The design influences for Japanese tattooing come from the realm of the temple wood block print. Whatever the subject matter, it must be done nobly and on a grand scale. The Japanese tattoo aesthetic differs from the Western in that designs are larger in scale, covering major areas of the body with more cohesive designs related with background shading and imagery. The back and chest are often given large images of heroes, gods or goddesses, or sacred animals. Arms and legs can include related imagery or just have shading if the coverage is minimal in those areas. Arms sleeves in Japanese tattooing have names meaning five-tenths, seven-tenths or nine-tenths variations compared to the Western short sleeve, forearm and wrist-length sleeves.
The relationship between tattooist and artist were traditionally a bit different. Often the tattooist would talk with the client, and then design the overall design choosing the imagery that seemed appropriate for the person. The tools used were hand tools, basically clusters of tiny needles bound to slim pieces of bamboo. A paint brush is dipped in a small bowl of ink, and the artist moves the tattoo tool through the inked bristles of the ink brush before beginning work. The tattoo tool is braced against the fingers and manually jabbed in a constant and steady motion to puncture the skin of the client.
The full tattoo body suit shown here was done in Japan using hand techniques by tattooist Horiyoshi III. There are many who feel that Horiyoshi III is the leading tattooist in Japan presently. The wearer is Maron, the recent winner of the Bondage-A-Go-Go Tattoo-A-Palooza tattoo contest in San Francisco. This man lived in Japan for several years, going to see the master tattooist a few times per week for the entire time to complete the full body tattoo. With such a large area to cover, the tattooist is able to move around to keep working, not having to wait for a previously inked section to finish healing.
The perception of tattooing in Japan can be quite mixed. The full-body suits were embraced by the Yakuza, the organized criminal syndicate whose name comes from a hand in cards that is considered “worthless.” This further set them outside average society. However, Western influence in pop culture has made the Western style of tattoos (small, stand-alone designs) somewhat trendy and you can even find rockabilly enthusiasts wearing 1950s style American pinups girls in Hara-juku on weekends.