Not a Book Review: World of Japanese Tattooing

I returned from a couple weeks of work travel to a very lovely surprise!  My copy of “The World of Japanese Tattooing” by Iizawa Tadasu was waiting at the office!  It took me a few months to get a copy of this book.  I suspect it would have been much easier if I was able to search for it in Japanese, but the only online option I could find was Donlon Books in London.  It cost more than I would have liked after the conversion to dollars and shipping/insurance, but I have it now and that makes me quite happy!  The book is a treasure trove of classic Japanese style.

Published by Haga Shoten in 1973, the book is composed of a large number of Japanese tattoos by such masters as Horiyoshi II, Horigoro III, Horikin and more.  It also includes an array of ukiyo-e prints and Japanese text that is (sadly) totally lost on me.  There is a brief introduction in English that gives some very interesting insight into how Japanese tattoo and its history was viewed during the time of publication.  It approaches the comparison between Japanese and Western tattoos with a pretty heavy bias, but it is a bias that no doubt existed in the late 1800s/early 1900s when cross cultural exchange of tattoo was beginning to ramp up.  Having gotten the book so recently, I haven’t had time to look through all of it with very much attention to detail, but I am very excited to do so.

All in all, that special mix of consumerism and the desire to collect has made it worth the price of admission.  I am quite proud to have added this book to my collection.  Below are a couple pictures I took:

Not a Real Book Review: “The Japanese Tattoo” by Sandi Fellman

(First, it’s worth pointing out that I have almost zero credibility when it comes to reviewing books.  My qualifications start and stop with me being a literate, native English speaker who has read books in the past.)


Lately, I have taken an interest in trying to find photos/books of older tattoos.  The impetus for this was Horizakura showing me his copy of “The World of Japanese Tattooing” by Iizawa Tadasu (published in the early 1970’s).  I only flipped through a couple of pages, but there were some very striking pieces in that book.  Tattoos that showed their age, not in the fading of ink or sagging skin, but in design and layout and execution.  I’m not at all a scholar on the topic, but what few 50+ year old tattoos I have been able to find have some very interesting differences from what we see today.  While it is really easy to follow the trends of the modern Japanese tattoo and to see how different artists approach their subject matter, it is fairly difficult to find actual pictures of the works of past masters.  So I started poking around the internet looking for older books on the topic.

“The Japanese Tattoo” by Sandi Fellman was published in 1986.  As it is still in print, it is very easy to get a copy of this book, making it a great entry point for this new interest of mine.  Sandi’s description of the project and how it came to be is interesting.  It seems her primary first hand source was Owada Mitsuaki (Horikin), but there are photos of tattoos done by a couple other masters as well.  Her essay that comprises the bulk of the book’s text is only a few pages in length and vacillates between a historic retrospective and a philosophical examination of the Japanese tattoo.  I didn’t find it to be too overwrought and even found real pleasure in the expression of her ideas:

“I left Ohwada’s studio that day fascinated by the profound paradoxes inherent in the art.  Here was beauty created through brutal means.  Power bestowed at the price of submission.  Delicate elegance attained by way of violence.  And… the glorification of the flesh as a means to spirituality.”

The same cannot be said for the Intro written by D.M. Thomas.  In all honesty, I stopped reading after about 3 paragraphs because it was incomprehensible, up-its-own-asshole nonsense.  If you ever pick up the book, take a crack at the intro and let me know if I’m wrong.

The photos in the book are different than I expected, but still a treat to examine.  Whereas I expected photos of full body suits in their entirety, what we get instead are nearly life-sized close ups of specific parts of a variety of body suits.  The results are as if you were to put your face about a foot away from a body suit and inspect the work.  It isn’t great for understanding the whole concept of the tattoo, but it’s fantastic for seeing the subtle details in shading and linework.  Additionally, each photo is accompanied by a small blurb about what you are looking at.  I found this to be especially pleasing as many other books are content to just give you dozens of pictures with no context.

All in all, definitely a quality work and I’m glad I bought it.  I do wish that I had sprung for the hardcover, though, as shipping damaged the softcover copy I bought and the binding seems a little weak.  Not that I expect much more for $20.  If I do return this damaged copy, I will probably get the hardcover instead.

A note for people who may be interested in cameras/photography:

The camera Sandi used for these photos is pretty unique.  It was (is?) a 5 foot by 3.5 foot Polaroid camera that produced 20″ x 24″ prints that self exposed in 60-70 seconds.  Literally a giant, 200 lbs Polaroid camera!

25th Appointment, 10 Year Anniversary

Yesterday marked my 25th appointment on my back and the ten year anniversary of my first ever tattoo appointment (details on that can be read here).  I’m inclined to think back to the start of all of this and wax philosophical.  I had some pretty ridiculous ideas in my head about how all of this would pan out.  In the end, I don’t feel it would be terribly kind of me to subject my 3 readers to that.  The next time we meet, feel free to thank me for sparing you any more overwrought exposition.  ON TO THE BUTT STUFF!

The joy I felt at finally being tattooed above my waistline left as quickly as it came.  Horizakura started shading the tail of the dragon (euphemism not intended) on my hip and butt.  This would have been an incredibly easy and relaxing session if not for the fact that I am getting old.  By the end of our two hours together, my hips and knees hurt so much from being in the fetal position that I wanted to scream.  I was determined to not interrupt him to stretch out though because the tattoo was feeling really good and I didn’t wanna disrupt his flow.  Worth it!


If I’ve held your attention this long, I also wanted to make a book recommendation if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese tattoo.  Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design by Brian Ashcraft with Hori Benny, is a really great look into the symbolic and thematic elements of Japanese tattoo.  I have quite a few books on Japanese tattoo and none of them has as clear an outline of the symbolism behind this art form.  The introduction is a brief history and assessment of current tattoo culture in Japan.  Factually, it is accurate based on what I have read elsewhere, but it is by no means the most exhaustive or thorough source of that information.  The real meat-and-potatoes is in the chapter by chapter breakdowns of Japanese tattoo elements.  In some ways, I really wish I had had access to this book 10 years ago when I began planning out my tattoos.  It would have been amazing to have.  On the other hand, not having this resource forced me to really lean on the artistry and talents of my tattoo artists, which I believe has its own merits.  If you’re interested in the book, you can read the Table of Contents on Amazon to see the breadth of content covered.  Let me know what you think!