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This article is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

Pictures from a Library
Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons: Uncovering Some Histories of Nineteenth-Century Tattoos
Stella Halkyard

Subject to American gun boat diplomacy in the 1850s, Japan was forced to abandon its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Exposing itself to Western markets it embraced the trappings of the modern age. Meanwhile, well-heeled Europeans and Americans became ‘infatuated by the old ways of Japan’ as ‘silk kimonos embroidered with dragons… were worn to parties… goldfish appeared in bowls… [and] everything from wallpaper to inkwells and tea sets was embellished with Japanese designs’ (Dan Johnson).

In the case of book production Japonisme pervaded form as well as content, as is evident in the ten-volume folio edition of Japan Described and Illustrated published in 1897 and held in the Rylands. Its Anglophone accounts of the history, beliefs and customs of Japan before the era of Western infiltration are illustrated with opulence and extravagance. Designed to delight the affluent armchair traveller, the fictions that spin through the pages of its many volumes present Japan as an ‘unspoilt, primitive culture’ (Johnson).

As tattoos were regarded as ‘alien’ in the West (Matt Lodder) and beyond ‘the ken of the respectable middle class’ (James Bradley), this book’s first readers may well have tingled with a peregrine frisson as they viewed the image of the tattooed postman from volume six shown here. In this carefully constructed studio portrait the postman, ’beautifully tattooed over the whole of his body’, is posed to best advantage for the vicarious pleasure of the viewer. Commodified as a work of art ‘the effect of these Japanese drawings in various colours and curves on his glistening skin [is] like so much embroidered silk’ (George V).

Common among ‘sailors, dockers and other rough diamonds’ (George Burchett), tattoos became all the rage in the West in the 1880s amongst Europe’s elites in a fashion led by the British Royal family. While the homegrown tattoos of the lower social orders were disregarded as ‘small and crude’ examples of folk art, their upper-class counterparts were prized as objet d’art (Bradley). So the Japanese aesthetic came ‘to define tattooing as an art form in the Western imagination’ (Lodder) despite the Meiji regime’s prohibition of the practice. On a visit to Japan in 1881 Prince George (later King George V) was, in his own words, tattooed with a tiger down one arm and a ‘large dragon in blue and red writhing down the other’. We can never know whether these souvenirs were priceless masterpieces of the craft or not, as photographic evidence has not survived. Lasting only for a lifetime before disappearing without trace at death, tattooing is a practice that ‘does not keep what it acquires’ (Michel de Certeau). Yet books can and do endure, as de Certeau observes, to accumulate, stock up and resist time. So by looking closely at the left arm of our postman we can perhaps catch a flash of the spirit of a king’s dragon’s tail.  

Tattooed postman from volume 6 of Japan: Described and illustrated by the Japanese, edited by Captain Brinkley, 1897 (R25228). © University of Manchester 2023.

This article is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

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