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Japanese Tattoos

From Southern China the practice spread along the silk-route. There have been a few periods in the history of the Far East when tattoos were accepted. Tattooing was mostly associated with the lower classes or the underworld. Though practiced in China for thousands of years, civilized and sophisticated Chinese showed nothing but disdain for it throughout this period. The practice become completely discredited after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was also held in contempt in Japan then greatly influenced by China in this regard.

This changed in the 18′th century when artists became interested in the art of tattooing. For a period tattoos were very fashionable particularly among workers. The  tattoo style even became the international trendsetter. Prominent Westerners were attracted to the  style and even traveled to Japan to receive the artwork. The introduction of the Japanese style to the west contributed greatly to the short-lived vogue of tattooing among the Western elite at the end of the 19′th century.

There are many parallels in the histories of tattooing in China and Japan. Firstly, both countries included peoples with rich tattoo traditions living beyond the direct influence of the center of power. In the 3′rd century CE, Chinese sources mentioned the Wa people who tattooed their bodies to ward off evil dragons.

Until recently, the women of the Ainu people who still live on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, had remarkable mouth tattoos. Tribes with their own tattoo culture have also long been a feature on the margins of the Chinese empire. Secondly, the practice of punitive tattooing, the public humiliation of offenders, occurred both in China and Japan. This punishment was essentially a life sentence as people marked in this way were condemned to a life on the margins of society. Thus a vigourous tattoo culture gradually developed within society’s underbelly. The third common factor was the boost that the art of tattooing received in both countries generated by the immense popularity of the novel Suikoden, in which the most important characters are tattooed.

In ancient China people lived according to strict Confucian moral codes. 500 years before the birth of Christ, Confucius preached that civilized people should honor and respect their parents and ancestors. Any mutilation of the body, a parental gift, conflicted with these basic tenets and brought shame upon the family and the community. Cultivated Chinese viewed tattooing, like eating raw meat and shaving body hair, as barbarous. These activities characterized wild, uncivilized tribes living beyond or on the borders of the Chinese empire. The first report of a tattooing culture appears in Chinese writings dating from around 200 BCE. It describes the Yue people who decorated themselves with mythical figures to protect themselves from dragons and sea monsters when fishing.

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