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Editorial

Tattoos Explored In New Asian Art Museum Show

By Jean Schiffman

Sixty intricate and colorful 19th-century prints by Kuniyoshi and other Japanese artists feature tattooed fictional heroes, villains and lovers as well as famous Kabuki performers.

It’s a Japanese chicken-or-egg riddle. Which came first: men sporting elaborately detailed, full-body tattoos? Or artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s series of woodblock prints that depicted tattooed characters from the beloved 14th-century Chinese martial arts novel “Water Margin”? Both appeared at about the same time, in the 1820s. Was Kuniyoshi inspired by the tattoos he saw on men around him, or did men—carpenters, construction workers, firefighters; usually not the elite classes like the samurai—emulate the figures in his popular prints?

The jury’s still out on that question, but the artwork itself—60 intricate and colorful 19th-century prints by Kuniyoshi and other Japanese artists, featuring tattooed fictional heroes, villains and lovers as well as famous Kabuki performers, is currently on display at the Asian Art Museum. On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the exhibit represents both a living tradition and a historical moment. It is a perfect match for San Francisco, a city which, as Asian Art Museum chief curator Laura Allen points out, boasts a long history of tattooing. Between 1827 and 1870 in Japan, she notes, tattooing was just as popular as it is in present-day San Francisco.

The exhibit comprises three sections of prints: tattoos as seen in the early Edo period, when criminals were often tattooed as punishment; Kabuki actors with tattoos (which were painted on); and explanations of tattoo motifs. The small prints warrant careful examination: The figures themselves are as exquisitely complex and colorful as the tattoos visible on their arms and legs or glimpsed through the gossamer-thin fabric of summer kimonos. (A posed studio photograph, hand-colored, shows a near-naked courier covered with rudimentary tattoos.) Tattoo motifs, seen on heroes, bandits, fiercely scowling villains and warriors—in one case on a priest “gone bad”—include dragons, tigers and lions, eagles, snakes, swords, peonies and more.

The figures in the woodblock prints tell stories: In one, for example, by Kitagawa Utamara, a prominent artist in the 1790s, a courtesan is tattooing her name on the arm of her lover with a needle; in another a woman submits bravely to the burning off of a no-longer-wanted tattoo. Ouch!

The craze for full-body tattoos lasted about 40 years, until outlawed in the early Meiji period (1868-1912) in an attempt at modernization. And while tattooing in Japan still exists, Japanese people do not generally display their tattoos publicly the way we do here. And, unlike young American actors today, Kabuki performers still sport only temporary tattoos.

Tattoos in Japanese Prints

May 31-Aug. 18

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., San Francisco

asianart.org