Japanese Body Art: Modern Piercing and Tattoo Subculture

In the United States and other Western countries, there is still some stigma attached to piercings and tattoos. Those who are modified are sometimes scrutinized as participating in illegal activities, being sinful, or just generally “up to no good.” In Japanese culture though, the tattoo, especially when coupled with piercings, is held to an entirely different kind of social discrimination. Tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and represent an element of power, illegality, and fear.

Strangely, this connection in Japanese culture, despite being deeply rooted, is a fairly recent phenomena, as the criminal gangs that eventually formed the yakuza didn’t come into existence until the Meiji era (beginning in the 1860s). Prior to this time period, criminals were tattooed as a punishment and to make them easily identifiable, and once the Meiji government abolished this practice, those who were branded with visible tattooing were segregated from society. Even today, some public bath houses, hotels, and other establishments refuse entry to those with visible tattooing.

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For its part, horimono (traditional Japanese full body tattooing) is a unique and beautiful art form that requires years of practice and skill training to perfect. Unlike contemporary Western tattooing, real horimono, done in a method sometimes called tebori, is generally performed with several needles at once, creating a softer, more gradated, and watercolor-like appearance. The needles are arranged in rows at the end of a long handle and either thrust or tapped into the recipient’s skin. The American method of reproducing the fade technique common to tebori often uses a western style tattoo needle split down the center once or twice, sometimes referred to as a “fade needle.”

Piercings, which also became a symbol of power and status in connection with more contemporary gang and criminal activity, are in some ways also frowned upon, although not as much as tattooing and brands. In modern society, piercings show a strong connection with the gothic and rock music subculture, as many Japanese singers and musicians both male and female wear highly visible facial piercings. Some of the most popular amongst this grouping are piercings of the ear cartilage , navel, and lower lip.

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