Tattoos on women were not always markers of beauty and great skill. During the Edo period, tattoos in Japanese society were worn by courtesans to mark the names of their lovers – or favorite clients. While new clients might be jealous of the names that preceded them, tattooing was less damaging to the “merchandise” than the alternative – sometimes women would chop off a segment of one of their fingers and present it as a gift to their beloved.

But tattoos were also becoming more widespread among men during the 17th and 18 centuries. Penal tattoos were given until 1870, and criminals would seek larger designs to cover their markings. Firemen were also getting tattoos, and were the first of the era to seek full-body designs. Since firemen often fought fires wearing only loincloths, these were considered show-off tattoos, but they were also markers of strength and camaraderie. And with the rise of the organized Yakuza criminal networks and their elaborate full bodysuit tattoos, tattoos became a thing for men – very tough men. That these tattooing traditions often criss-crossed with more traditional art forms didn’t prevent their stigmatization from association with these “tough guys”.

This legacy of tattooing from “the floating world” for women and from organized crime for men has left its mark on the attitudes towards tattooing in modern Japan. While tattoo artists from the US travel to Japan for inspiration and training, and lots of people get Japanese-inspired tattoos, Japanese people in general are not comfortable with inked skin. Moreover, for women, the impetus to get inked – with the exception of tribal peoples – has historically come from one’s involvement with a man, and usually one from the criminal underworld.

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