In his own series, Yoshitoshi depicted a tattooed wrestler, Konjin Chogoro, throwing a demon. Arms and fingertips outstretched, the wrestler’s back turns to us, revealing a tattoo of crimson florals growing over teal waterfalls and lush greenery. The series “A Modern Water Margin” (1862) by Kuniyoshi’s rival, Kunisada, drew parallels between characters based on real-life Sasagawa bandits and the characters in the Chinese novel. He depicts a Kabuki actor, Nakamura Shikan IV, as Sasagawa bandit leader Tomigoro, with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed dragon tattoo.
Kabuki performers often had tattoos painted onto their bodies for performances and were popular subjects in ukiyo-e prints. In ’s
triptych, A Water Margin of Beautiful and Brave Women
(1869), the actors’ arms feature bright-red fish and grimacing dragons. While the figures have female bodies, Thompson points out that there is little evidence women were tattooed. Female bodies paired with masculine faces highlight the gender fluidity of Kabuki theater, where men frequently cross-dressed. Such interplay between popular artistic mediums—theater, tattooing, and woodblock prints—reflects the fertile ground for cultural creation in a time when Laura Allen, chief curator and curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum, describes, “ideas flow[ed] from popular art into urban life and back.”