In the 1820s, Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrated a series of prints called Water Margin featuring warriors covered in artful tattoos. The characters were based on historic fiction, but the colorful full-body tattoos were a detail that he added. Other artists continued the practice. Later, people started getting their bodies inked in this manner. You might have thought that art imitates life, but in this case it's the other way around. While there may have been Japanese men with large, colorful tattoos before Kuniyoshi, evidence shows that most tattoos were small and discreet before Water Margin became so popular. Sarah E. Thompson, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the author of the new book Tattoos in Japanese Prints. She talked to Collectors Weekly about Kuniyoshi's tattooed warriors.
Collectors Weekly: What types of tattoos did Kuniyoshi depict?
Thompson: Lions and peonies were very common, and this gave the warriors a mildly exotic look since, of course, there were no lions in Japan, or in China either, for that matter. You see them in Buddhist art because that ultimately came from India where there are real lions, but for the Japanese at this time, they were almost imaginary animals used as symbols of courage.
Dragons were also very popular, and other mythical creatures like giant snakes. Often a hero is depicted fighting a monster. There’s another story that crops up a lot about a diving woman who steals a jewel back from the Dragon King, and you see her swimming along, being chased by water creatures. Occasionally, you see something like a courtesan in her full elaborate costume, parading down the street, but that is a bit unusual. Usually, it’s something more violent, something with a lot of action.
Read the rest of the interview with Thompson and learn about the rise of full-body tattoos in Japan at Collectors Weekly.