Art Meets Taboo in the Tradition of Japanese Tattoos

Karen Kedmey
Mar 11, 2015 2:18PM

When thinking of Japan’s venerable artistic traditions, elegant ink and brush paintings, Noh and kabuki performances, sumptuous lacquerware, and beautifully formed ceramics may come to mind. Tattooing, on the other hand, may not. Ronin Gallery aims to change that, with an exhibition devoted to the country’s impressive art of ink and its resonance throughout Japanese society and culture.

A dragon, its powerful body covered in colorful scales, writhes and coils, bearing its razor-sharp fangs and claws. A shimmering koi leaps gracefully through roiling waters. Richly striped tigers stretch open their dangerous maws to boast crimson tongues and long teeth. And peaceful and wrathful deities alike command their surroundings with outstretched arms, robes flying. These are among the common artistic motifs of Edo period Japan. They adorned the sumptuous robes of the kabuki actors, filled the woodblock prints for which the period is famous—and appeared intricately, indelibly inked onto the bodies of (mostly) men. In celebration of the remarkable art and tradition of tattooing in Japan, and its links to the more well-known and admired arts of kabuki and woodblock printing, Ronin Gallery presents an image-laden exhibition, “Taboo: Ukiyo-e and the Japanese Tattoo Tradition.”


The gallery has said of its subject, “simultaneously representing both belonging and non-conformity, [tattoos] are complicated cultural symbols.” Through its exhibition, it highlights both the beauty and complications of this very particular art that flowered during the Edo period. The works on view are a mix of old and new: 19th-century woodblock prints from such masters as Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi share wall space with the contemporary paintings of mixed-media artist and tattoo master Horiyoshi III (whose own body is covered in ink), Masato Sudo’s photographs of heavily tattooed bodies, and Daniel Kelly’s mixed-media prints.

Among the striking works in the exhibition is Sudo’s photograph, Fu (Mt. Fuji) (2014). In the right foreground, a man perches on a boulder, wearing nothing but a white loincloth, his back to the camera. His state of near-nudity reveals the expansive tattoos that cover his body. It appears that only his forearms and lower legs remain unmarked. A sweeping view of bright blue skies over a deep blue sea opens out to the man’s left and onto Japan’s most iconic mountain, Mount Fuji—symbol of the country and always in plain sight, unlike its more concealed, yet no less iconic symbol, the art of tattooing.

Karen Kedmey

Taboo: Ukiyo-e and the Japanese Tattoo Tradition” is on view at Ronin Gallery, New York, Mar. 5 – Apr. 30, 2015.

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