‘Tattoos in Japanese Prints’ will inspire creativity


Leo Woods

Kabuki actors on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” is on exhibition at the MFA through Feb. 20.

A unique exhibit, “Tattoos in Japanese Prints,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is highlighting the motifs and history of tattoos dating back to 19th century Osaka and Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The exhibit draws from the museum’s collection of Japanese art, and is a must-see stop in Boston before it closes this month. 

The exhibit primarily features works by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), whose woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) were inspired by the Chinese tale “The Water Margin,” a story of 108 heroic bandits fighting corrupt officials, and popularized large, intricately designed tattoos (horimono or irezumi) for the Japanese public.

Prior to the 19th century, tattoos in Japan were small and only done in black ink. They were used to identify criminals or as a sign of devotion to a patron deity or lover. After Kuniyoshi’s print series, however, color and large-scale designs became favored. 

Perhaps most unique to the exhibit are prints of individuals receiving tattoos from their lovers.

In one, titled “Onitsutaya Azamino and Gontrarō, a Man of the World,” by Kitagawa Utamaro I, Azamino tattoos her name onto her lover Gontrarō, who winces in pain from the needle. 

“Both men and women vowed eternal love with a tattoo of the name of their beloved plus the word inochi, ‘life,’ with the last stroke of the character for inochi written extra-long to suggest lifelong devotion.” Read the caption of the piece.

Levi and Casper of Worcester, visiting the MFA on a date, commented on the originality of the exhibit.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, ever. I especially think it’s really cool that they have the prints of people actually getting tattooed,” said Levi. 

“Yeah, I’ve seen the artwork of tattoos themselves, but never artwork of people getting or having tattoos,” Casper added. 

Continuing through the exhibit, visitors can learn about the culture of tattoos in Japan post-19th century. 

“Elaborate, full-body tattoos were traditionally worn by male laborers: firefighters, construction workers, porters and other men whose professional clothing often revealed large areas of the skin. In kabuki theater, actors would appear in painted bodysuits, simulating tattoos appropriate for their roles,” read the caption next to a series of prints depicting kabuki actors with tattoos.

Daniel, a high school senior touring colleges in Boston, stopped into the exhibit in between visiting universities.

“I’m a fan of Japanese culture in general, and I saw that this exhibit is only going until February so I wanted to experience it before it was gone,” he said.

The vibrant colors and intricate designs of the tattoos draw in visitors enough to make them take a second look. Each print is more detailed than the last, depicting motifs popular in tattoos of the era, such as religious imagery, medieval legends and symbolic plants and animals.

“Tattoos in Japanese Prints” is on display until Feb. 20. The exhibit is available to view with general admission.

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