The Rise of Irezumi in Japan

irezumi exhibition from mario testino in london

Swen Losinsky flew to London to the Hamiltons Gallery to visit Mario Testino’s exhibition “East”. The renowned photographer featured 18 prints that thematizised the rise of Irezumi and compromises two subjects matters; Japanese flowers on golden screens and vividly tattooed men intricately entwined.

Flowers in the floating world

The flower still lifes are inspired by traditional ‘Ukiyo-e‘ (pictures of the floating world), one of the most admired genres of Japanese art and typically created using woodblock prints and painting. Each of the seasonal flowers captured by Testino in this body of work signify distinct ideas, such as truth, splendor, humbleness and sincerity, culminating in a floral display rich in Japanese heritage. Especially women love to have bodysuits with one type of flower. Most used are cherryblossoms, chryanthenum and paeonia.


In contrast to the delicacy of the flowers, Testino photographs boldly tattooed men. Each man was tattooed by the most famous Irezumi tattoo artist in Japan, Horiyoshi III. At the beginning of Meji period, in the late 19th Century, the government outlawed tattoos. Irezumi became associated with criminality and the Yakusa. In portraying the artistry of the tattoos, bodies interlocked, Testino exposes this incredible tradition in all its glory.

Suikoden and Ukiyo-e

Often seen on bodysuits and big sized tattoos are pictures from the “Ukiyo” , floating world. In 1827, with the rise of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi decided to make a series of prints. This series was based on a popular book about legendary outlaws called Suikoden. They became wildly popular and people started getting the characters tattooed on their own bodies. Believing that they would take on the strength of the figures. The traditional Japanese tattoo, Irezumi, was born.

Missed it?

If you missed it don’t worry. Swen has a great book about the Suikoden and other great designs from the floating world and the rise of irezumi. The edo period and is such an amazing source of inspiration! If you stop by the shop you will get the chance to have a look at the huge Good Old Times Tattoo private collection about Japanese tattoo designs. In the meanwhile you can chat with Matteo and Swen about the history of each.