Words and photos by Ambar Ramirez
Unveiling Tradition: Tattoos in Japanese Prints
Contrary to what some may believe, tattoos became mainstream well before the 21st century. And no, I am not referring to the 1970s when tattoos started to become socially acceptable and a fashionable trend. I’m talking about the 18th and 19th centuries in Edo (known today as Tokyo) where there exists visual evidence of tattoos and tattoo motifs.
Last month, the Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens unveiled one of its new fall exhibitions to the public. Curated by Sarah Thompson, curator of Japanese Art, “Tattoos In Japanese Prints from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” takes viewers back in time. To a time when tattoos were slowly becoming fashionable in Japanese culture.
In a dimly lit space with navy-painted walls, Japanese prints boldly stood out within their unadorned black frames. The exhibit’s minimalist design serves to accentuate the timeless allure of tattoos during Japan’s Edo period and how their influence continues to echo in 21st century tattoo culture. As someone who has only recently begun their journey into the world of tattoos, it was intriguing to explore the roots of this tradition and understand that tattoo art is more than just ink on skin.
“The tattoos that people were getting voluntarily were just very simple ones with, you know, someone’s name or sometimes it was a religious thing with the name of the deity that you worship,” Thompson explained. “There were also involuntary tattoos that were put on to criminals at some point. And it’s kind of hazy when and where this started, but at some point in the 1820s, the bigger pictorial tattoos became more common and became fashionable. And then there was quite a boom in them, especially after the artist [Utagawa] Kuniyoshi started putting out his series of Chinese heroes with many of whom had tattoos.”
Interestingly, tattoo artists of this Edo period took huge inspiration from color woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, and the tattoo patterns, like the ukiyo-e, were based on a number of motifs such as mythology, religion, plants and animals. And even though most of the visual evidence from this exhibit is from the 18th and 19th centuries, it is believed that tattooing in Japan dates back to the prehistoric period. It wasn’t until Kuniyoshi designed a series of prints in the late 1820s that portrayed Chinese martial arts heroes with highly detailed pieces that tattooing and tattoo designs took a positive transformation toward becoming something highly fashionable. Kuniyoshi’s prints influenced tattoo artists of that time and continue to influence tattoo artists in our modern day.
Even though the Japanese government banned tattooing on citizens in the 1870s and as a result, omitted tattoo designs from the woodblock prints, the tattoo patterns continued to be used in decorative art, including textiles, books and more.
The exhibit is open to the public from Oct. 27 through Jan. 14 and is definitely worth the visit. As CEO of the Cummer Museum, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee put it, “This exhibition captures perfectly how art can transcend time and culture while retaining its power to inspire.”
The Immersive Visual Exhibit: Maia Cruz Palileo’s “Days Later, Down River”
Upon walking through the glass doors of the exhibit, I was met with large, vibrant canvases that depicted unfamiliar landscapes of fauna, flora and people, filling me with a sense of calm yet overwhelming curiosity. Open now until Dec. 31, Maia Cruz Palileo’s “Days Later, Down River” invites art enthusiasts and museum-goers on a visual trip through the lush rainforests of the pre-colonial Philippines.
Palileo, a multi-disciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, was conducting their studies at the University of Michigan when they stumbled upon a significant archive containing photos and documents from pre-colonial Philippines. Given Palileo’s strong connection to their Philippine heritage and their profound family history of immigration to the United States, this discovery held immense personal significance. Combining this newfound archive with their own family’s collection of documents, photographs and narratives, Palileo found inspiration to delve into a complex historical narrative often overshadowed by myths and Western interpretations. The result: “Days Later, Down River.”
Palileo started paying attention to the gaps in the history of the archival collection, as well as things that were very clearly intentionally omitted. As a way to fill those gaps and portray what is unspoken, Palileo created the paintings seen in the exhibit. And within a history that is bleak, Palileo added color.
“When I was making the work, I was sort of thinking about it as like I was taking a trip into this mountain,” Palileo shared.
Using actual images from the University of Michigan’s archive, along with the materials borrowed from Palileo’s family, detailed collages were crafted. These collages served as essential references, enabling the exhibition to vividly illustrate historical gaps while reinforcing the notion that time is not a strictly linear concept. Within this detailed exhibit, visitors will find themselves delving into what feels like its own archival collection of a culture filled with hidden figures and dense, untamed forests — that was on the verge of extinction.