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Tattoos and The Yakuza

Words:

Edd Norval
May 9, 2018

The Yakuza, Japan's shadowy criminal organisation, are known for their elaborate narrative full-body tattoos that tell a story only a select few people are able to read - to them the ink takes on a spiritual and moral significance, going well beyond simply aesthetics.

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In the West tattoos have become an extension of an outfit. They're a way to say something permanent - to pay homage to those we've lost, show off your belief system or an affinity to things you like. Although people still keep their tattoos hidden - the culture of visible tattoos, even now on the neck and hands, is ubiquitous on our television screens and down in our local bars.


The culture of the Yakuza in Japan, partly by-proxy of the nature of their activities, remains secretive and hidden. By adorning their bodies with traditionally symbolic designs, they can build a story of their spiritual life, goals and dreams that only those closest to them will see.


Horiyoshi III is one of the most important pioneers of Irezumi tattooing (full-body suits, usually to mark criminals). He was himself first inspired to learn the craft after seeing a Yakuza's decorated body in a bath house when he was young. The image was powerful and mystical, gaining significance through his life. Informing his career choice Horiyoshi III has developed the form, becoming one of the best known names and still a favourite of the Yakuza.

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When asked about why he thought that he was the tattoo artist of choice for the organization, he saw it as being a matter of quality - he had dedicated his life to perfecting what he does. The Yakuza are an intrinsic part of Japanese life and as such they have become accustomed to having the best that the country has to offer. Horiyoshi III is that when it comes to tattooing.


Although the Yakuza's existence is not criminal, their business often involves illicit practices like loan sharking and prostitution. Their place in Japanese society is a conflicted one - they're at once seen as shadowy figures who control multi-billion dollar businesses, but they're also affectionately known as ninkyō, which means 'to help those below you'. Their efforts in the face of natural disasters is often heralded. In many ways, despite occasionally overlapping, they present a parallel system of governance in the country - one with their own set of rules and rituals.


Tattooing, as mentioned, is one of them - it's links to criminality is known the world over. The tattoos preferred by members of the Yakuza though are more in-keeping with Japan's traditions than criminal conventions. Their tattoo's often depict scenes, drawing from Japanese myth, folklore and history. As Yakuza aren't maligned by Japanese society in the same way as criminals are outcast in others - their interest in tattooing isn't about showing off criminality or masculinity, they could just tell people their allegiance - instead it's more of a culture that has developed within their group as a form of identity and belonging.

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Tattoos are taboo in many Asian countries. Although more common in Japan, they still have negative connotations. Their existence in the shadows means that they retain the association to criminality. In Japanese culture, darkness and the shadows themselves are important. It can be seen in their art, film and architecture - to have light, you must have shadow. Together they create a oneness - none more important than the other. The Yakuza are a balance to their society - the members tattoos are their own way of keeping balance.


Eastern culture has a view of beauty that holds delicacy, quietness and calm with greater significance than we do in the West. Just like the prevalence of darkness, these characteristics can be seen in all parts of Japan's society. When the West shouts, the East whispers. Where the West is drunkenly dancing on tables, the East has tea ceremonies. The Yakuza embody parts of both, but out of respect for their roots in Japanese society, place emphasis on their countries traditional culture and customs.


Respect runs deep through Horiyoshi III's work and through the people he tattoos. It's about respecting yourself - that's why the artwork stays hidden - to keep some mystery. There's also the idea of respecting your history. Both the artist and the Yakuza know that respecting and honouring the traditions that paved the way for them is crucial. Understanding the history of what came before, and why it is this way, is the only that progress can be made. Their codes and practices have changed over time - since the 1980s Horiyoshi III has used electric tattoo guns instead of the more traditional hand-poked method. That doesn't mean he's forgotten where he came from though - the creatures that come alive on the skin of his clients hold the same significance and beauty that they did when he first saw that mysterious man in the bath-house on the day he decided to become a tattoo master.

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Life has changed for both - out of necessary progress as well as persecution. Their roles as purveyors of practices with such deep cultural roots means that time is moving faster than they are willing to. The Yakuza can no longer get construction contracts, a mainstay for the organisations for a considerable time.


Thanks to outsiders ideas of the group, formed through depictions in films and stories, sees them viewed only half-truthfully as outlaws. Their foundations in the Meiji-period of Japan, when ragtag hustlers became more organised, meant that whilst retaining the mysterious cool of gangsters, they have also become consummate businessmen and members of society. Simultaneously tattooing is something that has had its own trajectory, going from tribal custom, to mark of a criminal and now into mainstream culture.


Does this mean that the two are becoming more sanitised, accepted and mainstream? In many ways, yes. Although the appeal for the young kids that want to become a part of them - either a gangster or a tattooist, often comes from the illusion of living a life out of the norm. It's a romantic ideal that no matter what it is attached to, will always have its appeal.


Older generations might still have their roots deep in a more fertile soil, still presided over by shadows - yet the future might see them bathing in light. It stands to reason that the Yakuza, despite their reputations, are absolutely necessary. They're misunderstood, yet still offer enormous benefits - both to members and in helping people out. Tattooing is also growing and allows talented artists a way to make a stable source of income. The relationship between the two of them, criminality and tattooing, is of permanence. Both of them struggle to shake of age-old images that both counter their growth whilst also contributing to it.


As modernisation sweeps away our reliance on history and passed-down knowledge - these two occupations or lifestyles retain their proud legacy. Whether that will continue remains to be seen. If they ever do disappear - their marks will not be forgotten.

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