Origins of Japanese Tattoo artists

April 24th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

I’ve written much about tattoos and popular motifs in Traditional Japanese tattooing, although I’ve never discussed the people responsible for these works of art. The beginning of Japanese tattooists developed from the practice of punitive tattooing, where bands (around the arms or legs) or characters were tattooed as punishment.

Punitive tattoos

This was called Irezumi or “The insertion of ink”, this term has negative connotations because of it’s use as punishment and on criminals. Although these Irezumi tattooist were inserting ink into the skin, they were not tattoo artists.


To understand how the first tattoo artists came to be we must understand how Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating world, woodblock prints, see my post on “Rules of the Japanese tattoo” for more insight) prints were done. There were many craftsmen involved in the process of creating Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but the main ones that were involved were the artist who did the drawing and woodblock carver who took the artist’s design and carved it into the woodblock. The artist would get much of the royalties from the prints sold, combined with the people of the Edo period looking for individuals to tattoo popular woodblock designs (see: Water Margin’s Popularity in Japanese tattooing) they turned to craftsmen already familiar with the designs and with manual skills. This allowed an opening for these woodblock carvers to become the Edo period’s first tattoo artists.

Traditional Japanese tattooing tools

Opposed to the word “Irezumi” to describe decoritive tattooing the Carvers called tattoos “Horimono” meaning “carved object”, and the prefix “Hori” which is adopted by Traditional Tattoo artists into their names means “To carve”.


  1. man the tradition japanese tattooing looks very painful!

    Comment by donald — June 10, 2009 @ 9:18 am
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    Comment by affepterb — February 9, 2012 @ 9:09 am
  3. Hi I was wondering where you got your information and your pictures, i’m doing research on the subject. thank you!

    Comment by meg — March 13, 2012 @ 4:25 am
  4. ^^ yes I was wondering that also. cannot seem to find much info about this subject online.

    Comment by Art — November 30, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

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