Does the word Yakuza sound familiar to you? Have you seen Japanese movies in which mobsters are shown? What is the main thing that comes to mind when we think of them? Personally two things: elegance and tattoos. Their full bodies covered in tattoos except for the face. And today I want to talk about the Japanese mafia and their tattoos.
Let’s begin with a fast talk about the organized crime in Japan. It is one of the world’s largest criminal groups (estimated to have about 103,000 members) and has a lot of influence throughout East Asia. Its activities range from the illegal stuff (drug trafficking, weapons, gambling and other illegal products such as pornography in Japan) to even formal business. In fact some Yakuza members are business leaders or prominent political figures.
Like all criminal group, when they grow they become some sort of organization with a lot of inner rules, structures and even ceremonies. The yakuza tattoos’ are one of the most prominent symbols of identity, and within the years it has become a complete tattoo style.
History of Japanese tattooing
The history of tattooing in Japan has its origins almost civilization itself, although over the years the connotation of them has changed. There is information indicating that since 300 BC tattoos were used as a form of identification by the tribes of Asia.
But Confucianism spread in Japan and according to his principles; one should not alter or hurt your body, so that tattoos never became fully accepted. In fact there is a story within Nojon Shoki (a history book quite old) that an emperor once punished a traitor by getting his whole face tattooed.
Since then tattoos would be seen negatively, except for a minority and some small tribes. From then on out the tattoo began to be used as a way to mark criminals: they put a bar or a circle on the arm of those who stole or murdered.
During the Edo period, seventeenth to mid-nineteenth century, this connotation remained and the tattoo was used for a criminal to be identified for the rest of his life. But it was precisely at this time that the Japanese tattoo would become an art.
When criminals achieved freedom they would embellish their tattoos and started to feel proud of being distinguished by them. The tattoo culture would develop with the years until it become a complete tradition. It’s not a surprise that the Yakuza would eventually adopt the tattoo as part of their culture.
Nowadays there is a “better” acceptance to tattoos, but it is minimal. After so many generations that grew up associating this art to most violent criminal group, it is hard to accept them in the short term.
How are tattoos Yakuza?
Yakuza tattoos have a very similar style to traditional Japanese art, mostly contain a lot of colors and are usually done over the entire body except the hands, feet, neck and head. Some commonly used symbols are dragons, Koi fishes, Japanese demons, references to samurai and, of course, references to the clan to which they belong.
The Japanese mafia has one of the most complex structures, and indeed has thousands of clans, so members often tattoo the symbol of their identity as a clan.
One important thing you should know is that the Yakuza not walk the streets showing their tattoos. This is because they see them as a very personal and intimate identity, they usually show them only in private and usually in meetings with members of their own clan (they unzip a little their shirt, or when they go to a public bathroom).
And speaking of bathrooms, in Japan tattoos have a very negative connotation, as someone having one may be a member of the Mafia. So some hotels or resorts prohibit entry to people with tattoos (even if you’re abroad) because you may end up driving away customers.
So if you go to Japan and have tattoos, do not bother if people look at you weird, or kept away from you.
The Yakuza tattoo art
These traditional technique known as Irezumi tattoos and is very similar to handpicking is, the ink is injected point by point with a long thin needle may be wood, metal or stone. This type of tattoos usually takes a long time and therefore the prices are very high.
Irezumi actually means “injecting ink” or simply “Tattoo”, and its tradition has its origins from the time before Christ. There is information indicating that since 300 BC rituals had tattoos all over East Asia.
Throughout 1900s Ainu groups (tribe native to Japan) sought to maintain their identity through their ancient style of tattoos. They saw them as symbols of protection and appearance far from the tattoos that we usually see.
Today Irezumi has declined, and most tattooists in Japan they do tattoo machines and needles. However there are some people who still choose to go the traditional way.
How much can Japanese tattoo cost?
Just to finish. After seeing all these pictures of people with the whole body tattooed surely you’ve been thinking how much money it takes to get a tattoo such as these. Long story short: a lot. Depending on the artist a job of this magnitude exceeds $ 35,000 but could be worth hundreds of thousands.
But beyond the price is amazing what time I can get to take. A job like this can take up to five years after a couple of sessions per week of about 3 or 4 hours each.