Horimono: Traditional Japanese Tattooing

Look what Gaël wrote!

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Engraving of Kyumonryu Shishin (九紋龍史進) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) | Image from Kuniyoshiproject.com

Gaël wrote an impressive article titled: "Horimono: The History of Traditional Japanese Tattoos". This writing takes the reader through Japanese tattoo culture dating back to 1603, up into more recent days. The author does a comprehensive dive into Horimono's history, noting powerful influencers to the community. I've pulled some of my favorite pieces for the reader to dip into. Click the button below to find the full article!



Horimono (彫物) is a little-known term to the rest of the tattoo world but is one of the most used amongst Japanese tattooists. The use of this term emphasizes a deep respect for the practice. Other poetic terms are used in Japan to refer to Japanese tattooing: wabori (和彫) “Japanese carving”, shisei (刺青) “pierce blue”, referring to the blue reflections that sumi ink usually takes as it ages, bunshin (文身), “body decoration” and many others.

However, all these terms have a different connotation from the word Irezumi. This word is frequently used outside of Japan and by Japanese people unfamiliar with this culture. While irezumi is indeed linked to Japanese tattoos, its image and meaning are much more negative.

In this article, we’ll cover the beginnings of Japanese Tattooing, its history, and its evolution over the centuries.

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Tattoo of Kyumonryu Shishin (九紋龍史進) by the horishi, Houryu (芳柳)

The Origins of Traditional Japanese Tattooing

Irezumi (入れ墨), literally “insert ink” started to become a frequently used term by the Japanese population in 1720. It was on this year, during the Edo period (1603-1868), that tattooing started to be used for punitive purposes on the island. Irezumi was used to mark people who had committed crimes, using symbols that would vary depending on the crime or region. These marks would range from a simple line around the forearm to a kanji (Chinese character) on the forehead.

Thus, Irezumi does not designate the traditional tattoos that we know today. Nowadays, this word can still have a very negative image in Japan, depending on who you are talking to. According to the horishi (彫師), a master tattooist I had the chance to meet, this word still has a pejorative connotation and I quickly understood that it was best for me to not use this term.

horishi is a master tattooist who practices traditional Japanese tattooing. These professionals are craftspeople and it’s generally inappropriate to think of them as artists. They tend to dislike this word. Just like to designate different styles of Japanese tattooing, there are words to designate people who practice this craft, including bunshinshi (文身師).


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Woodblock print of Tanmeijiro Genshogo (短冥次郎阮小吾) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) | Image from Kuniyoshiproject.com

The Popularization of Suikoden in Japan

In 1827, tattooing in Japan experienced a turning point in its design and image. It was on this date that the master printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) began a series of work based on The Suikoden.

Suikoden (Water Margin) is a Chinese novel telling the story of 108 outlaws fighting against a corrupt government. The 36 most powerful outlaws are the main heroes of the story, while the remaining 72, less powerful, are their soldiers. This novel can be seen as the Chinese counterpart of Robin Hood. When this novel arrived in Japan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi seized it to stage its protagonists in many heroic woodblock prints.

Since the Shogunate (the military dictatorship during this period) had access to these prints, Utagawa Kuniyoshi paid attention to the details by adding Chinese influences to his prints, especially in the clothes and swords of the protagonists. Otherwise, the government would have seen these illustrations as defiance of the printmaker against the rulers.

To accentuate the legendary and heroic side of these outlaws, Kuniyoshi depicted them with tattoos representing mythological creatures and religious symbols, covering huge parts of their bodies.

It’s at this period that the premises of the Japanese tattooing that we know now appeared. The Japanese working class found the heroic image conveyed in the Suikoden ukiyo-e prints appealing, and many craftsmen at the time began to reproduce these tattoos on their own bodies. From Kuniyoshi, inspired by existing tattoo styles, and the Japanese craftsmen, inspired by Kuniyoshi’s prints, emerged a new form of tattoo style and craftsmanship called Horimono in Japan.

"Gael, Horimono: The History of Traditional Japanese Tattoos, Voyapon.com, August 3, 2021."

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