers quotes a passage from Yorozu no Fumihōgu (万の文反古) by
Ihara Saikaku (井原西鶴 or いはらさいかく: 1642-1693). In it a prostitute laments
all of the sacrifices she has gone through to prove herself to her faithless
lover: wrote 13 pledges of love in her own blood, cutting her hair so short
she was unable to put it up, scorched her thigh with her pipe, pulled out
fingernails, cut off her little finger, wrote her lover's name 1,000 times a
day for 3 months and "...I had
your name and age, twenty-seven, tattooed on my left elbow..."
Here, at least, there were only six categories of
shinjū, but Santō Kyōden (山東京伝 or さんとう.きょうでん: 1761-1816) listed
thirteen including drinking blood.
Keppan (血判 or けっぱん) is a
"blood oath" or "blood seal"
Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her great book on life in the Yoshiwara said on
page 192: "Women who wanted to make a more personal declaration of genuine
love for her client/lover or secret lover could have his name tattooed on
her arm without his knowledge. Although tattoos were considered inelegant
and high-ranking courtesans avoided them, there were enough demands
for them to warrant professional tattooers nearby. But to make it more
sincere and private, most courtesans tattooed themselves. In later years, a
courtesan would have her lover write his name on her arm, trace it with a
knife, and pour black ink into the incision. Pictures were not tattooed as
testaments of love: tattoos of lovers always consisted of characters to form
words, brief expressions (For Life, for instance), or names."
Kazin wrote: "The standard method of tattooing is to have the man the
prostitute fancies write it out, and then have it tattooed on her skin. The
tattoo is cut into the skin either with a razor or a needle. In the case of
the razor, the characters are ill-defined, whereas those made with a needle
Kazin said there were two schools of tattooing. The first inserts the ink
with the jab and the second jabs, wipes away the blood and then inserts the
ink. Tattoos are darker where the ink has been inserted more than once.
Kazin: "Since ancient times the Sinograph inochi 命, 'life', has been
written after the lover's name and is so written today. This is meant to
symbolize the idea that the beloved is loved more than life itself and will
be loved as one lives, which would seem to be amateurish in the extreme."
Seigle continued: "In the previous century, Kizan had criticized a tayū
in Kyoto who, for the sake of originality, had all her patrons' names
tattooed between her fingers. He condemned such behavior as inelegant and
indiscreet." Later Seigle noted: "The value of a tattoo as a love token was,
of course, that it was indelible, or so it was believed. Kizan, however,
refers to the erasing of tattoos, though he does not explain how this was
accomplished." In 1655 one account said that a courtesan Sanseki was
expert at erasing her tattoo and "...she had changed the name on her arm
seventy-five times." (Ibid., p. 193) Actually one way of getting rid of a
tattoo was burning it away with a moxa treatment. Yeow!
all you smarties out there who think I have made a mistake... Well, I
haven't - at least not this time: In contemporary parlance
shinjū means lovers' double suicide, but Rogers has noted that over
the centuries the definition has morphed. "...the word shinjū today
is popularly taken to mean the double suicide of lovers or multiple suicide,
usually of a family. This contemporary meaning, however, came into use some
twenty years after Shikidō Ōkagami was completed. In
Kizan's time the suicide of lovers was apparently not yet widely known as
shinjū, but as shinjūshi 心中死, or shinjū death. Kizan
thought that double suicide was a base act and hence not a shinjū, as
he understood it. For him the ultimate act was cutting off one's own finger
to prove devotion.
According to Kizan only prostitutes would get a tattoo. Respectable women
wouldn't because they weren't entertaining many men at the same time and
hence had less reason to prove fidelity to one man.
Another expression for tattooing is horiire (掘入), 'dig and insert',
which is "apparently an Osaka term."
The dot tattoo or irebokuro (入贅 ). This reference is from footnote 96
of the Rogers paper quoting W.R. van Gulik: "...'inserted mole'. Initially
this was apparently a specific kind of tattoo: 'a dot on one of the hands
halfway between the base of the thumb and the wrist, such that when the man
and woman in question would hold each other's hand... the tip of the thumb
would be adjacent to the dot.' "
"The practice of irebokuro
first seems to have made its appearance in the Kansai region, having its
origin in the pleasure districts of Kyōto and Ōsaka, around the second half
of the seventeenth century, and was later taken over in Edo, where it soon
developed from the tattooing of a dot on the hand to the tattooing of names
or appropriate short texts of a few characters on the shoulders or arm."
(Van Gulik, p. 25)
"According to Tamabayashi,
irebokuro still appeared to be existing after the Meiji period among the
lower grade harlots (yujō) in the harbour cities of Toba and Shimoda."
Kizan says that of all the
shinjū "The fact remains that tattooing is the most amateurish..."
Kizan noted that prostitutes were not the only ones to tattoo themselves:
"Tattooing is not limited to cases of single-minded love. Types such as
footmen, carters, and boatmen will have their crests inscribed on
themselves, an act they undertake on their own accord with no encouragement
from others. Some derive pleasure from having the seven-character invocation
to the Buddha [南無妙法蓮華経 or なむみょうほうれんげきょう: the Nichiren sect invocation], the
six-character name of the Buddha, or a likeness of a string of thirty-six
prayer beads tattooed on their shoulder. Can we say that these tattoos are
stupid and petty? And yet although it is foolish to derive pleasure from
inscribing the name of one's beloved, can we say this practice is base? And
can we say that it is shrewd to have oneself tattooed as a ruse to achieve
BUT WITHIN A FEW YEARS
Toyokuni I had also published
an image of a figure with a name tattooed on an arm, but this time it was
that of a man.
I believe it dates from the
This is interesting for two
reasons: First - the artist has mimicked the earlier example shown above of
a woman displaying her
lover's name tattooed on her
arm and secondly because Toyokuni I is the teacher of Kuniyoshi whose art is
making tattooing popular among
a large section of the Japanese population and is still valued among a large
of people worldwide today.
Surely, Kuniyoshi was aware of the work which preceded his.
IT IS ALSO IRONIC
that the only other
image of a woman with a tattoo which quickly comes to mind is a print by
Yoshitoshi called "Looking in Pain: The Appearance of a Prostitute of the
Kansei Era". Doubly ironic. Published sixty-six years after the image by
Toyokuni I it maintains an aesthetic link which is remarkably strong if not
out right derivative. Spiritually Yoshitoshi was the artistic grandson of
Toyokuni I and one of his greatest heirs. Toyokuni taught Kuniyoshi who
taught Yoshitoshi. Nevertheless, it isn't only the generational line which
binds the two artists, but it is also the pose and subject matter. Perhaps
the Yoshitoshi is actually an homage to his much respected predecessor. Imagine the woman
in the Toyokuni I sitting quietly in agony while the tattooist pricks
her skin with his needle. Trying not to scream out loud, biting down on a cloth,
her eyes filling with tears all
so that she may honor her lover. That is what the Yoshitoshi offers us - the
process. Just compare the two. The similarities are uncanny.
WAIT A SEC!
THERE IS A THIRD
BUT IT AIN'T EXACTLY
Paul Jacoulet, the
artist of the print detail shown above, was born
in Paris sometime between 1896 and 1902. The exact date is uncertain. While he was still very young his father accepted a
teaching job in Japan and the family moved there. His father was called back
to serve in World War I and died from his injuries. After the great quake of
1923 Jacoulet decided to devote the rest of his life to his art. His mother
married again this time to a successful, young Japanese doctor. Because of
this she was able to support her son, his travels and his projects until
1938. Jacoulet lived in Japan for the rest of his life - even through the
wars years with their privations. He died in 1960.
The image above was
published in 1935 and is entitled "Femme tatouée de Falalap, Ouest Carolines"
and was inspired by one of his trips to the South Seas. Supposedly this was
Jacoulet's favorite woodblock print and is said to owe a lot to the work of
Matisse. Although it is a woodblock print and was created in Japan on
Japanese paper using the traditional methods - and it shows tattoos as you
can see - it doesn't look very Japanese. Why should it? It portrays a
non-Japanese woman designed by a Frenchman who was thinking of 20th century
European avant garde artist, but still I thought it belonged here.
Actually there are
at least three more prints of women with tattoos from the Caroline Islands
by Jacoulet, but but their bodywork is much more subtle. There are also two
images with men with tattoos from the same grouping, although I don't know
if they are bad boys or not. Can't tell from the prints.
I don't know if you can see it in the image,
but the right hand is tattooed as is the left forearm.
Above is a detail from
a print by Jacoulet called
"Amoureux à Tarang.
Yap, Ouest Carolines".
THAT EVER PRESENT
Detail from a print by
Toyokuni III dated 1859.
This conflicts with the
information provided below
about the original date of
the play discussed in this section.
I don't know yet how to reconcile the
through a stack of equally beautiful Japanese woodblock prints one may be
forgiven for thinking that one is looking at a picture of a woman in this
image. But no. This is our first truly tattooed bad boy print we have chosen
to show. True, he might have the chest of a Jamie Lee Curtis, but Jamie Lee
Curtis has the chest of a Jamie Lee Curtis and she is damned sexy - at least
to me. Here we have the dashing, young bandit, Benten Kozo Kikunousuke who
has dressed up as a woman to carry off one of his escapades. While it is
true that he is only a literary character created by the playwright Mokuami
that doesn't make him any less real to us. Besides we live in an age
bombarded with gender confusion: Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee's real life father,
and Jack Lemon donned dresses to escape bad boys who were trying to kill
them - and Lemon even ended up engaged to Joe E. Brown; 6' 4" John Lithgow
played a cross-dressing, transsexual, ex-jock in drag; 5' 6" Dustin Hoffman
in "Tootsie"; That really tall Aussie Dame Edna is better recognized as a
woman (sort of) than as a man; And don't forget the 5' 7" Julie Andrews who
played a woman playing a man playing a woman. So, why not a Japanese bad
boy? Besides Shakespeare wrote similar roles.
"BENTEN KOZO COCKS AN
Benten Kozo (弁天小僧
or べんてん.こぞう) is our first bad boy - or, at least, the first of several we
will be dealing with. How did he go wrong? Did he smoke dope. No! Did he go
whoring? Yes, but so did everyone else. He was from a reasonably respectable
family. That is, if a merchant's family could be considered respectable.
At least his father wasn't an outlaw. But so many good kids from decent
families go bad, don't they? They hang with the wrong crowd, they get
tattoos... Sounds contemporary doesn't it.
Below I will try to
give you a fairly concise description of this character based on the summary
of the play "Benten Kozo" as laid out by Aubrey S. and Giovanna M. Halford
in their The Kabuki Handbook published by Charles S. Tuttle Company
in 1990 (pp. 11-16).
The play was written in 1862
as a vehicle for the nineteen year old actor Onoe Kikunosuke V (尾上菊之助 or
おのえきくのすけ). Our hero-cum-bad boy is the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. As a
boy his father placed him in the service of a man of a distinguished rank, but he is caught
stealing and runs away. Calling himself Benten Kozo Kikunosuke he survives
by preying on the vulnerability of the pilgrims at two of the major temples
in Kamakura. This was made easier because not only was he extremely
handsome, but also because he was a good actor. Could there be a better
combination for a con artist?
(Before the Hatsuse Temple)
Benten Kozo appears
disguised as the deceased young samurai Shinoda Kotaro accompanied by one of
his cohorts, Rikimaru, who is posing as his servant. [Bad boy act #1 - the
Shinoda Kotaro's fiancé,
the Princess Senju, comes to the temple to pray for her
lovers soul. Although they were engaged they had never seen each other. The
princess notices the handsome young man and sends one of her maids to find
out who he is. When she is told who he is said to be she is overjoyed.
She asks B. K. what he is
doing there and he says that he is in hiding and begs her not to tell
anyone. She thinks he is actually hiding so he won't have to marry her so
she grabs his sword and tries to kill herself. B. K. stops her and leads her
to a local teahouse where he can prove his love. They do it - or, at least,
I think they do. [Bad boy act #2 - seduction of a vulnerable princess
While all of this is
happening a young man runs out of a temple having stolen a large sum of
money. He is pursued by the men he robbed. They catch and beat
him and get their money back. Then they go to a teahouse where they are
robbed again by the servant of the first thief.
The second thief wants to return the stolen the money to the first thief. [Are you still
with me on this one?]
B. K. and the princess leave
the teahouse and she gives him an incense burner and begs him to take her to
his home. "Benten Kozo cocks and ironic eyebrow at his comrade Rikimaru.
Then, taking the girl's hand, he leads her down the hanamichi. [The
hanamichi is the raised walkway that passes through the audience in a
(In the mountains.)
B. K. and the princess stop
at a shrine and he tells her who he really is. "...overcome with shame that
she should have given herself to a criminal, flings herself over a cliff." A
monk from the shrine overheard the whole conversation and demands that B. K.
give him the incense burner. B. K. refuses and the two men fight. [Bad boy
act #3 - brawling] The monk wins and B. K. begs him to kill him. The monk refuses and
forces B. K. to join his outlaw gang as a blood brother. Obviously he wasn't
really a monk.
The first thief - remember
him - who is about to kill himself stumbles on the body of the princess and
discovers that she was only stunned by the fall. She recovers and they tell
each other their personal stories. It turns out that the first thief had
been the servant of her dead fiancé. When she hears that she finally
succeeds in killing herself. [At least we don't have to deal with her
anymore.] The first thief goes back to his original plan to commit suicide
when the second thief show up and gives him the money he stole. They decide
that thievery can be profitable and preferable to death so they dedicate
their lives to crime. They too become blood-brother members of the so-called monks
Detail from a print from
1864 by Kunichika
showing a disheveled Benten
Note the subtly exposed,
tattooed upper arm of the actor.
The monk/gang leader
has a third persona - that of a respectable samurai, but his neighbors
suspect that he has connections with the criminal underworld so he sends two
of his thugs out to rob a nearby shop. Then the gang leader/fake samurai will
show up and apprehend the thieves and win
everyone's respect again - plus a probable reward. The shop they choose is the one owned by B. K.'s
real life father. Dressed as a high-ranking young lady [see the images above
and below] B. K. and his buddy go into the shop. B. K. pretends to steal a
piece of cloth and there is a scuffle. His buddy proves that the cloth is
not from that shop and produces a receipt from another
business. B.K., aka the young lady, is slightly injured on 'her' forehead
and her 'servant' demands compensation. After much arguing the owner pays
up. [Bad boy act #4 - extortion] That is when the monk/gang leader/respectable samurai shows up
and uncovers their deception. B. K.'s father "...has caught sight of a
pattern of cherry blossoms tattooed on the lady's shoulder and believes she
is a man in disguise." "This is the great moment of the play." B. K. owns up
but his father doesn't recognize him even as he begins removing his costume.
The monk/gang leader/fake
samurai offers to behead the two scoundrels, but the father thinks that
would be bad for business and wants to forget the whole affair. He gives his
son money for medicine to treat his wound and B. K. "...kilts up his woman's
clothes and he and Rikimaru go off."
The monk/gang leader/faux
samurai gets drunk with the father and tries to rob him after telling him
the truth. Threatening to kill the father his shop manager/son-in-law offers
to die in his stead. At that point the monk/g. l./f. s. realizes that the
manager/son-in-law is his own long-lost son. The police arrive, but the gang
leader gets away.
The gang make their escape
after beating the some policemen.
B. K. repents his life of
crime and retrieves the incense burner which he wants to offer to a temple
in memory of the princess. When he arrives at the temple gate he is
surrounded by the police. "They chase him onto the roof of the gate. After a
spectacular fight he drives them off..." and shouts out his story, but
wishes to make amends. He then kills himself. [The story goes on from there,
but....I am worn out. Sorry.]
WHICH OF THE THREE
ASK OUT ON A DATE?
The (doctored) detail below is
from a print by Tsuruya Kokei of the actor Onoe Kikugoro VII as Benten Kozo.
It was created in 1995.
Given the choice of going out
with any of these three actors dressed as women which would you choose?
If the choice were based on the
quality of the tattoos it would be something else - hypothetically speaking
between the top and bottom
examples, but then again look at that mug on the one below.!
It takes a real man to be
covered with flowers. Don't you think?
Actually I didn't. Recently
I spent several hours interviewing David, a tattooist artist, who said "What
about the Ainu?" To be honest they hadn't occurred to me, but I do think a
few words should be added here - especially since it was only the women who
If you don't know, the Ainu
are a group of people who are ethnically different from the Japanese. They
lived mainly on Hokkaido in the north and were not conquered until the late
18th century. While there are some cross-cultural links the Ainu
nevertheless remained mainly distinct. Like so many other cultures they have
had long tradition of being tattooed.
"...it is generally agreed
that the use of curvilinear design in the unique Ainu tattoos on
the back of women's hands and around their arms was intended to protect them
from evil spirits... The tattoo design was also a sign of maturity and
recognized as such among adults." (1) "Similar types of tattoos were
worn by early Eskimo peoples of the Bering Sea region as early as 2,000
years ago." (2)
Unlike the emphasis on
tattoos featuring creatures seen on the bodies of so many Japanese in during
the Edo period the Ainu never used representational animal designs in any
form. To do so would have meant capturing and displeasing the spirit of the
animal which was viewed as a god. This is not far removed from the beliefs
of many other cultures that mirrors, photographs or illustrations captured
the soul. Hence the almost exclusive use of linear and geometric patterns.
The 'beautification' process
of tattooing females started when they were as young as six or seven years
old and continued until they were of a marriageable age. Their lips,
forearms, hands, eyebrows and foreheads were all fair game. A small cut
would be made with an obsidian blade. Then soot from the bottom of a pot
"...would be rubbed into the wound, followed by the application of
antiseptic juice from plants like mugwort." (3)
The first tattoo a young
female would receive was a small spot on the upper lip. Eventually the area
around the mouth might be covered in designs which would lead to lines on
the cheeks which would curve up toward the ears. (4) This got me to
thinking: Why the women and not the men. Well...one reason may be in the
nature of contrast between the sexes. The women had generally hairless faces
whereas the men were downright hirsute. In fact, they even had a special
prayer stick that they were said to be used as "mustache lifters" when
drinking sake. (5)
The Japanese shogunate was
disdainful of this practice of tattooing women and proscribed it. This was
reiterated by the Meiji government and as a result "Today the custom of
tattooing has completely disappeared." (6)
JUST LIKE BATMAN'S
Although I don't have access to
an image of a tattoo on the face of an Ainu woman
I do have a graphic. What
really struck me was the fact that when complete
the area around the Ainu
woman's lips looked
remarkably like the makeup used on the figures of
the Joker in the Batman comics
Personally I am grateful as I
am sure most Japanese men were
that Japanese women weren't
tattooed on their lovely, lovely faces.
David Wilcox provided me with
the basic design of this image. Thanks David!
1. Ainu: Spirit of a
Northern People, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato O. Dubreuil,
Univ. of Washington Press, 1999, p. 294.
2. Ibid., p. 292.
3. Ibid., p. 325.
4. Ibid., p. 326.
5. Ibid., p. 14.
6. Ibid., p. 325.
WAS I WRONG
ABOUT THE EARLIEST
YES, I WAS!
I started thinking about a movie I once saw - "Utamaro and His Five
Women" directed by Mizoguchi Kenji (溝口健二 or みぞぐち.けんじ) in 1946. Supposedly it
is a modern classic, but it bored me to tears or close enough. However,
there was one scene which I remember fairly well - that of a courtesan
getting her back tattooed. She was known not only a great beauty but
also for her skin was said to be flawless. Because she was perfection itself
the tattooist was too timid to even begin the process. No image he could
think was worthy or her. Utamaro saved the day by volunteering to
create a design.
That started me thinking about Utamaro and
tattoos. Perhaps there would be an earlier example than the one illustrated
at the top of this page by Toyokuni I dated 1802. And there was. Utamaro
created an image of a woman tattooing the arm of a man dated circa 1796-8.
So, I guess it wasn't so ironic after all.
Oh well! As Rosanne Rosannadanna used to say: Never mind. (Sigh. Big sigh.)
BELOW ARE LINKS TO
THE OTHER THREE PAGES
DEVOTED TO BAD BOYS AND THEIR TATTOOS
CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO GO TO THOSE PAGES
has been removed.