Written by Adam Bryce
A landmark ruling by Japan’s Supreme Court liberates tattooists who do not hold a medical license.
It’s commonly believed that the history of Japanese tattooing, known as Irezumi, traces back near to 10,000BC. But the 1800s saw Japan’s borders open and Irezumi soon began to feel the sting of criminal connotations and, before the 1900s hit, it was deemed illegal to practice without a medical license.
Irezumi holds sacred meaning to tribes-people such as the Ainu, where mouth tattoos were used to signify social status and coming of age yet the distorted discrimination stole the cultural and religious affiliations as legalities ensued. Irezumi plays a big influence in modern tattoo culture but most artists have had to practice ‘underground’ to keep their identities hidden.
In 2015, the studio of an Osaka-based tattoo artist was raided by police and Taiki Masuda was slapped with a US$3000 fine. Masuda appealed the case and, five years later, an unexpected turn of events occurred. The appeal eventually found itself in the Supreme Court and, surprisingly, the case was thrown out with the accompanying statement, “tattoos require artistic skills different from medicine, and it cannot be assumed that doctors do the act exclusively.”
The liberating news will create significant change in the Irezumi culture, allowing local tattooists to legally practice on their own home turf once more. It’s a welcome sign of respect to the cultural and historical significance of the traditional artform and will help change the conservative stigma surrounding the art.
Above: Horiyoshi III specialises in Irezumi and is an outspoken advocate of the artform. Below: Ryuki — Mysterious Dragons by Horiyoshi III.
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