I wept when I looked at the close-up photo of a number tattooed on a woman’s arm at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
When I stepped back to blow my nose and allow a group of teenagers to see the photo, one of the girls lazily chewing on a big wad of gum nudged her friend, “Hey don’t you think that’s a cool tattoo?”
“Ohmygod I love it!” said the friend.
So many things I wanted to say, and wished I’d said, but I was speechless.
I know tattoos weren’t invented in Nazi Germany – concentration camp inmates were simply branded like cattle – but I don’t understand, and I can’t explain why tattooing has become such a popular worldwide form of expression that people willingly spend thousands of dollars, suffering many hours of torture to cover their skin with some very carefully selected illustrations they can never remove.
The word tattoo [from the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning ‘to mark something’] was brought back from Tahiti in 1769 by Captain James Cook!
Tattooing, for spiritual and decorative purposes, dates back thousands of years across Europe, China, Japan, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Samoa and New Zealand.
- The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Japanese tattooed criminals as a visible mark of punishment.
- In 54 BC when Julius Caesar invaded Britain he described seeing long-lasting decorations pricked on the skin of the inhabitants.
- During the Middle Ages, Christian Crusaders identified themselves with the mark of the Jerusalem cross on their foreheads so that they could be given a proper Christian burial if they died in battle.
Some people (as I show in these two photos I took at the Hollywood Bowl) choose one or two small tattoos such as butterflies, flowers, or designs…
But many people prefer to cover large portions of their skin.
- If you cover the upper arm it’s called the ‘half-sleeve‘
- the ‘full-sleeve‘ includes the upper and lower arms.
When I met Max in San Diego, he was happy to explain his tattoos to me.
- The tattoo on his forearm is of a flapper from the Great Gatsby
- in the middle is a Homage to James Elroy, with the Crest of Montenegro above it
- on the right, “To mine own self be True”
- the watch: “All dogs go to Heaven“. The time is at 11:11 “The Wishing Hour“.
I met Adrian at my cash register. She told me there’s a lot of synchronicity with birth dates in her family: both her father and her father-in-law were born on 02.03 and her grandson was born on 02.03.04 and the numbers are in the tattoos.
The first tattoo is of her grandson, the fisherman is her husband, and she spent a long time making sure I understood the tattoo on the right:
- Purple is the color of cancer.
- Radiation is purple.
- Many people in her life have died from cancer: her mother, her father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, aunt, uncle and a good friend. All their initials are on her arm.
- Even though she’s taken them all the girl is pretty, because there’s always hope …
Angelina (below) told me:
“Most people can only take three hours of tattooing pain at a time. Each one of my tattoos took about six to nine hours.”
“When you’re tattooed it feels like a razor blade digging in you,”
“Each tattoo gun has six to nine tiny needles working at a time.”
OMG that sounds far worse than childbirth!
She has a cherry blossom on her back, a peacock on her arm, and the Japanese Great wave inside her arm.
This is Emory from Vancouver, Canada whom I met at the Museum yesterday. She told me that the Borneo Rose (on her right leg) guards the wearer from evil spirits, and is usually tattooed on a young man’s shoulders.
The above is just a small sampling of the hundreds of tattooed arms and legs that walk past my cash register.
For more information you can check out Camila Rocha’s site. She’s a tattoo artist from Brazil who came to my cash register two weeks ago.
Have you seen the book The Japanese Tattoo by Sandi Fellman? It was difficult for the American photographer to meet the Irezumi
”an extreme and secretive group of people living in the underworld of Tokyo and Osaka who have transformed themselves into living works of art through tattooing…”
and she had to spend a long time gaining their trust before being permitted to photograph them.
“These are people who have chosen to suffer years of torture and perhaps even shorten their lives* to make their bodies look unnatural.“
* tattooing shorten lives when too little free skin is left to breath or perspire.
* * * * *
I’d love to hear what you think of tattoos. Can you explain why they’re so fashionable?
Thank you Kirsty.
I think a lot of people are be be very, very sorry in a few years.
Unfortunately too many people don’t realize that a tattoo is permanent.
I have never understood people who cover their whole bodies in tattoos. Sometimes one small or artistic one can look nice. But inevitably, when a person’s skin ages and starts to droop, the tattoos look horrible. I do, however, love the flower on the girl’s upper arm in the first picture.
Can you imagine hugging someone covered with a whole body tattoo? Its not skin you’re hugging. Its something else…
I also really like the flower tattoo on the girl’s arm in the first picture. Oh gosh I didn’t think about aging tattooed skin starting to droop. How sad!
Yes, just seeing how my own skin is aging, I can’t imagine if I had tattoos all over it!
I think how one perceives it is relative. My.grandmother had a tiny tattoo on her forehead and one on her forearm. It was standard practice at the time, but went out of fashion during my parents time. But I am positive she would have been disapproving of me covering my body with drawings like the ones pictured above 🙂
Thanks for joining the discussion Madhu.
I realize from my recent readings about tattoos that our perception of them is also relative to the “fashion” of the time, so when your granny was a young woman it would have been unusual if she hadn’t had a small tattoo on her forehead.
Do you remember what the tattoo depicted? (I wonder whether all her friends had the same one?)
I cannot understand the urge either – but it’s very popular here in Sweden as well. My grandfather had a tatoo he got when he was at sea as a young man. He did not like it as he aged. My children think it’s OK with tattoos, but would never have one themselves. I agree on the possibility of maybe a little one on the shoulder or ancle or something, but would never have one myself. The worst thing I have ever seen was a mother with her pram, having a rather big tattoo (30×10 cm) in front just above her breasts. That part of the body will be …not so smooth and lean within some ten years or so.
I think the skin you are born with is much more beautiful the way it is.
Thank you for joining in the discussion.
I believe tattooing was very popular among seamen in the early 1900’s because they’d stop at exotic ports where it was a highly developed art form. Where was your grandfather’s tattoo?
I wonder whether its scary for a baby to nurse from a woman who has such a large tattoo above her breasts?
I too ask that same question hundred of times Rosie Auntie. And honestly I am still not sure, how do so many people go crazy about this whole Tattoo thing!! 🙂
Are tattoos popular among your group of friends?
No it’s not!
But yes it popularity has grown to a great extent among youth of our country since past few years. 🙂
I don’t like tattoos but respect the people who have them or want to have them done – that’s up to them, I wouldn’t want them. That said, though, if the colours weren’t so horrible (I detest the blues and greens particularly, I don’t think they look good on skin whatever it’s colour) and there were no pain, I’d probably get a tattoo. What of, though – I’ve no idea.
As for those teenage girls, I’m afraid I’d have kicked them and then taken them to read about Nazi atrocities – which, really, nobody deserves to read.
I like your comment Val – though you don’t particularly like or want a tattoo yourself, you respect the people who have them done. That’s what I feel.
Perhaps one of these days you’ll get yourself a small one…?
Those girls? They were on a school trip and I assumed and hoped their teacher had taught them something about the Nazi atrocities…
I don’t care for tattoos. Most tattoos are ugly and angry looking . . . like being bruised for life.
I think tattoos may look ugly and angry if you don’t understand the picture; that’s why I asked everyone I photographed to explain their tattoos. Everyone had definite reasons for choosing their particular images.
When people wear clothes, shoes, or hairstyles that don’t appeal to me . . . I don’t stop and ask them WHY they chose them. Same for their houses, their cars, and the food they eat. I figure it’s just “personal preference.”
Same goes for tattoos.
thanks for the gallery of tattoos you have photographed … i do see them of course but have never been up close! i think people do it to make a statement about their individuality, then for some it becomes a compelling habit … is it linked to the pain they endure? … some people of course self-harm as way of relieving tension … small discrete decorative tats are no problem but those big gaudy body-covering ones really shock me!
You’re quite right and I thank you for pointing out that people most probably “get tattoos as a statement of their individuality…”
I don’t know whether its a way of relieving tension as I don’t ask people to share that kind of personal information with me.
Hmmm, what are they teaching kids in school these days…?
I think there are a lot of reasons people do it. On the one end, you’ve got folks like those teens you saw. It’s a cool factor with zero thinking put into meaning. I don’t mind tasteful tats, but my personal pet peeve is applying Chinese characters to your skin when you neither speak nor read the language… And I’d bet, for some, especially at the extreme end of things, there is something akin to addiction going on.
That quote at the end of your post, which is a little judgmental (but that’s my opinion), is the same question that could be asked of so many human behaviours. So many of the things we do are ‘bad’ for us and our health, whether it be fashion, the things we allow into our bodies and those of our children, our habits and pastimes. And yet we do them anyways, even fully cognizant of the effects.
further to your comment about people choosing tattoos of Chinese characters when they don’t speak the language, I see a fair number of tourists walking in the Museum with an English phrase on their tee-shirts that doesn’t make sense, and when I ask them what it means they have no idea. But its a tee-shirt not a permanent mark on one’s skin.
I apologize if you think the quote at the end is judgmental. Since walking on the Camino I’ve worked very hard on accepting people for who they are, and not passing any judgement. I thought the post was too long and didn’t include enough information about the people photographed in the book many of whom have covered almost every inch of their skin with tattoos.
I added the following:
It was difficult for Sandi Fellman an American photographer to meet the Irezumi
”an extreme and secretive group of people living in the underworld of Tokyo and Osaka who have transformed themselves into living works of art through tattooing…”
and she had to spend a long time gaining their trust before being permitted to photograph them.
You are so right about the t-shirts. Most of the time, they have no idea what they say. Sometimes, the shirts will even say things the wearer would be mortified to be seen in if they knew what it meant. Like with the Chinese character tats, the common feeling is that sporting a foreign language is ‘cool’ or worldly in some way.
I find fad development quite interesting. Didn’t tattooing in the US start out among the prison population? Making the leap from ex-con to the average teen is a fascinating process.
I have seen poorly done tattoos and some really nice ones. A service man I know has his initials monogrammed on his chest exactly as one would monogram a sweater, in old English lettering. It’s nice and should age well. But the extrememe ones make me wonder if the people will outgrow them.
Thank you for joining in the discussion Renee.
A tattoo of one’s initials in old English lettering sounds really tasteful, and I’m sure will age well. I’ve actually never seen anyone walking past my cash register with something as simple on their chest, but then everyone keeps their shirts on in the museum.
There are so many reasons why people around the world find meaning in tattoos, and it’s probably close to impossible to categorize people who choose to decorate their bodies through this practice. There is certainly plenty of variation when it comes to artistic merit, and without a doubt some people think through their body art better than others (with some inevitably regretting it). But in Western culture, where tattooing is almost exclusively decorative rather than ceremonial, I find it fascinating that people who choose large or prominent tattoos invite all of us onlookers to see them as people who have no qualms over self-expression…but maybe importantly, they provide us all with the opportunity to either skip to judgment, or be tolerant and non-judgmental. In my experience, anytime I’ve made the mistake of rushing to judgment, I’ve been wrong. I’ve met heavily-tattooed people who radiate a vibe of being the biggest bad asses, but who are soft and sweet when you get to know them. And we’ve all met unadorned people who dress in conventional and unremarkable ways and appear to be average, but who are wilder and more cutting-edge than their tattooed counterparts. So I find it hard to try to fit anyone into a box and to pinpoint their motivations — tattooed or not. The best I can do is to try to be open to learning more about someone based on their personality and not their tendency to invite ink onto their skin.
Hello e.i. fullstop,
I thank you most sincerely for your passionate response. I agree with you that you cannot judge a person by the size, or the kind of picture tattooed on their body. If I ask a stranger to tell me about their tattoo it’s not to judge or to tease, its because I want to understand the art, and everyone is only to happy to explain their pictures.
My job is in such a public place that I see hundreds of people every day and people from all over the world, most of whom are strangers to me, yet when they leave my cash register we will have shared a friendly moment, and I’m proud to say that most people are laughing when they walk away from my cash register.
When I first started working at the museum in 2001 I saw very few tattoos. What I don’t understand, and I’m sure you’d also be amazed if you were standing next to me, is why so many people in 2013 are sporting full arm and body tattoos.
The story of the girl chewing gum and commenting on the holocaust tattoo tells quite a story. I personally don’t like tattoos. They look so awful as the skin ages, but many people don’t think further than the present. They think it’s sexy! Each to their own. It doesn’t offend me, as long as its not members of my family.
Thanks for joining the conversation Linda.
Going through the Holocaust Museum in D.C. was a very sobering experience for me. Even though it was a bitterly cold day and our hotel was over an hour away I walked back to the hotel afterwards because I had to clear my head. I kept hearing that girl’s comment and wondering what I should’ve could’ve said. I still don’t know.
In Japan, heavily tatooed bodies indicate that their wearer is part of the Japanese mafia (yakusa). Consequently, onsens (hot springs) do not permit anyone with tatoos to enjoy their facilities. This would be a huge loss for me, a passionate onsen lover.
Just last week I was driving home from work and wondering how you were Aruna. What lovely synchronicity and how nice to get your comment.
Thank you for explaining that onsens (hot springs) don’t permit people with tattoos to use their facilities. Very interesting! Are the Japanese hot springs different from the ones in US? Do people soak in individual tubs or communal pools?
The Japanese mafia (yakusa) are mentioned in The Japanese Tattoo book.
I think tattoos are fine as long as they’re not excessively done. People have their own reasons for having them. Symbolic meaning. Tributes. Reminders. Or sometimes it’s because they need to feel physical pain because they can’t handle their emotions. Some do it just for fun or because they think it’s cool – I happen to fall into this category – don’t have one yet, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Sounds horribly painful though. And I didn’t know that it shortens life if it covers too much skin.
Thank you for joining the conversation. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on why people get them. I didn’t realize that some people “need to feel physical pain because they can’t handle their emotions”.
What kind of tattoo are you thinking of? If I were to get one I’d choose a rose 😀
Our skin which is our largest “organ” needs to breath. It becomes a problem when it’s almost totally covered with tattoos as shown in The Japanese Tattoo Book.
I’ve always wanted a swallow or an owl…;)
I think tattoos are revolting…and the chewing gum chewers need a good talking to.
Are tattoos popular in Italy?
Have you ever been to the D.C. Holocaust Museum? It’s a very emotional experience that left me feeling wrung out. I still don’t know what I should’ve / could’ve said to that silly girl.
Hi Rosie. I can understand wanting to have a tattoo – I think as a form of self expression, it must be similar to getting an ear-ring piercing. I would worry that I would tire of the design after a while, or I would no long believe in the symbol I chose. My skin has changed so much as I get older, I would also wonder what a design would look like after changes in skin tone, etc. Good post! Jane
Piercing your ear doesn’t take hours: its a one-two-three now its over procedure whereas getting a tattoo takes hours and is extremely painful. Perhaps you can compare tattooing to stretching the ear lobes to put the large circular discs in them.
Tattooing is an amazing art form and some of the tattoo artists are skilled in their designs and painting but what happens when you get tired of it? You have to wear long sleeved shirts.
Thanks for joining the discussion Jane.
Tattoos don’t bother me too much. Like Jane above me said, I see it as an expression of art or personality. The funny ones are the guys or gals who tattoo a name of a lover, then break-up. Oops.
People get tattooed as a statement of their individuality and to express their artistic side, but that doesn’t explain why its become so popular in the past few years.
I feel sorry for those folks who tattoo their lover’s name and then break-up. It’s only a skilled tattoo artist who can change a name into a design.
You have more nerve than I do, Rosie! I’m always curious about tattoos, but I never ask anyone to tell me about them. I suppose they are usually quite proud of their artwork and would be glad to share their stories. I don’t understand the allure and I really can’t imagine what some of these beautiful young women are thinking. At Disneyland last year I saw a stunning young woman with a huge “Bride of Frankenstein” all over her shoulder and neck. I can’t believe she won’t regret that someday! I enjoyed your historical information…I never knew a bit of it! 🙂
Thanks for joining the discussion Debra,
I really like your new gravatar. Its so nice to know who I’m talking to 😀
I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by how happy people are to talk about their tattoos. Its a unique art form and tattoo artists are highly skilled professionals, and most people have spent a long time choosing the design.
I also can’t imagine why a beautiful young woman would choose to have a huge “Bride of Frankenstein” tattooed all over her shoulder and neck. I dread to think what’s going to happen when she gets bored with it!
Knowing you, I’m not surprised to hear that you enjoyed the historical information. Isn’t it interesting how we got the name?
Such a wide range of thoughts in this post. At the beginning, I was shaking my head … yet I enjoyed you getting and sharing the stories behind a variety of tattoos.
I should’ve mentioned in my post that tattooing is a unique art form and tattoo artists are highly skilled professionals.
I’m pleased to know that you enjoyed hearing the stories about the tattoos. Before settling on a design some people spend a long time deciding exactly what to choose.
I think we’ve all learned something about tattoos from all the comments. Do you see many tattooed people in your neighborhood?
Amazing how many tattoos one sees throughout a daily journey.
I could hardly read this post, as I think tattoos originally were a big counter-culture statement of nonconformity … but now everybody under 40 has them, so how nonconformist can they be?? Plus, as your astute readers have noted — not such a good look when you’re flabby and 50 and your butterfly is sagging. My daughter has two little ones and I can’t stand to think of her perfect pink skin permanently marred with them … aaauuugggghhhh!
p.s. Did you see the article in the Sunday NY Times on the Camino??!!!
It is interesting that something that was such a big counter-culture statement of nonconformity has suddenly become the trendiest fashion. I don’t understand why. When I started working at the museum I hardly saw any tattoos and now about 50% of the tourists walking past my cash register have some kind of tattoo.
Many thanks for letting me know about the article on the Camino in yesterday’s NY Times. It’s written by Jack Hitt . In the 1990’s I read an excerpt of his book “Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain,” in the Travel section of our local newspaper. That article was my introduction to the Camino …
Here’s the link to yesterday’s article
I am very disappointed by this blog post. If I had known that this would be about passing judgment on people getting tattoos I would not have lent an image of myself and my name. The post started out very interesting, but in the end it was mainly to ridicule people who have tattoos. Many of the readers jumped on the bandwagon. I’m very surprised by the conservative close-minded reactions. Too bad this post was misguided. It could have provided an interesting forum for intelligent discussion.
I am not going to try to explain why people get tattoos. If inquiry comes from a place of curiosity, most people with tattoos would gladly engage. But if it comes from a place of judgment, then there’s no conversation to be had.
Good morning Jolly,
I’m really sorry you’re upset by my post and I hope you’ll accept my sincere apologies, but I’m also delighted that you joined in the discussion, and I welcome you to my blog.
My aim in writing this post was not to judge. Since walking on the Camino I’ve worked very hard on accepting people for who they are, and not passing any judgement … I wrote
“I don’t understand, and I can’t explain why tattooing has become such a popular worldwide form of expression…”
I was hoping to hear from people with tattoos – so far you are the first – to explain why. I can understand why someone would get a small tattoo like yours and the young woman above you, and I understand that each tattoo must be carefully chosen because it’s forever, but I don’t understand why some people don’t stop at one or two especially when its so painful and so expensive, and is “forever”.
I ended the post quoting [not judging] from the “Japanese Tattoo” a book about the Irezumi who are
” an extreme and secretive group of people who live in the underworld of Tokyo and Osaka and have transformed themselves – through tattooing – into living works of art. ”
It was difficult for Sandy Fellman, an American photographer, to meet them and she had to spend a long time gaining their trust before being permitted to photograph them.
I can see that I need to add a further explanation about the book along with the quote.
I love to see tattoos and have been wanting to get one for a long time, but since they are so permanent I do not know what I would chose I change my mind often since I am a artist, one of the main reasons why they get a tattoo is because it has a sentimental value, it tells a story or it honors some one, like some of the tattoos shown, and they are willing to take the pain for that story or that special some one, yes they are teenagers that will regret it but that is it they are only young, and we only live once, even if skin sags, they had fun they will have a story to tell their grandchildren. I see tattoos as an art, a form of art that is created with pain, that is why is so popular now people who have them want to express them selves through their body and are willing to go through it is a way of expression like all art.
I do have to say I like them but if you ask my mother, she does not like them at all, she does not want me to get one at all, she thinks it makes people look bad, but she is from another generation. If some one is tattoo all over she thinks is a bad person, and really that does not mean a thing, there are bad people with no tattoos. I think is art, but some people thing is a bad thing, it depends who you ask.
Great post you are making me think, and do not know if I would go through the pain, I am a bit scare of the needle, so for now I just look at them.
P.S. there is so bad tattoos out there too and sorry for the long comment 😉
Thank you for you for joining the discussion Doris. You don’t ever need to apologize for leaving me a long comment. I appreciate that you took the time to explain your thoughts on tattoos, because not only are you sharing an artist’s opinion, but, as you explained, though you’d like to get a tattoo, you are hesitating because it is so permanent.
You wrote that people get a tattoo because
– it has a sentimental value,
– it tells a story
– it honors some one
– it’s a form of art created in pain.
I agree 100% with you that you can’t say someone is bad because they are covered in tattoos.
I should have mentioned that tattooing is a unique art form, and that tattoo artists are highly skilled professionals.
I don’t understand why people are willing to put themselves in such pain for the art. And why now? Why have tattoos become so fashionable?
When I started working at the museum in 2001 I would hardly ever see tattoos, and now about 50% of the people walking past my cash register are tattooed.
I don’t know whether we can say only younger people are tattooed, but looking at the comments for this post, I think only young people understand the why of tattooing.
I think is the media, you see them everywhere, and celebrities, kids want to imitate them, this generation is all about instant gratification and rebellion. About the pain I do not know, but I can tell you something,
a friend of mine told me once, if you want to know how it hurts just put a needle through your skin, just the thought made me feel a bit scared yet I keep wanting one small but do want one, maybe because I do not know what type of pain I will encounter (should try the needle but I just do not), many people think is not painful, their friends tell them is not so they go, but it is painful.
If you do get brave enough to get a tattoo make sure you do a trial first. I heard a tattoo artist on the radio explaining that it is painful and many people can’t take the pain, so he always starts with a small area.
Holy cats ! Lots of comments on this one. I have a maple leaf on my right outer ankle (hey, I’m Canadian) lol. On my left leg I have small paw prints that go up from above my ankle and fade out below my knee. I had a cat, McCavity that would run right up me, or leap into my arms. Got my first tattoo at age 50. I’m not so crazy about full body stuff but certainly would get more. I’m contemplating more teeny, tiny paw prints up the back of my neck, disappearing into my hair-line.
Your tattoos sound very simple and nice Sybil. In my previous comment to Doris I wondered whether only young people get tattoos, and you proved me wrong.
You may be interested to know that although you may think the maple leaf is such an obvious choice of tattoo, and though many Canadians walk past my cash register every day, I still haven’t yet seen a maple leaf tattoo 😀
Sorry to impose, so Sybil did it hurt? I do want to go small on my tattoo too. @Rosie thanks for calling me young, I love you and you made my day ;), I am not, but I do act like a kid at times ;).
Amiga Doris I’m so happy I made your day 😀
Rosie, I couldn’t see an option to let me reply to Doris.
Yep it hurts, but it’s not like some unbearable pain. I could never deal with HOURS of tattooing. I’m good for about 20 minutes. You can get tattoos done in stages. At first I just got the outline of the maple leaf and then went back and got it filled in.
My paw prints are just outlines also. They fade out as they go up my leg.
It doesn’t hurt enough to stop me from getting another. I think they’re a bit like potato chips: it’s hard to just have one. 😉
In “the garden of evening mists” by Tan Twan Eng, there is a great element of the story about a brilliant Japanese tattoo artist and the woman he loves and the tattoos he does on her. It’s a great story for understanding why people do this. I am not a fan but I think it’s a generational thing. Your post was well done and very thought provoking. Great job!
From your description of Tan Twan Eng’s book “In the garden of evening mists” I think that’s exactly what I’m looking for.
Thank you for joining the conversation Tina. I really appreciate your comment.
They seem cool if done artistically but to much personally is no longer beautiful. Man and women in their simplicity shines the best. Beauty is how we are from within. As for the first tattoo, that is a sad reminder of a very cruel past. A past our young minds need to know.
There are some tattoo artists who do exceptionally beautiful and highly skilled work and even though we personally may not like to see an entire body covered in art, I think we must acknowledge their skill.
I know that you practice the “Beauty is how we are from within” mantra and that is why I like reading your blog. These days we’ lead such busy multitasking lives, we too often forget it.
Fascinating post, Rosie, with some beautiful tattoos. I’ve often thought about getting a tattoo, but could never come up with something I’d want to live with for the rest of my life.
Glad you enjoyed the post Robin. I think if you want a tattoo you can live with forever you need to choose something simple, like the girl in the second picture
Quite an interesting subject. I’d never get a tattoo myself – I’ve never been able to get up the courage to have my ears pierced. I know, I know… There’s just something about it beyond the minimal physical pain that I’m not comfortable with.
There was a bit of a fad here for tiny ankle-bracelet tattoos about a decade ago. They usually were little geometic designs, or flowers, and they were very pretty.
There’s a reason for any judgmental tone in Fellman’s book about Japanese tattoos. The art of the full-body tattoo – Irezumi – is associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. The tattoos are a sign of membership, and in many places in Japan people with such tattoos still are banned – not because they’re ugly, but because they’re associated with ugly behavior of the worst sort.
You can read a brief history of the yakuza here . A good sociological study is “The Japanese Mafia: Yakuza, Law and the State” by Peter Hill, and Shoko Tendo’s “Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Grangster’s Daughter” is both terrifying and fascinating.
(In case you’re wondering, I was going to participate in a read-along of Japanese literature a couple of years ago and didn’t get any father than buying and dipping into the books. I learned a good bit, though, and am going to make another run at it this year.)
You never fail to amaze me with your range of general knowledge Linda. I’m so grateful that you were able to explain the connection between the full body tattoo and the Japanese Mafia. Once you understand the connection it makes sense why the book would have such a judgmental tone.
I wonder why full body tattoos are only popular with Japanese Mafia and not other Mafia groups.
What is a read-along of Japanese literature. Is it like a book group?
I just came back to answer your question and saw that the Yakuza were mentioned up above. I missed that the first time.
When I finish reading my books for the Japanese literature challenge this year, I’ll be able to explain the relationship between the Yakuza and tattoos better, I suspect – not to mention the question of why Japanese mobsters, and no others.
The read-along itself is sponsored by a book blogger named Bellezza. She just posted her first announcement today, and you can see it here. People can read as many books as they like for the challenge, which runs from June to January. She suggests books, and it’s just a fun way for people to read together and blog about their selections. I’ve had my books for three years and haven’t yet managed to get them read. This year, I will!
After you read the books you may be able to explain why the Yakuza began doing the full body tattoos.
Thanks for the link to the reading group. If it starts in June there’s enough time for me to actually join.
I’m not against tatoos for other people. I just don’t think they’re for me. My hubby has one but I don’t feel one way or the other about them. There are some really beautiful ones as you’ve posted here. I do think they can be helpful to identify people in the event of a severe storm or hurricane.
Does your husband just have one single tattoo? Did he choose the illustration with your approval?
My goodness I never thought of tattoos being helpful to identify people during hurricanes.
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