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Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World

This exhibition is no longer on display at the Museum.

Explore the artistry of traditional Japanese tattooing, its rich history and roots in the ukiyo-e art form and its influence on modern tattooing practices. 

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Tattoo by Horitaka. Image: © Kip Fulbeck

With images by award-winning photographer and film maker Kip Fulbeck and curated by master tattoo artist and author Takahiro Kitamura, the exhibition features work by internationally-acclaimed tattoo artists: Horishiki (Chris Brand), Horitaka, Horitomo, Junii, Miyazo, Shige and Yokohama Horiken.

Through the display of a variety of photographs, including life-sized pictures of full body tattoos, these artists cover a broad spectrum of the current world of Japanese tattooing.

While the art of Japanese tattooing has moved into the mainstream and is practised around the world, the artistry and legacy of Japanese tattooing is not well known. Western practitioners often copy it without understanding or appreciating its rich history or symbolism.

Japanese tattooing dates back to the 17th century and the art form of ukiyo-e which reflected the colourful world of the Edo period (1603–1868). The city of Edo (modern Tokyo) was then the centre of Japanese military power and one of the largest cities in the world with more than 1 million inhabitants.

The first ukiyo-e woodblock prints were produced by Hishikawa Moronobu around 1660 in response to increasing demand for ukiyo-e works. Prints affordable by the newly rich merchants of the time, were produced commercially in large numbers. They depicted vivid scenes of everyday urban life, as well as teahouses, restaurants, theatre actors, warriors and battle scenes, courtesans, geisha and stylish people.

Although Japan was virtually closed to the outside world, Westerners began to collect Japanese prints in the early nineteenth century. Canterbury Museum’s collection of ukiyo-e works developed through the generosity of local collectors, including Sir Joseph Kinsey (1852–1936). His extensive collection of Japanese decorative and fine arts was gifted to the Museum in 1938, including 250 prints and paintings. A number of these were created by the foremost ukiyo-e artists. The Museum holds about 500 uyiko-e artworks in the collection. A handful are on display in the Asian Arts Gallery.

Tattooing was outlawed in Japan in the late nineteenth century as the Government sought to protect its image and make a good impression on the West. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground. Tattooing was legalised by the occupation forces in 1948, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the Yakuza, Japan's notorious mafia and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centres and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.

Although tattooing is largely seen as an underground activity in Japan, Japanese tattoo artists have pursued their passions, applied their skills, and have risen to become internationally-acclaimed artists. Through their endurance, dedication and perseverance, Japanese tattooing is now internationally renowned for its artistry, lineage, historical symbolism, and skill.

The travelling version of Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World is presented by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California, toured internationally by Flying Fish and is supported in part, by Mariko Gordon and Hugh Cosman.

Take the audio tour through the collection

Banner Image: Tattoo by Horitomo. Image: © Kip Fulbeck
List image: Tattoo by Horikiku. Image: © Kip Fulbeck

This exhibition is no longer on display at the Museum.
20 May – 13 August 2017
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