The History of Japanese Tattoo Comes to Life at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach

"Sometimes the tattoo artists in primitive cultures were shamans,” explains Fakir Musafar, the preeminent researcher of body modification and of the so-called “modern primitives” movement. “They envisioned the marks, tattooed them on the body, and then the person who got the tattoo was whole, complete. It was their pattern, their mark, and without that mark, they were incomplete. That’s part of the magic of the tattoo.”

The world of body modification has changed significantly since ancient times, especially over the past 70-odd years, since World War II. Tattooing was once a mark of tribal belonging or of a spiritual ceremony — or, in the case of Jews in the mid-1900s, a forced mark of their Jewishness.

Young soldiers in WWII explored the world, and many returned home with tattoos, taboo souvenirs of a foreign culture or place. In America, tattoos were a sign of toughness and adventure and were associated with niche groups like bikers and sailors. They once symbolized certain class restrictions.

But no more. Today they can be found on any mall rat, dude-bro, CEO, or fashion model. No need to join the Navy, brave foxholes, and then get drunk in Singapore. Anyone can point at a random kanji (Chinese character) and order it inked. The spiritual aspect of tattooing has been largely forgotten with the art form’s broad dissemination.

But a new exhibit at the Morikami Museum includes fascinating research and captivating images to explore the deeper meanings and worldwide influence of tattooing — specifically, Japanese traditional tattooing, called irezumi.

This form ranks consistently as one of the most popular in the world. It is characterized by powerful landscapes, crazed samurai, otherworldly dragons, and colorful wildlife like majestic fish and vicious large felines. These bold patterns, vibrant schemes, and exciting and iconic imagery are immediately recognizable, as is the so-called “Yakuza style” full-body tattoo.

Tattooing in Japan goes back to about 600 A.D. Historians say that its earliest forms had decorative or spiritual purposes, though it was also used to mark criminals. In the 18th Century, the artistry of the decorative pictorial tattoo evolved alongside ukiyo-e — woodblock prints.
In Japan, tattooing is still considered an underground movement, according to the team that put together the traveling exhibit. They explain in press materials that “as Japanese tattoos have moved into the mainstream, the artistry and legacy of Japanese tattooing remain both enigmatic and misunderstood. Often copied by practitioners and aficionados in the West without regard to its rich history, symbolism, or tradition, the art form is commonly reduced to a visual or exotic caricature. Conversely, mainstream Japanese culture still dismisses the subject itself as underground, associating it more with some of its clientele than with the artists practicing it. Both of these mindsets ignore the vast artistry and rich history of the practice.”

“Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” includes photographs of work by seven renowned Japanese artists: Ryudaibori, Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken. The show was curated by Takahiro Kitamura and photographed by Kip Fulbeck. It set attendance records when visitors came to view it at the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles in 2014.

On April 8, tattoo artist Brand will talk about “The 108 Heroes of Los Angeles” — stories about people's rebellion against corrupt Los Angeles government in late ’70s/early ’80s Los Angeles. He will explain how that movement brought the community together and was depicted through tattoos.

“Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World”
On display Friday, February 26, to May 8 at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach. Call 561-495-0233. or visit

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Abel Folgar