“No. 6, Actor Onoe Kikugorô V as Oniazami Seikichi” (1872, woodblock print, ink and colors on paper), by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) from the series Flowers of Tokyo: Kunichika Caricatures.
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“Konjin Chogoro” (1866, woodblock print, ink and colors on paper), by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839- 1892) from the series A Water Margin of Beauty and Bravery.
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“Oniwakamaru and the Giant Carp” (approx. 1830-1835, woodblock print, ink and colors on paper), by Totoya Hokkei (Japanese 1780-1850).
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“Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as Benkei Daemon” (1863, woodblock print, ink and colors on paper), by Utagawa Kunisada II (Toyokuni III; 1823-1880) from the series Legends of the Dragon Sword and the Thunderbolt of Absolute Truth.
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“Actor Iwai Kumesaburo III as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke” (1860, woodblock print, ink and colors on paper), by Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III; 1786-1864) from the series Toyokuni’s Caricature Pictures.
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The most recognizable figure from the tattoo world might be Don Ed Hardy, whose name proliferated the aughts after its iconic signature emblazoned his fashion line.
But the history of his tattoo art and decadeslong practice in San Francisco, the true source of the brand, is obscured by the larger sprawl of pop culture associations the bejeweled Ed Hardy T-shirts birthed. Dig back far enough into his work, and Hardy’s tattoo designs lead to Japan, where he went to study and learn the art.
It’s a familiar trajectory that extends to the whole of American tattoo culture: Now more than ever, people have inked skin, yet most tattoos evoke a particular Japanese source material that is largely unnoticed. This summer, the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit Tattoos in Japanese Prints, running now through Aug. 18, explores the often forgotten history of Japanese imagery that has led to some of today’s most common tattoo traditions and iconography.
“Tattoos in Japan first began as a mark on a criminal or as a romantic remembrance,” says Deborah Clearwaters, the museum’s director of education and interpretation. “Then, full- body tattooing that is so associated with Japanese tattooing today seems to have been made popular by woodblock prints.”
The exhibit contains some 60 woodblock print artworks from the 19th century that depict heroes from Chinese literature, but with the artists’ reinterpreted twist of embellished ink. “Suddenly the artists are envisioning them with really dynamic and interesting full-body tattoos all over their back and their arms,” she says. “And that seems to have inspired people to go out and get their bodies tattooed.”
Beyond the real-life trend it inspired in Japan, those artistic interpretations spread globally and still influence familiar design elements today: closely packed, detailed large-scale tattoos, along with popular imagery, such as dragons or carp swimming upstream. Many of today’s premier Bay Area tattoo artists (some of whom are incorporated into the exhibit’s programming) channel their practice through this lens of art history.
But this specific lineage is often overlooked in mainstream tattoo culture—a process pertinent to conversations around cultural appropriation. The exhibit provides a framework for greater understanding, Clearwaters explains, referencing common mishaps, like pop star Ariana Grande’s recent publicized tattoo of unintentionally mistranslated Japanese.
It’s also a reminder about the survival and flourishing of the work of artists that still permeate our world—and our very skin. “It’s so fascinating, too, to think about these woodblock print artists who are long gone,” Clearwaters says. “It’d be so wonderful if they could know how their work is being celebrated and continued today.” 200 Larking St.
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco
Photography by: Photos by © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston