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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Japanese Tattoos - A Book Review

I'm not sure where I really stand on the art of tattooing.

I guess since I called it an art, I must appreciate it. I certainly like viewing well-done ink that people have done, and cringe when I see things that make me embarrassed for the person that is the walking canvas.

Me? I don't have any tattoos. Number one, I couldn't think of a single thing that I would want to put onto myself to mar my skin. The fact that I said 'mar' will tell you how I feel, also.

I'm not perfect, but I am happy enough with the way I look that I don't need to augment myself with decoration.

I am aware that many people who have a tattoo applied to themselves do so to commemorate an important part of their life - a birth, or a death, for example.

Others... others do it on a drunken dare, or simply because it seemed like a good idea at the time, or because they figure putting barbed wire around their arm makes them look tough or cool.

The people I respect, when it comes to tattooing, are those who actually look at a tattoo as a work of art, and seek out a tattooist who is an artist to complement the vision for themselves that they have thought of long and hard.

For myself, Number two, I have hair on my body and arms, and the only thing I could have tattooed onto my skin would be a bear, so that my arm hair could look like its fur. And, as I got older, that black bear could become a panda bear and eventually a polar bear, as the black hair turns white/grey.

Few people, I think, actually contemplate what that tattoo will look like as they age.

Seriously... what tattoo could I get? A dragon, a scorpion (my Japanese astrology year, and western astrology sign)... a Japanese flag (I'm not Japanese).

Tuttle Publishing recently sent me a book to review: Japanese Tattoos by Brian Ashcraft with Hori Benny... a book I looked forward to reading because I knew it would try and present the best of the world of irezumi, the Japanese tattoo.

I was not disappointed. The book is filled with page after page of real tattoos of Japanese ink art.

There's no yellow smiley face or comic book figures... just art done artfully. Yes, comic book art is art... but when I see someone with yet another superman logo or batman logo, I'm left wondering - why. I like the characters... I really like Green Lantern. Heck, I'm wearing an Orange Lantern (part of the Green Lantern mythos) t-shirt as I type this, but I don't see how I need to memorialize that character because it's not like I live my life like a superhero.

The book, Japanese Tattoos, shows the reader, however, what a tattoo should look like for someone who has put a lot of serious thought into how they, the person, wants to look for the rest of their life.

Now... what the heck could Ashcraft and Benny the co-authors write about tattoos?

Well... the dek under the books title proudly states: History, Culture and Design.

The book begins with a great history of irezumi, discussing when it first appeared, WHY it first appeared, how it was applied, and even why it is done nowadays.

The authors note that tattoos are often looked upon as the milieu of the yakuza, Japan's gangsters aka the legitimate businessman's clubs of Japan, and warn those who might want to live in Japan that having a tattoo can therefore present burdens. But yes, it is a lifestyle in Japan, and isn't something that should be taken lightly.

I wondered, how can you make a book on tattoos... but the authors have broken things up nicely, not just presenting photos of say "Maple Leaves", but then explain what the maple leaf means in Japanese history and culture, and why it can be used as a artistic motif.

Not only does one get an art history lesson, one gets a lesson in Japanese culture.

That is why Japanese Tattoos is a fantastic book! It's why, even if you have no interest in getting a tattoo, I would recommend you read it. You will learn a lot about culture.

There's a whole page on how to tell the difference between a Japanese dragon and a Chinese dragon - it's the claws.

For example... there's a page on the 'phoenix'.

Westerners know of the phoenix hopefully from more than just Harry Potter and know of its Greco-Roman mythical ability to rise up from the ashes of death. But it means something completely different in Asian culture.

Japanese Tattoos provides a detailed history of what the phoenix is and what it means in Chinese and Japanese culture - essentially it's a karmic yin-yang of male and female personification when written, but when drawn, the phoenix is female... and is usually paired with the dragon, which is male. But for tattoo purposes, one can just have a phoenix (or a dragon).

The book further explains the background art one might see with a phoenix... such as the fact that the phoenix is usually depicted eating bamboo or within a paulownia tree.

There's also a chapter on kanji tattoos... you know, those Chinese-style letters that standalone as a tattoo... that you wonder if it really means what the person inked thinks it means.

Gold pig? And the kanji for pig is inked upside down. This image is NOT in the book. I said it only showed quality art tattoos.
Anyhow, the book does offer some great advice on kanji tattoos, with proper descriptions of phrases should you think you are Japanese enough to pull it off.

Along with a chapter on kanji, there's one on:
  • Nature;
  • Creatures living and mythical;
  • Gods and Guardians, Heroes and Demons;
  • The Full Bodysuit - this one is VERY interesting;
  • Contemporary Designs and Geek Tattoos - something that you better pray remains contemporary for the next 60 years, or you're just going to look back and say you were immature. That's just my opinion, however.
 A complete surprise to me in Japanese Tattoos, was the inclusion of biographies on Japanese tattoo artists, and even biographies of tattoo clients! Who they are, why they are who they are, and how they either got into tattooing or why they got tattoos.

It's a fascinating look, for me, into people's psyches... because I often see people and things in a psychological manner. In university I did study psychological behavior of political science...I don't know how one finds a job with that skill, but I suppose it helps in the day-to-day struggle of work and life. Yeah, I studied later to be a journalist (and was), and am now a writer in my day job.

Lastly... the book does recommend that people interested in getting a tattoo do some checking on the tattooist and the studio... and provides some questions one should ask first.

I would also recommend looking at photographic examples of the work the inker has done in the past to ensure you respect their style.

Every artist has their own style... and you better hope it matches your current personality as well as your future personality. Good luck with that one, but seriously, if you have a cartoony piece of ink art on you and it looks great as a 20-year-old... how will it look on you as a 50-year-old.

While I can't and won't personally suggest everyone go get a tattoo, I can recommend you all go out and read a copy of Tuttle Publishing's Japanese Tattoos - US$17.95, a full 160 pages, less cover.

Tuttle Publishing - thanks for the consideration.

Andrew Joseph

1 comment:

  1. We will surely recommend this book to the tatto lovers and we will read it too! They can treat as Japanese Examples.