Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World

February 26, 2016 – May 8, 2016 (Member Preview February 25)

This exhibition explores the artistry of traditional Japanese tattoos along with its rich history and influence on modern tattoo practices. Perseverance underscores Japanese tattooing as an art form by acknowledging its roots in ukiyo-e prints and examining current practices and offshoots of Japanese tattooing in the U.S. and Japan. As Japanese tattoos have moved into the mainstream, the artistry and legacy of Japanese tattooing remain both enigmatic and misunderstood.

Often copied by practitioners and aficionados in the West without regard to its rich history, symbolism, or tradition, the Japanese tattoo as a form of art is commonly reduced to a visual or exotic caricature. Conversely, mainstream Japanese culture still dismisses the subject itself as underground, associating it more with some of its clientele than with the artists practicing it. Both of these mindsets ignore the vast artistry and rich history of the practice.

Although tattooing is largely seen as an underground activity in Japan, Japanese tattoo artists have pursued their passions, applied their skills, and have risen to become internationally acclaimed artists. Through the endurance and dedication of these tattoo artists, Japanese tattooing as a genre of art has persevered, and is now internationally renowned for its artistry, lineage, historical symbolism, and skill.

Perseverance features the work of seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists, Ryudaibori (formerly Horitaka), Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken, along with tattoo works by selected others. Through the display of a variety of photographs, including life-sized pictures of full body tattoos, these artists cover a broad spectrum of the current world of Japanese tattooing.

Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World is organized by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California, and is supported, in part, by Mariko Gordon and Hugh Cosman. It was curated by Takahiro Kitamura, photographed and designed by Kip Fulbeck. Funded in part by the Henry and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Japan Foundation.

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Explore a wealth of related content here! While Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World is a striking exhibition in its own right, here you will find videos, interviews, and historical information that will enhance your experience and understanding of the show.

Articles & Blogs

Historical Overview

• With the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1868, the West demanded that Japan open its doors to trade. The newly formed Meiji government, fearing colonization, was desperate to cloak a veneer of civilization over Japan. It encouraged people to wear Western clothes, banned samurai topknots, and in 1872, prohibited tattooing.

• Visiting Westerners, however, were fascinated with the tattoos they saw on delivery men and rickshaw pullers. Foreign sailors swamped Japan’s port cities to get a souvenir tattoo. Many European aristocrats, including several members of the British Royal Family, got tattoos while visiting Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

• In the late 19th century, photographers set up studios to stage vignettes of “everyday life and customs” in Japan. Many of these albumen prints captured the tattoos on samurai, courtesans, and various laborers. These images were sold mostly to foreigners as keepsakes.

• During WWII, tattoo prohibitions were again tightened as many Japanese men rushed to get a tattoo to avoid military conscription.

• After WWII, the allied occupation proved another powerful influence on the practice of irezumi. General Douglas MacArthur was so impressed with this art form that he pressured regulators to lift the ban on tattooing. Over the decades, there followed a great deal of free exchange of ideas and practice between Japanese and Western tattoo artists.

• Today, there is still a great perception gap between international views of irezumi and those of Japanese people. In Japan, many still equate tattoos with gangsterism and those with even small tattoos can be denied entry to swimming pools, public baths, and hot springs. Conversely, many galleries and museums outside of Japan are recognizing irezumi as an exciting and progressive art form.

Perseverance in the News


[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”16″ size_format=”px” color=”#474747″]Above: Dr. Greg Kimura, CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, explains how Perseverance explores tattoo as an important and valid development in art.[/typography]

For more videos, click here!

Kip Fulbeck

Exhibition Artist, Designer & Photographer

Kip Fulbeck is the author of several books, including Part Asian, 100% Hapa (Chronicle Books, 2006) and Permanence: Tattoo Portraits by Kip Fulbeck (Chronicle Books, 2008). He has exhibited and performed throughout the U.S. and abroad, including solo exhibitions at the Japanese American National Museum, Invisible NYC Gallery, Space180 Gallery, Ghettogloss Gallery, and Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. A Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he has been featured on CNN, MTV, The Today Show, and National Public Radio.


Ryudaibori (Formerly known as Horitaka)


Ryudaibori is a tattoo artist as well as the author and publisher of numerous books on tattoo art and culture. His books include Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo (Schiffer Publishing, 2001), Tattooing From Japan to the West (Schiffer Publishing, 2004); and Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in Japanese Tattoo (KIT Publishers, 2003). Horitaka is renowned for his advocacy of Japanese tattooing as an art form and has worked as a visiting artist across the U.S. and Europe. Horitaka has lectured at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, UC Santa Barbara and conferences held in Italy and Hawaii. He is the co-founder and co-director of the annual Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts and the owner of State of Grace tattoo shop in San Jose, California. His graphic designs have been used by Nike SB, Bacardi, and many other companies.