The first tattoo-themed exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(MFA), Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints, explores the social significance, iconography, and intricacy of Japanese tattoos. The exhibition, which runs April 3, 2010, through January 2, 2011, includes approximately 70 objects, ranging from prints and postcards to manuscripts and printed books, depicting figures with tattoos in diverse contexts. These images were captured by artists of Edo-period (16151868) Japan, who reproduced distinctive tattoo motifs and bold designs of the day, designs which are still used in 21st -century tattoo shops all over the world.
Under the Skin showcases the popular print medium of the day, ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), featuring works by more than 16 artists that show the spectacular imagery of Japanese tattoos, as worn by a variety of people. The exhibition explores themes of mythical and historical heroes, actors of the Kabuki theater, beautiful women, and the rich iconography found in the prints and the tattoos. Most of the works on view have never been publicly displayed.
Tattoos (most often called irezumi in Japanese) became an important feature of Japanese urban culture in the early 19th century. In previous centuries, small tattoos had been used to mark criminals or to give proof of deep devotion to a lover or patron deity. Large-scale decorative pictorial tattoos first began to appear in cities such as Edo (modern Tokyo) and Osaka late in the Edo period.
The sudden surge in the popularity of tattooing was strongly influenced by a series of woodblock prints featuring Chinese martial arts heroes with spectacular tattoos, vividly imagined by the artist Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). It is thought that many of the early tattoo artists were originally trained as blockcutters, who converted designs drawn on paper into carved wooden blocks for mass-producing prints.
Elaborate, full-body tattoos were traditionally worn by working men whose professions often revealed large areas of skin. Another popular showcase for flashy tattoo designs was the kabuki stage, where actors appeared in painted bodysuits simulating tattoos appropriate to their roles.
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the governments desire to modernize Japanese life led to an official prohibition of tattooing in Japan that lasted until the mid-20th century. The ban on tattooing temporarily pushed the practice underground and created strong associations with organized crime that linger even today. At the same time, an influx of tourists from around the world brought an entirely new audience to see and appreciate Japanese tattoos. Foreigners not only returned home with photographs, postcards, and woodblock prints as souvenirs, but in some cases even had themselves tattooed. The distinctive style and rich tradition of Japanese tattooing continues to be influential. The very same designs developed by Kuniyoshi, Hokusai (17601849), Kunisada (17861864), and others, are still being etched into skin around the world in the present day.