Utagawa Kunisada I (also known as “Toyokuni III”), Rooster: Actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Danshichi, from
the series A Collection of Popular Birds in Accordance with Your 
Wishes, 1860, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, 14 1/4 x 9 15/16 inches (William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

If, as Christianity teaches, the human body is a temple of a holy spirit or of an individual’s own soul, or, as Confucianism advises, the body should be regarded as a precious gift from parents to a child, then is adorning such a vessel with tattoos a way of decorating or defiling it? If tattoos are a form of artistic expression, what do they say about those whose bodies display them, or, conversely, about those viewers who find them unattractive or offensive?

These are some of the questions that percolate provocatively around the edges of the art historian Sarah E. Thompson’s insightful examination of the history of tattoos in the art and popular culture of Japan in her new book, Tattoos in Japanese Prints, which has just been published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Thompson, a specialist in Japanese art, has worked as a curator in that field at the MFA since 2004. The museum is widely known for its superb collection of classical Japanese artworks (sculptures, prints, paintings, swords, masks, and more), the largest of its kind outside Japan; in 1890, the MFA became the first American museum to establish a collection of Japanese art and to create a post for a curator specializing in the field. Its holdings were enriched by the institution’s acquisitions of troves of objects amassed in Japan by such pioneering, 19th-century, Western collector-researchers as the Americans Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, an art historian, and William Sturgis Bigelow, a physician, both of whom spent many years living in Japan.

All of the mostly 19th-century ukiyo-e woodblock prints that are reproduced in Thompson’s book come from the MFA’s collection. Tattoos in Japanese Prints focuses on how tattoos are portrayed in that distinctive genre but it is also offers a visual essay in the way one art form depicted another, noting that, as Japanese tattooing evolved, its artists were influenced by popular ukiyo-e imagery, too.

“Elaborate Japanese tattoos can resemble colorful garments,” Thompson writes in the new book, “covering the body from the neck to the elbows and knees, sometimes with a bare strip down the center of the chest so that the tattoos can be concealed with clothing or partially or fully revealed, as desired.” She points out that, when it comes to inking the body, many tattoo aficionados “consider the Japanese tradition to be the very finest in the world for its detail, complexity, and compositional skill.”

Kitagawa Utamaro I, Onitsutaya 
Azamino and Gontarō, a Man of the World, from the series True Feelings Compared: The Founts of Love, circa 1798-99, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, 15 1/4 x 9 13/16 inches (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Langenbach in memory of Charles 
Hovey Pepper, photo ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The strong link between tattoo art and color woodblock prints dates back to the late 1820s, when, as Thompson explains in the book, the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861; his surname was “Utagawa,” but he is known as “Kuniyoshi”) began releasing images in his print series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin.

Based on a late-14th-century, Chinese martial-arts tale about the adventures of bandits in the late Northern Song era, Water Margin (or “Suikoden,” as it is known, for short, in Japanese; its title refers to the marshlands in which its ruffian heroes were based), Kuniyoshi’s picture series became a big hit in its time. Many of its images showed his protagonists with tattoo-decorated bodies. (In fact, some bandits in Japan already had begun sporting large-scale tattoos in the late 1700s, spurring their popularity among young men in the cities and leading to official prohibitions against such body-marking.)

The success of Kuniyoshi’s Water Margin series helped boost popular interest in tattoos. Thompson writes that some of the most in-demand motifs for body-inking during the artist’s time included dragons, demon masks, severed heads, and assorted ghosts and monsters. Water Margin made Kuniyoshi a star of the ukiyo-e genre, whose name means “pictures of the floating world,” referring to kabuki and other popular entertainments, and the life of the pleasure quarters of the Edo period (1603-1868).

According to Thompson’s research, Kuniyoshi, in his Water Margin series, expanded upon a few brief mentions of tattoos that had appeared in the original story. Considering his achievement, she writes, “It is still uncertain whether [he] was responding to a recent craze for extensive pictorial tattoos or whether — as suggested by oral tradition among present-day tattoo artists — it was the prints themselves that inspired the new fashion.”

Japanese artist unknown, collotype showing a kabuki actor, circa 1910s-20s, ink on card stock, 5 7/16 x 3 7/16 inches (Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

If this second explanation is correct, Thompson concludes, then it would suggest that Kuniyoshi “deserves credit not only for the mastery of his own art form” but also for inspiring the development of a new one whose body-covering designs contrasted dramatically with “the much smaller-scale tattooing practices of earlier periods in Japan.” In any case, “it was Kuniyoshi who transformed a temporary fad into a lasting art form.”

To set the scene for a ravishing portfolio of pictures, Thompson includes a hand-colored, black-and-white photograph from the 1880s showing the all-over, tattooed back of a Japanese man, and another photo, uncolored, from the early 20th century, of a kabuki actor exposing an upper arm and shoulder covered with semi-abstract cloud or wind motifs that easily could have spilled out of some Japanese Kandinsky’s sketchbook.

Elsewhere, a print by Kitagawa Utamaro I (early 1750s-1806) shows a courtesan using a needle to tattoo her lover’s arm as he grimaces in pain. Thompson writes that such couples “vowed eternal love by getting a tattoo of the name of the beloved plus the word ‘life’ (inochi), with the last stroke of the word written extra long to suggest lifelong devotion.” Another image, by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850), a student of the ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), portrays Shi Jin, one of Water Margin’s most enduringly popular heroes, showing off his arms and back. They are covered with nine blue dragons, whose serpentine forms stand out against his flesh like a crisp design on a luminous specimen of fine, blue-and-white porcelain.

Even as woodblock-print artists, in their illustrations of well-known stories from, for example, the kabuki stage, produced pictures incorporating depictions of tattooed bodies, sometimes those inked backs, arms, and torsos also depicted stories of their own.

Utagawa Kunisada II (also known as “Kunimasa III” and “Toyokuni IV”), Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Kintoki Hanbei, from the series Legends of the Dragon Sword and the Thunderbolt of Absolute Truth, 1863, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, 14 5/8 x 9 7/8 inches (William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Such pictures-within-pictures can be found, for instance, in a print by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1864), in which the actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I, in the role of Danshichi, draws water from a well; his all-over body tattoo tells the story of a brave female diver who recovers a jewel from the Dragon King. Another print, by Utagawa Kunisada II (1823-1880), a former student of the artist from whom he took his name, shows an actor playing the character Kintoki Hanbei, whose name echoes that of a famous warrior. His tattoo portrays his namesake as a superhuman child battling a giant snake. Looking at these pictures, a viewer might wonder: How did serving as a billboard for such meaning-rich images affect the men who bore them? Never mind the appearance of their chests, backs, or arms. How might it have affected their psyches?

After all, as Thompson is keenly aware and mentions in her book, before tattooing evolved into a floridly expressive art form in Japan, in the early Edo period, magistrates marked criminals’ faces or arms with simple, punitive motifs. Over time in Japan, tattoos became associated with the world of organized crime and were taken up by gangsters as proud symbols of their renegade brotherhood. Even today, tattoos and especially extensively inked arms and bodies are the hallmarks of Japan’s yakuza — members of its organized-crime community. Many public beaches, swimming pools, onsen (hot springs), and public bathhouses post notices advising those with tattoos to keep out.

However, as visitors to Japan in recent years have noticed, especially in the hot summer months, when even chic Tokyoites venture out in shorts, more and more young people are revealing tattoos. Stories of foreign residents of Japan and tourists being turned away from hot springs or beaches abound. However, as the Japan Times, reported last year, “The Japan Tourism Agency has asked spa operators to allow tattooed foreign tourists into their facilities in a bid to get more overseas visitors experiencing the nation’s onsen.” The pace of such visits will undoubtedly quicken with the coming of Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Totoya Hokkei, Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned, from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of Water Margin, 1853, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, 9 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches (William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“This new book grew out of a small show on the tattoos-in-Japanese-prints theme that we did at the MFA a few years ago,” Thompson told me. She explained that, for several years, through 2010, she and her colleagues undertook to fully catalogue and digitize the museum’s holdings of some 50,000 Japanese prints, many of which, she said, “had been sitting around for a century.” (Images of some of those works are already available online.)

Carrying out that big task revealed the broader range of the museum’s tattoo-related woodblock images, and allowed her to deeply research the theme she explores in Tattoos in Japanese Prints. Could this book lead to a larger, more comprehensive future show? “I suppose that’s possible,” Thompson replied, in which case, curiously, such an exhibition would find itself with an attractive, substantive catalogue even before it opens.

Thompson mentioned that, to date, most of the research that has been done on Japanese tattoo art, either by Japanese or foreign scholars, has tended to focus on its historical development. Comparatively less scholarly attention has been paid to contemporary Japanese tattooing, but that may change as more and more young people in Japan embrace tattoos as fashion and as forms of personal expression, effectively defying the old taboo and negative perceptions of the visibly inked body.

Inevitably, I asked Thompson if she has any tattoos. She said, “I’m fascinated by the tattoo tradition in Japan and its art, and its role in the popular culture long ago, but I don’t even have pierced ears.”

I wondered aloud if maybe she had not found the right tattoo design or if she might be hesitant to deface her skin.

“Oh, no, its not that,” Thompson said.

She added, matter-of-factly, “I’m squeamish.”

Tattoos in Japanese Prints (2017) by Sarah E. Thompson is published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

For readers interested in Japanese woodblock prints, the exhibition Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada is on view at the MFA (Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts) through December 10.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...