(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!