Water Margin and it’s impact on Japanese Tattooing

February 26th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

The story “Water Margin” or sometimes referred to as ”The Outlaws of the Marsh”  or in Japan as the “Suikoden” (The latter which spun off to many TV series, films, and a line of video games.) is a story I’ve mentioned before on my blog. It is without a doubt one of my favorite epic novels, epic because it is usually seen in 4 volumes and consists of about ~2500 pages. It was written in China around the 16th century.

The story was about brotherhood, chivalry, honor, and virtue – despite it being a story of 108 bandits (That lead an army of bandits) these men (and women), although many of them not the stereotypical “good guy” as we see today in action movies or in westernized novels, they have killed, stole, and beaten but why they are seen as heroes is because they were driven to become bandits by corrupt officials that surrounded the Emperor (We see the same theme in another Chinese Epic, Three Kingdoms). Despite the Liangshan Marsh bandits’ (The Liang Mountain is where the bandit’s hideout stood) fights against the Imperial army, the bandits were loyal to the Emperor because they still believed that the Emperor was appointed by god and they wanted to be pardoned in order to serve the emperor (Loyalty and honor to the Emperor).

So why is the Chinese story of the Liangshan Marsh bandits so important to Japanese tattooing? When the story was brought over to Japan it was immensely popular and many were inspired by it’s characters who showed such virtues such as honor, loyalty, and brotherhood. The story starts off with one of the most well known Characters, Shi-Jin, or “Nine Dragons Shi-Jin”, called by this name for the nine dragons he had tattooed all over his body. His father was a wealthy farmer and when a military instructor (who was on the run from the officials after they had framed him) was seeking food and shelter at the estate where Shi-Jin lived. On the day of him leaving, the instructor saw Shi-Jin with his clothes tied down to his waist and body of dragon tattoos training with a staff, telling the young man that his technique was flawed and that the old instructor could beat him in a match. They fought, the instructor easily overtook Shi-Jin in strength and technique – this was the beginning of Shi-Jin’s story. Shi-Jin goes off and fights bandits who were harassing the villages around his – he gains fame throughout the land and becomes a popular character instantly.

Popularity with characters like Shi-Jin from Water Margin is what helped stir the tattoo craze in Japan, after reading the story many young men had the desire to cover their bodies in elaborate tattoos such as the ones Shi-Jin and Yang-Qin (The Prodigy, who was “porcelain” skin was tattooed).

Sagacious Lu, from Water Margin. Known as “The Flowery monk” for his Flower tattoos

Why were so many bandits covered with tattoos? When a punishment was issued and one was to be exiled the town/village where the criminal was exiled to was tattooed on them. In order to cover these “criminal tattoos” the criminals would then get larger and more elaborate japanese tattoo designs to cover them. Going from being inspired by the Bandits of the story and obtaining body suits just like the ones the Outlaws had, with the release of Kuniyoshi’s “Heroes of the Suikoden” a series of prints that illustrated much of “Water Margin”.

Kuniyoshi print of Yan-Qin “The Prodigy”

With Kuniyoshi’s series of the “Heroes of the Suikoden” came not only copying the tattoos the outlaws of the Marsh wore but also tattoo designs of these heroes themselves. Even today getting a Nine Dragons Shi-Jin or print from Kuniyoshi’s series tattooed is often seen. It is amazing how a story such as this can impact people, and how the virtues of those bandits are still honored today.

Shi-Jin’s Dragon 1 of 9

February 10th, 2009 in Japanese,Paintings

This is a painting of one of 9-Dragons Shi-Jin’s dragons. Okay let me explain if you’ve never read “Water Margin”, a classical Chinese Folktale from around the 16th century. In the story there is a character named Shi-Jin, also known as “Nine-Dragons Shi-Jin” because of the 9 dragons tattooed all over his body. I wanted to do 9 paintings of dragons in dedication of Shi-Jin and what those dragons within his body suit of tattoos would look like.

The Tibetan

February 2nd, 2009 in Japanese,Paintings

Taken from the traditional imagery of the Hanya Mask, I originally set out to create a Tibetan style skull, although this is the result. Paired with leaves.

Snake + Lotus flowers Tattoo pt. 1

January 20th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

I decided it was time for a new tattoo. My choice was the snake. Snakes in the west are usually deemed as evil and cunning. But in the East the snake represents rebirth and the cycle of life because of it’s shedding skin. The lotus was chosen because of it’s background in Buddhism, it’s representation of all elements.

Borrowing from Hinduism, in Buddhist symbolism the lotus again represents purity of the body, speech, and mind as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. It is also to be noted that most Buddhist, Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, amongst other Asian deities are often are depicted as seated on a lotus flower. According to legend, Gautama Buddha was born with the ability to walk and everywhere he stepped, lotus flowers bloomed.

King Koi swimming in the lotus garden painting.

December 15th, 2008 in Japanese,Paintings

New painting I’ve done in acrylics on canvas. It’s been a while since I’ve painted and even longer since I used Acrylics. I started a painting underneath what you see now and just forced myself to do something, it wasn’t looking good at all. I went to bed woke up early the next morning, over my morning tea I looked at the canvas and had my inspiration and started painting.

The rules of the Japanese tattoo

December 8th, 2008 in Japanese,Tattoo

Now for those who are not familiar with Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the floating world) art work – the work from this era is the most popular for Traditional Japanese tattoo artists. These include popular motifs that are often echoed throughout the genre, popular tattoo designs such as Koi fish, Cherry Blossoms, Dragons, and maple leaves.

Kuniyoshi’s print of Nine-Dragons Shi-Jin

from the story Outlaws of the Marsh

I’ve spoken about the historical, cultural, and traditional significant of tattoos in my essay about tattoos because it is so deeply rooted in belief there are many rules of tattoo motifs. In Thailand, Buddhist monks tattoo prayers and images called Sak-Yant. The spirituality and belief behind these tattoos are so powerful that when animals are tattooed on people they are believed to have that animal’s spirit within them. Once tattooed with a Sak-Yant yantra, people believe that they cannot be harmed and gain protection through them – although for these yantras to work, the wearer must follow Buddhist code such as not speaking ill of your mother or father, no alcohol/drugs, and the list goes on with rules that probably would seem silly to us, but have cultural significance there (Such as not walking under houses – which in those areas are often on stilts, and having such immense power of the Yants it is deemed dangerous for the house).

A Sak-yant tattoo in Khmer Script.

Now the lifestyle rules to wear a Sak-Yant tattoo is nothing compared to the rules of a Traditional Japanese Tattoo. I was recently asked by Justin D…

“I know there are certain rules about certain plants not being able to be paired with certain animals. Can a chrysanthemum be paired with a dragon? This is a personal tattoo question. Looking to continue a 3/4 sleeve with and existing dragon to a full sleeve, and thought the chrysanthemum would be badass. My tattoo artist says he hasn’t seen any chrysanthemum paired with dragons but is not certain.”

In response to Justin D – Well the rule isn’t a hard-line rule. It’s not so much that the flowers are paired with certain animals and others not. It’s that the flowers represent the seasons.

Cherry Blossoms + Peonies = Spring/Summer
Chrysanthemums + Maple leaves = Fall/Winter

So think of the flowers representing the seasons. Koi fish only swim upstream during the fall, so you can pair them with Chrysanthemums + maple leaves (Koi fish spawn during the Fall, so Koi fish with Maple leaves are also common motifs). So rules like this applies – You have to think what animals do not come out or do certain tasks they perform at that time of the year that is coordinated by the flower you choose.

The myth behind Koi fish is that when they swim upstream and make it to the top they transform into Dragons. So since the dragon is not a real animal (As far as I’m aware of) it’s hard to link it’s behavior to seasons (We don’t know if Dragons come out in the winter or summer) but we can link Dragons to Koi fish, since the Koi transforms into the Dragon. So knowing that Koi fish swim upstream during the Fall and often paired with Maple leaves the Dragon is usually paired with the spring/summer flowers. Although because there are no rules saying dragons are not out during winters – Thus being able to be paired with Maples or Chrysanthemums.

Picture of Dragon paired with maple leaves

signifying the fall.

Other traditional Japanese rules in tattooing is the clouds and waves rule. Often Traditional Japanese tattooing means a full body suit – with central images linked by backgrounds of waves and clouds. The rule is that above the waist clouds should be used, this signifies the sky – while below the waist waves should be used, signifying the ocean. This rule is often overlooked, and quite easily. Imagine wanting a Koi fish on your arm (Above the waist) although most often they are done with waves behind them – this motif would be incorrect (It isn’t unusual to see Kois with cloud backgrounds).

Full body tattoo by Horiyoshi III

Above the waist w/ cloud background

Another rule I came across is tattooing deities and Buddhas. These important icons often are on shrines that are high up, this is because these icons are “above” us. It is disrespectful to tattoo a Buddha below the waist, they must always be tattooed above the waist.

These images may look beautiful and pretty, behind them is a complexity of knowledge, rules, superstitions, and motifs that need to be followed.

New tattoo machines welcomed to the family

December 6th, 2008 in Tattoo

Check out this set of machines I just recently purchased from Da Van, builder from Chicago, he makes some sexy looking machines.

Dotmatrix printers used to create tattoo stencils

November 26th, 2008 in Tattoo

Tattoos are applied by stencils using spirit master which is basicly carbon paper. The task is to trace the design to the carbon paper so that it can be applied to someone’s skin. The issue with this is that often you’ll spend 45min + on some designs, which can lead to your hand/mind being exhausted well before a tattoo, and even if you do create the stencil much before the client comes in – one slip up on applying the stencil will leave you having to spend the next hour re-tracing it. For shops they use Thermafax machines which uses heat to transfer the image – one of the two ways the paper can transfer, although this is a very costly piece of equipment usually going for $1,000+. The other is pressure (IE: The pressure of your pencil to the paper while tracing). Another alternative comes from something obsolete, the Dot Matrix printer.

Dot Matrix printers have been phased out for the most part, some of the rare situations you see them being appectable is at point of sales systems, where they print out receipts (But go to most new modern businesses and you’ll see they’ve replaced the noisy dot-matrix receipt printers). So how these guys work is using pins + ink ribbons they apply pressure with these pins to print on paper, using the pressure of the pins to print out a design onto the carbon paper, the dot matrix becomes an effective fix to hand drawn stencils.

So it was off to Ebay, where you can find some more modern day Dot Matrix printers for about $150-200, not too bad – Although I found some older models, Brand new for $60 shipped. I purchased the Lexmark 2930 plus, you’ll want to look for something that is 24 pins.


November 17th, 2008 in Paintings

With great interest in the east, my next subject was the “Sadhu”. They are men who give up the goals of life to pursue moksha (liberation) through meditation and contemplation of God. Sadhus often wear ochre-colored clothing, symbolizing renunciation.

This was an interesting subject for me to pick, the sadhus wore bright orange clothes, hair tangled and face paint.


November 3rd, 2008 in Paintings

“Lupe” – Our Lady of Guadalupe is a traditional icon, she is the patron saint of Mexico and the imagery is used constantly. I wanted to take a different approach while keeping the popular motifs used in a Lady of Guadalupe image. I kept “tradition” in mind, and decided to give her a “Traditional pin-up” look. My version of “Lupe” sports tattoos on her face, neck, and hands.

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