Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design

In his fourth book, Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design, Brian Ashcraft teams up with Osaka artist Hori Benny to tackle a traditionally dense subject and make it accessible to everyone. While there are other books covering the subject, this is easily the most approachable.

The book is available in digital and paperback formats; for the purposes of this view, I relied mostly on my paperback copy. That said, one advantage of the digital version is that you can zoom in on the photos. However, this doesn’t take away from the paperback version, which is printed in full colour on good quality paper.

Inside, the text is immediately engaging. The introduction is extensive, providing background on the history and culture of tattoos, and how the latter has changed. This makes a solid foundation for first chapter, which covers kanji tattoos and takes the reader much further back than they might expect! Did you know that before being used for punishment, tattoos could denote rank, or social status? That they were sometimes used to mark pledges, or to identify fallen warriors? Or maybe you’re looking to get a kanji tattoo, yourself—advice on that can be found here, too.

The next three chapters cover other designs and motifs common to the artform. Every example is provided with an in-depth explanation of its significance and history, complete with pictorial examples. Often, idiosyncrasies of language that might be lost on a non-native speaker are brought to light. Instead of dry exposition that would leave some simply skimming through the photos, you have passionate writing that seeks to share information written in such a fashion that you can’t help but feel the authors want you to develop the same enthusiasm they already have.


The fifth chapter, The Full Bodysuit, is best described in its own introductory text: “The bodysuit is the fullest expression of irezumi.” Once again, any preconceptions the reader might have are challenged, here. The different types of bodysuit are explored (yes, there are several!), their layouts and borders. When the entire body is being used as a canvas, everything has meaning.


The sixth and final chapter covers how tattoos and even the methods of tattooing have changed over time. As patterns and styles were passed down from master to apprentice, new designs have flourished along classic motifs, while still adhering to the rules of irezumi. Geek tattoos (also known as otatoo, a word coined by co-author Hori Benny) began to appear in the past few decades, while still reflecting the values and interests of modern life.

While not a section unto itself, I also appreciated the tattooist and client profiles scattered throughout the book. More than any other, this is an industry and artform that requires people. I think that’s what makes this book so special. All of the parts come together to show that this is a living, storied art made possible by the lives dedicated to it. Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design brings you into that world.