The newspapers have been very full of risque images from the 13th International London Tattoo Convention . It’s a huge event, tattoos cover any number of different body types, body parts and genders and there seems no end to the diversity of imagery or culture. The common factor remains ukiyo-e… particularly the drawing of Hokusai and Kuniyoshi which imbues nearly every subject and genre.
Of course, regular readers will know that it was Hokusai who re-invented the stories of the Water Margin, the great medieval tales of Chinese heroes, holed up in the marshes… (the mythical, liminal spaces between fact and fiction) when he illustrated the translated edition of the novels in the 1810’s.
His illustrations invented the muscle-bound, terrifying warriors, decorated head to toe with writhing tattoos. Hokusai‘s pictures were only small black and white illustrations, nevertheless they inspired Kunisada to make colour prints in the early 1820’s on the same subject and that in turn prompted Kuniyoshi to copy these and enlarge upon them, eventually publishing his own Hokusai and Kunisada inspired series of Suikoden warriors. It is these single sheet full colour, bravura pieces that inspire the drawing and shapes of modern full body or sleeve tattoos.
I expect that this debt to ukiyo-e is well known in the circles of tattoo afficionados and indeed, many of the images at the recent fair were directly taken from well known Kuniyoshi prints. Outside of those circles, I am sure that as in so many areas, the debt that the modern world owes to the design genius of ‘pre-modern’ Japan goes unrecognised.