Japan, 1880-1910

Book of Japanese Tattoo Designs

A rare book of hand-painted tattoo designs made for Western clients, Japan, 1880-1910. Watercolor on silk, [22] accordion-folded pages, [11 leaves], each page backed with paper. Homemade rebinding with side-stitched hard covers.

Offered here is one of the few books of Meiji-era Japanese tattoo flash known to survive. Its silk pages are painted with a spectacular array of designs—bearded dragons, snakes, geishas, and heroes and immortals riding plunging, soaring beasts—truly some of the finest and earliest flash in existence. The book's route to Northern Ireland, where it recently came to light, is shrouded in mystery, but its construction and subject matter align with a small body of documented flash painted by Japanese tattooers for Western clients. Its anonymous artist painted in a precise style reminiscent of the famed Japanese tattoo master Hori-Chiyo, and was likely an equally-skilled contemporary working in Japan during the same period.

Following the opening of Japan in the 1860s, wealthy Western tourists flocked to the previously reclusive nation. There they were captivated by the lush, dynamic, full-body compositions of traditional Japanese tattooing on the local artisans, laborers, and service people they met in their travels. Acquiring the exotic, transgressive body art—and undergoing the long, painful, and costly experience of being hand-tattooed by a Japanese master—became a status symbol for the first wave of moneyed Western globetrotters. However, when the Japanese government banned the tattooing of its citizens in 1872, Japanese tattoo artists adapted their traditional practices to better suit the tastes and imperatives of the growing crowds of their Western patrons.

Smaller tattoos accommodated sailors' and travelers' limited time and funds, and a design repertory of cranes, lizards, cats, bats, and other animals—largely detached from their original symbolism—replaced larger, heroic scenes of warriors, comic figures, and gods of popular Japanese literature and art that had so enriched traditional Japanese tattooing. This book's preponderance of small designs exemplify this adaptation to a Western audience.

By the 1890s, several Japanese tattoo artists opted to take their skills directly to their clientele, traveling and setting up shops in Europe, Great Britain, America, and Australia, often generating headlines along the way. Perhaps this book of tattoo designs was carried to the West by such an itinerant artist, became separated from its owner, and passed from hand-to-hand as a beautiful and exotic curiosity.
10 1/2 x 7 in. (26.7 x 17.8 cm.)

  • Condition: Binding is in overall good condition; silk pages are structurally good, but fragile; some pages with large areas of loss to the silk, particularly to the edges. The book appears to have been re-bound a long time ago. See photos.

    Condition reports are available upon request. The absence of a condition report does not imply an object is free of imperfections. Bidders are encouraged to inspect items in person or through a knowledgeable representative. If you have questions about condition, please contact Bray & Co. before placing your bid.

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September 24, 2023 12:00 PM EDT
Portsmouth, NH, US

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