Japanese Woodblock Print Auction – 21st Feb 2020

Japanese Gallery Kensington is announcing the second themed live auction on the 21st of February 2020 at 2:00 GMT. On sale will be a collection of original woodblock prints by artists such as Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Chikanobu Yoshu, Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kunichika Toyohara and many more.


Lot viewing times:

17 (Mon) – 20 (Thu) February 2020

10 am – 6 pm


Address:

Japanese Gallery Kensington, 66E Kensington Church Street, W8 4BY London

Tel: 0207 229 2934


Register via the links below to bid live on the day:


Click here to view the catalogue on Live Auctioneers.

Click here to view the catalogue on Invaluable.

Click here to view the catalogue on Easy Live Auction.

Kunisada and the Tattoos of Kabuki Theatre


The urban culture that developed in Edo city (today’s Tokyo) in the 18th and 19th century was a pleasure seeking one as townspeople saw kabuki theatre as the ultimate entertainment. Kabuki and its lively and daring performances offered a break amid a restricted lifestyle with plays largely inspired by everyday sensational events. Actors were the real stars of the day, just like today’s movie or pop stars, and their fame reached such heights that woodblock prints depicting actors in their roles became collectibles and souvenirs for the fans. Kabuki also became a medium for tattoos with many popular roles having tattooed heroes and ruffians with flamboyant costumes and extravagant poses.

Omatsuri Kingoro and Kakuno Kosan, 1858

Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1865) stands as one of the most recognised artists that designed woodblock prints centred on the colourful world of kabuki. Passionate about the art form from a young age, he was accepted as an apprentice around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Toyokuni I (1769 – 1825), and became one of his chief pupils. In keeping with a tradition of Japanese master-apprentice relations, Kunisada’s talent and popularity would lead him to be honored with his master’s name and become the head of the Utagawa art school himself.


Life for everyday people in Kunisada’s time was strictly controlled by corrupt authorities and there was little leeway to express themselves freely. However, a new group began to distinguish themselves and challenge the injustice faced by commoners – the otokodate. Roughly translated as ‘street knights’, their confidence and bravery made them popular among the merchants, clerks, shopkeepers, and artisans who would often rely on them for protection against injustice. In this way, the samurai and otokodate were natural rivals, and as each group banded together into teams under leaders, fierce and bloody clashes broke out frequently.

Ichikawa Ichizo III as Nozarashi Gosuke, 1858

The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognisable feature in tune with their fearless personalities and were so idealised and romanticised by common people that they became part of ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas. In this political environment, Kunisada often depicted actors in imagined settings and resembled their personalities to great heroes that ordinary people would praise and root for when they were performed on stage. The actors often showcased striking tattoos on their bodies, capturing to a great degree a sense of social decay and public discontent, making them, like the dramas they represent, quite modern in their questioning of established values. It is no wonder that from time to time the government of the time found it necessary to censor a theatre that seemed to call into question its authority.  


An iconic kabuki play that was often the subject of woodblock prints was ‘Summer Festival: Mirror of Naniwa’, focusing on an exciting character named Danshichi Kurobei, a fish seller by trade and an otokodate. This powerful drama revolves around Danshichi’s loyalty to his former master Tamashima, the strong bond he shares with his friends and his fatal relationship with his vicious father-in-law, Giheiji. The first act culminates with a scene in which Danshichi, tries to retrieve the courtesan-lover of Tamashima’s son from Giheiji who has abducted her out of revenge. The performance ends in a thrilling fighting scene in which Danshichi, unable to reason and enraged by Giheiji, chases and kills the wretched, mud-drenched old man. Stripping to reveal his magnificently tattooed back and limbs, Danshichi strikes heroic poses while stabbing Giheiji to the sound of the festive drums in the background. Danshichi takes the old man’s life with a thrust of his sword, then washes splattered blood and Giheiji’s muddy hand prints from his body, using water from a nearby well. He escapes by mingling with the large crowd of festival celebrants. In stage performances during Japan’s hot summers, the use of real mud and real water would have given the audience a pleasant feeling of coolness, but also the satisfaction that justice had been done on their behalf.


Kunisada’s rendition of an actor in the role of Danshichi shows him bearing a lobster tattoo on his forearm, a reference to the character being a fishmonger, but also a symbol of strength and protection. On his shoulder and chest are the feathers of a phoenix. Unlike the western counterpart, the phoenix in eastern mythology is said to appear only in times of peace and prosperity. It is also said that the phoenix is a creature of morality, shunning those who do not meet its high moral standards, it does not tolerate abuse of power and stands for justice and graciousness.

Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi Kurobei, 1859

Played by handsome actors, the otokodate became a focus of romantic desire. These warriors were viewed as folk heroes and seeing them in prints or on stage inspired fans to get tattoos of the same imagery that their fictional role models had tattooed on their bodies. Eventually, the same engravers who once created woodblocks took their craft to a new medium – human skin. Ukiyo-e and traditional Japanese tattoos are so intertwined that the word for hand-poked tattoos, tebori, a technique that is still practiced today, means ‘to carve by hand’.


Kunisada’s world was there to be enjoyed. He gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives, and his images, with their optimism and verve, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Whether through kabuki theatre or the production of powerful images in ukiyo-e or tattoos, these art forms were crucial in creating myths central to Japanese history, reflecting both the ideals and dreams of the people.


Text: Geanina Spinu


Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, Jan – Feb 2020

History of Japanese Pottery (Yaki)

Yaki (焼) is a Japanese word used to describe porcelain, pottery and earthenware. Producing all of them has been a vital and successful art form in Japan, even though earthenware has been widely produced on the archipelago from the Jomon period (from 10,000 to 300 B.C.)- Japanese neolith.

Vase by Shoji Hamada, 20th century

The real boom started in 17th century. At the dawn of Edo period, in 1598, the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) invaded Korea. During a short occupation period (1592-1598) the Japanese brought over a few families specializing in traditional arts, such as pottery making: art they again learned from the Chinese. Brought over to Kyushu, they started production on Japanese soil, founding a basis of the Japanese porcelain production. The location proved to be perfect, as local lands were rich in kaolin clays. Porcelain is baked in higher temperatures than pottery, and kilns built by the Korean potters allowed achieving phenomenal effects. In later years, Japanese artisans became artistically independent, but the continental influences have always been present.

Kakiemon Plate, 17th century

In late 16th century the tea ceremony culture gained popularity in Japan, being one of the factors propelling the porcelain production. The Japanese exported their products worldwide, continuing the trade even during the isolation of Edo period (1603-1868). The Dutch East India Company was the major consumer of Japanese pottery, stimulating development of that art craft; their first big order was placed at Arita in 1656.

Arita Teapot, early 18th century

17th century was the time of a great prosperity in Europe, an époque called baroque by latter generations. People came into possession of great fortunes and a demand for things unusual, oriental and foreign was tremendous. Factories in Delft in the Netherlands, Meissen, Vincennes, and finally Worchester in 19th century were established to produce copies of Japanese pieces trying to meet the immense need for oriental style porcelain in Europe. 

Satsuma Ware, end of 19th century

Japanese Woodblock Print Auction – Nov. 30, 2019

Japanese Gallery Kensington is announcing our first-ever themed live auction on the 30th of November 2019 at 2:30 GMT. On sale will be a collection of original woodblock prints by artists such as Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kunichika Toyohara and many more.


Lot viewing times:

25 (Mon) – 29 (Fri) November 2019

10 am – 6 pm


Address:

Japanese Gallery Kensington, 66E Kensington Church Street, W8 4BY London

Tel: 0207 229 2934


Register via the links below to bid live on the day:


Click here to view the catalogue on Live Auctioneers.

Click here to view the catalogue on Invaluable.

Click here to view the catalogue on Easy Live Auction.

Japan Art Expo 2020

Japanese Gallery Kensington is pround to announce Japan Art Expo 2020!


From the organisers of Samurai Art Expo, this is a unique event for anyone interested in Japanese art and crafts.

Following the success of Samurai Art Expo in 2018, the organisers are excited to break new ground with Japan Art Expo, the first largescale event solely dedicated to Japanese art held in Europe. Bringing together admirers of Japanese art from the Kamakura period [1185-1333] to the Present, Japan Art Expo promises to be an exciting opportunity to collect and learn, while networking with people from all parts of the Japanese art industry.

Tickets for Japan Art Expo (June 5-7th 2020) start at €20, with a discount 3-day pass on offer.



An Academic Symposium, Conference and Fair all in one.


Whether you’re looking to buy, learn about, or just have a chance to inspect Japanese art and crafts, Japan Art Expo has it all. Featuring a lecture hall for academic talks and a show floor for admiring and purchasing a diverse variety of art and crafts, this event has something for everyone with an interest in Japanese culture.


Specialized talks


The talks given will be relevant to what is on the show floor. Attendees are encouraged to apply their newfound knowledge immediately on the collections being shown and sold.


A worldwide collection in one place


Dealers and collectors from around the world will be gathering in Utrecht, a central hub for Europe, for this unique three-day event. Inspect, and purchase from, collections of Japanese culture brought to the Netherlands from over three continents.


Curators, Dealers and Restorers


Attendees hail from all fields within Japanese art, from scholars to vendors to restorers. Japan Art Expo is a great opportunity to exchange thoughts, opinions, and contact details with fellow enthusiasts.


A word from Eddy Wertheim, Event Coordinator:


“Following the success of Samurai Art Expo, which brought together an array of exhibitors, collectors and enthusiasts, and served to break down the boundaries between artworks, professionals and those new to the field, Japan Art Expo is driven by the desire to make Japanese art and culture more accessible to a European audience.”


Location: Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs Exhibition and Convention Centre, Utrecht, Netherlands


Dates: Friday June 5th, Saturday June 6th, Sunday June 7th 2020


Ticket Price: €20 Friday or Sunday, €25 Saturday, or €50 3-day pass


How to purchase: tickets available by clicking here.


About Japan Art Expo:


Once again coordinating the event is Eddy Wertheim, manager of the Japanese Gallery Kensington Ltd., London, a major destination for those with a passion for Japanese art and culture. At the heart of Japan Art Expo is Mr. Wertheim’s wish to make Japanese art more accessible to all audiences through a three-day event of symposiums and appraisal sessions working in tandem with a series of talks hosted by scholars and collectors. These will provide visitors with a wealth of knowledge they can use to engage with, and foster a passion for, the Japanese art on show at the event, as well as in their daily life.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and the Japanese Tattoo Legacy

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading figures in ukiyo-e during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and perhaps the greatest ukiyo-e artist among his contemporaries. Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. No other artist had produced ghost prints or included a range of different subjects in a single series before he did.


As a child, Yoshitoshi was enrolled as a resident student in the school of Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861), one of the most successful woodblock print designers in Edo (today’s Tokyo). In here, he was given the name ‘Yoshitoshi’, traditionally adopting the same characters as his teacher’s name. In this studio, Yoshitoshi learned how to design prints and he probably spent much of his time making draft copies of Kuniyoshi’s sketches, which would explain how he knew his teacher’s designs so well, often using them as the basis for his own designs. Kuniyoshi’s training included drawing from life and sometimes he provided human models for his students to draw. This may seem basic to us now, but drawing from life was not necessarily part of the training for schools of painting and illustration in Japan, where traditionally the artist was to capture the essence of a subject rather than give a literal representation. Recognising his talent, Kuniyoshi treated Yoshitoshi with great affection, often referring to him as his own son. After Kuniyoshi passed away, Yoshitoshi developed a personal style influenced by his own personal tragedies. The intense, disturbing images of his early career reflect turmoil and pain. His prints from this period have violent and gory designs, including corpses and decapitated heads, a reflexion of his state of mind.


Yoshitoshi, Sumo Wrestlers and Firemen Fight (1886)


However, Yoshitoshi was a product of his time. Horror and cruelty were common themes in a part of history when Japan itself was going through modernisation. The feudal world of Edo and the new Western values were often in conflict, and such themes were common in plays, literary fiction, and woodblock prints. Yoshitoshi was an emotional man with powerful visual imagination, which extended to the design of prints with cruel and brutal subjects.


The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular, and possibly best, series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (Tsuki Hyakushi) commenced in 1885. Consisting of one hundred prints, this series spanned a wide variety of subjects and became famous through its variety of subjects taken from Japanese and Chinese history and mythology, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by one hundred images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. This series also seemed to mark Yoshitoshi’s artistic independence and departure from a traditional ukiyo-e style.


During his career Yoshitoshi designed several prints devoted to the Suikoden theme, which is not surprising considering his apprenticeship with Kuniyoshi, the master of the genre. One of the best known Suikoden heroes, the tattooed Kumonryu Shishin, apparently is a Yoshitoshi favourite and he appears in the artist’s prints more than once. By far the most celebrated example is the portrayal that is part of the series ‘One Hundred Aspects of the Moon’. Usually Kumonryu is shown in spectacular fighting scenes, but in Yoshitoshi’s version the hero is seated on a bench underneath a weeping willow, calm and collected, on a moonlit night. His pose and facial expression are marks of self-confidence and toughness, with a touch of arrogance. Unlike Kuniyoshi’s version from Suikoden, Yoshitoshi managed to give his design an aura of serene expression and beauty, by combining only the most essential elements in a well-balanced composition.


Yoshitoshi, Kumonryu, ‘One Hundred Aspects of the Moon’ (1885)

Yoshitoshi also designed ‘bijin-ga’, or images of beautiful women of their time. Courtesans were a large part of the world of entertainment, alongside performers such as geisha and actors. Courtesans were sophisticated and refined women, trained in the arts of calligraphy, poetry, flower arrangement, conversation, dancing, music and worked from specially allocated quarters. In the environment they operated, there was a growing desire to put seals on feelings to make them ‘everlasting’. While around the beginning of the Edo period tattooing was still used for punishment and identification, it also became popular among the female population of the entertainment centres to decorate their bodies. The practice of ‘irebokuro’ involved tattooing dots at the base of the thumb that would be connected when the partners joined hands. ‘Irebokuro’ eventually evolved into short texts or names, and courtesans themselves would sometimes tattoo their lovers, in a ritual of mutual love confession.


Yoshitoshi, ‘Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners’ (1888)

In one design by Yoshitoshi the girl depicted bites her handkerchief in distress as her arm is tattooed. The tattoo appears to be the opening strokes of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom), and is probably the name of nickname of her lover. As tattooing was a practice of the demimonde and gangsters, labourers and courtesans were the most likely groups be tattooed.


To this day, Yoshitoshi remains one of the most acclaimed ukiyo-e artists who often used tattoo designs in his prints. With his talent, imagination, and attention to detail, he carried on a legacy that continues to fascinate woodblock print collectors and tattoo enthusiasts alike. 


Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, July – August 2019

Kuniyoshi Utagawa – Master of Japanese Tattoos


Many would recognize Kuniyoshi as one of the most iconic Japanese woodblock print artists, yet he is also credited with influencing another visual art form, that of traditional tattoo designs. These are still a source of inspiration and are followed with precision by tattooists practising Japanese style tattoos worldwide. In this article, we look at how Kuniyoshi depicted the heroes of his time in woodblock prints and how he skilfully integrated tattoos in designs that still carry a meaningful message.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Ariwara no Narihira Ason (1845-1849)

Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861) was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) as the son of a silk-dyer. It is said that he had a great interest in drawing from a young age. Even though Kuniyoshi eventually became a well-known and respected artist, the way to success and acknowledgment was a long struggle. His break-through came in 1827 with the series of ‘The 108 Heroes of The Tale of Suikoden’, which is based on a Chinese novel of the same name from the 14th century about brave rebels who fought against injustice and corrupt government officials. The story struck a sensitive chord within the common people of Edo, equally repressed by a military government and unable to openly show their dissent.  


In Edo Japan, the samurai class had yet to adjust to the daily routine of peacetime and grew frustrated with the loss of status and usefulness. Bored and idle, they frequently caused trouble in towns and were involved in street fights and robbery. At the same time, the commoner otokodate (street knights) were gaining confidence in their strength among the lower classes and were seen as the natural rivals of the samurai. The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognizable feature and they were idealized and romanticised in ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas.


The rise of the otokodate, the new hero figure in Japan, most likely contributed to the overwhelming success of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden series. The characters are adorned with intricate tattoos that were emulated by common people and Kuniyoshi’s bold, dynamic and sometimes lurid style, were novel and captivating.


The popularity of Suikoden also developed on a backdrop of political instability and laws that banned the portrayal of actors and courtesans by woodblock print artists. Instead of feeling restricted, Kuniyoshi took advantage of the ban and looked towards the heroes of the past in order to disguise political disaffection. The public of the day knew immediately how to interpret these subtly conveyed messages, often with humorous and satirical designs.


The behaviour of the otokodate and the Suikoden heroes closely resembled and stimulated the popularity of the other. As a result, Kuniyoshi’s designs came to be immortalized on paper as well as on skin, contributing to the development of the Japanese pictorial tattoo as a fashionable item.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Tanmeijiro Genshogo Fighting Under Water (1856)

Most of the motifs that appear in the Suikoden tattoos are animal and floral designs, but mythical characters such as the god of wind, Fujin, or the god of thunder, Raijin, also appear. Furthermore, it is during the time of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden series that different tattooing techniques and set-ups, the use of backgrounds and compositions found in modern Japanese tattoos arose.


It is assumed that Kuniyoshi himself might have been tattooed, which explains the high level of detail brought out by his designs. Nicknamed ‘scarlet skin’, some depictions of the artist testify to his playful nature. Few portraits of the artist exist, but they all show Kuniyoshi engaged in what he loved most – designing woodblock prints or teaching students. His clothes were richly decorated with patterns that may have been an indication of more designs hiding underneath. Because of the laws of the time, common people were restricted from wearing overly decorated clothing, yet Kuniyoshi was never afraid to walk a thin line and cleverly challenge rules in his own eccentric way.


Other students of Kuniyoshi drew sketches and used tattoos as a theme in their woodblock print designs and Kuniyoshi himself revisited the topic many times in other series with the same recognition.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Danshichi Kurobei (1852)

Kuniyoshi had a great passion for his craft, as is evidenced by the large number of prints he produced. He was a simple, straight-forward and broad-minded man who educated many artists including Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku and Yoshitora. It is thought that Kuniyoshi particularly favoured Yoshitoshi, the best student among them who would become a great ukiyo-e master himself.


There is no mistaking the fact that Kuniyoshi’s interpretation of the Suikoden heroes had a major impact on tattoo culture in Japan. The intense swirling patterns, colours, and motifs, that are so iconic today might not exist as seen and practiced today were it not for this novel and the associated artwork.


Consequently, many Japanese tattoo artists still render their own versions of popular themes, stories, or prints from Suikoden, becoming their own contemporary telling of a timeless story that has indelibly influenced their craft.


Text: Geanina Spinu


Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, May – June 2019

Wabori & Ukiyo-e

The Art of Traditional Japanese Tattoos and Woodblock Prints


Japanese Gallery Kensington were proud to share a collection of extraordinary traditional woodblock prints at the London Tattoo Convention in September 2019. Featuring works by the great masters of ukiyo-e such as Kuniyoshi, Kunichika, and Toyokuni III, as well as prints made by contemporary artist Paul Binnie, these prints offered an insightful view to Japanese tattoo culture through the ages in the most fitting environment.

Kunichika Toyohara (1835-1900)
Suikoden Yuki no Danmari (Silence in the Snow), 1886

[The Floating World of Edo]


Traditional Japanese tattoos in the form we know today evolved alongside the popularity of ukiyo-e (prints of the floating world) in mid-18th century Edo period (1603- 1868). In a time when the strict, controlling Tokugawa government supressed any signs of individuality, tattoos and printmaking were proof that the working classes found their own way of expressing themselves through the vibrant world of popular art. Extremely elaborate, both artistically and culturally, the purpose of Japanese tattoos shifted over time from a form of punishment to beautification, with designs depicting religious and symbolical meaning. Even today, their designs still stand out as some of the most elaborate and technically challenging in the world, demanding not only skill, imagination and dedication, but also fine aesthetic values.


At their inception and during their development, woodblock prints and Japanese tattoo art were interdependent. Both enjoyed grand status as popular art forms of the Edo period and both exerted political influence, depicted social change, and reached a broader audience than could the more rarefied art forms of the time that were only available to the nobility.


Ukiyo-e reflected the colourful world of the Edo period, a time when prints were mass produced at a low cost which made them affordable to the working classes. These prints depicted everyday urban life, teahouses, kabuki actors, warriors, battle scenes, courtesans and stylish people, themes easy to relate to by all walks of life. The stories told through woodblock prints involved sensationalism, including murder, sex, greed, the pursuit of power, but still valued the traditional ideals of strength and loyalty.  


[Heroes of the Suikoden]


It was the introduction of Suikoden, the classic literary tale from China, coupled with the imagination and skill of Japanese woodblock artists that really elevated Japanese tattooing into a fine art. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861)’s first great artistic breakthrough came with the publication of the 108 heroes of Suikoden (‘Stories of the Water Margin’), having the greatest impact on the evolution of tattoo designs, as some of the heroes themselves displayed the most striking back pieces. These outlaws and brigands were seen as men of honour who would rebel against bureaucracy, a Robin-Hood-like band that made the story of a revolutionary novel with implications resenting the authority of the time.

Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Narita no Shinzo, from ‘A Modern Water Margin’, 1862

Alongside Chinese rebels, other famous characters from history and legend were soon used in tattoo designs including Fujin and Raijin, Shoki the demon slayer or Kintaro. They were often surrounded by floral motifs like peonies, chrysanthemums, maple leaves and cherry blossoms. Besides them, creatures both mythical and real featured heavily in tattoo designs, such as dragons, phoenixes, tigers, karajishi (Chinese lions), koi fish, falcons, or snakes. Most of these motifs lived on through the centuries and can still be rendered on skin in the same style by tattoo artists that practice wabori, or traditional Japanese tattoo designs.


[From carvers to tattoo artists]


It is said that woodblock artists were the first to begin Japanese tattoos, employing the same tools they used in their art such as chisels and black ink. When the townspeople of Edo began looking for individuals to tattoo woodblock designs, they drew upon craftsmen already familiar with those designs.


Since irezumi originally referred to tattoos as a form of punishment, tattooists refused to use this term, wishing to distance their art from the rather brutal practice of punishment tattooing. They began to call themselves horishi, derived from the verb ‘horu’ (to dig or carve) the same title used by the carvers of woodblock prints. This re-titling emphasised the skills tattooing required and linked the tattoo to the woodblock. The term irezumi has lost its negative connotations and today refers exclusively to the highly developed Japanese decorative tattoo in general.


In order to do wabori, the tattoo artist needs profound knowledge and understanding of various aspects of Japanese culture, such as history, folklore, artistic motifs, the importance of seasons and how they influence the relationship between motifs and even the position of the tattoo design on the body. Even today, tattoo artists who practice wabori will very often turn to woodblock prints for inspiration.


[Today’s Floating World]


It was only following the World War II that the practice of tattooing was freed from government restrictions and also the time when Japanese mafia (yakuza) proliferated, as their love of tattoos. Given the associations with the underworld, there are still echoes that can be heard today against tattoo artists in Japan, leaving the industry in the shadows for the most part. On-going debates whether tattooing should be considered a medical practice as well as social sanctions against artists can only be reminders of similar conflicts that sparked in the past. Nonetheless, Japanese tattoo artists who still employ traditional designs in their work stay faithful to values that were brought down through generations.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III) (1786 – 1864)
Ichikawa Ichizo III as Nozarashi Gosuke, comparable to Shi Jin the Nine Dragoned, 1858


Even though Western tattoo styles are becoming more popular with the youth, Japanese tattooists have historically been reluctant to mix styles coming from different cultures, showing instead great pride in the allegiance to traditional designs. Japanese tattoo styles have remained relatively pure, still reproducing images previously created by ukiyo-e.


Both wabori and ukiyo-e reached high levels of popularity because of the way they depicted the humanity of the time. While ukiyo-e relied on mass production and technology, tattoos embodied the very human aspects that its visual images represented. Repeatedly outlawed and pushed underground, in some respects Japanese tattooists managed to strengthen their culture which withstood the test of time. Tattoos are perhaps the best contemporary expression of a floating world, in their transcendent beauty on an ephemeral material such as human skin.

ukiyo-e relied on mass production and technology, tattoos embodied the very human aspects that its visual images represented. Repeatedly outlawed and pushed underground, in some respects Japanese tattooists managed to strengthen their culture which withstood the test of time. Tattoos are perhaps the best contemporary expression of a floating world, in their transcendent beauty on an ephemeral material such as human skin.


Text: Geanina Spinu

Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, March – April 2018

Komai metal inlay jewellery

The history and production of metal inlay in Japan.

Metal inlay jewellery is created through a process called damascening. It involves inlaying a steel ground with thin threads of gold and silver. The ground is then sealed through either oxidisation or via use of lacquer.

The Japanese term for damascene work is zogan (象嵌). The latter encompasses not just metal inlay, but can also describe other inlay techniques. One such example is Gohon Mishima ware, which refers to a type of pottery that is decorated via an inlay technique. In the case of Mishima ware, the material used as both a ground and inlay is clay. Another example is Shibayama inlay (Shibayama zogan), which describes lacquer inlayed with shell, coral, tortoiseshell and ivory.

Komai goods

The jewellery and small items we are displaying on this page, are largely so-called Komai goods, produced by the Komai family or their firm.

Historically following the development of the Komai family’s craft, gives us an interesting insight into the development of Japanese art as a whole. This family had produced metal inlay items for generations, well before the Komai firm was founded in 1841, but these items initially took the shape of sword furniture for the Samurai. Sword fittings could be very ornate and personal in design and required a high degree of skill to produce. Due to various changes in Japanese politics over time, Otojiro Komai eventually transitioned from creating sword furniture to other items, using the same technique.

The emergence of metal inlay techniques

Craftmanship commissioned by the Samurai class was prevalent during a very particular, if long, period of time in Japanese history: the Edo period. It began with the unification of Japanese feudal lords under the Tokugawa government around 1603, which calmed the constant warring factions and allowed for the arts to flourish. Among these artistic disciplines were pottery, metal work and woodblock printing.

The Edo period continued for roughly 250 years, coming to an end in 1868. At this point in time, the isolationist government of the Edo period was replaced by the new governing system of the Meiji period.

The Meiji period brought many cultural changes to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West, as well as structural changes to the government, with it. What most critically impacted the arts, was the new ruling outlawing the carrying of swords by samurai. This ruling suddenly put sword smiths and sword furniture artisans into a tight spot, as they lost most of their clientele.

Luckily, these sword smithing and metalworking skills could be used to produce a variety of items. Upon realising this, craftsmen started making various every-day metal objects that featured inlays. Among these objects are vases, mirrors, cigarette/tobacco cases, make-up cases, cufflinks and jewellery.

Today, these objects can be found in different countries, while a few remain in Japan. The reason the majority of them is abroad is that they were made for export and take the shape of distinctly Western items, as you can tell if you pay close attention to the list above. Cigarette cases, make-up cases, mirrors, vases and jewellery had a vastly different shape in Japan and cufflinks largely didn’t exist, because there was nowhere to fasten them on traditional clothing.

In this way, the Meiji period meant both lost and new-found opportunities for smiths, as this kind of international trade only became possible once Japan opened its borders. The Komai family then participated in several international expositions and gained renown and recognition for their craft.

The process of creating metal inlay:

  1. Double-hatch lines are cut into a steel ground.
  2. The design to be created is drawn on paper and is then transferred onto the steel ground with the help of a fine pin.
  3. Gold or silver wires are hammered into the surface of the steel ground and the entire piece is baked on a fire around 30 times. Afterwards, the lacquer is rubbed and polished off with a steel stick. Another finish can be created via oxidisation: The steel ground is oxidised with a chemical instead of lacquered over.
  4. Sometimes, the lines created by the wires are engraved to give the design the desired look.

Inro: a functional art

Contact us to find out about our current selection of inro.

Inro are small containers that could be roughly described as the handbags or pouches of ancient Japan. They had both practical and esthetical value. Though they usually were square, round or polygonal in shape, a variety of special animal shapes also exist. Over time, these containers came to be extremely luxurious and extravagantly decorated gadgets.

Consisting of a few compartments, the containers are joined by a silk string running through hollowed out channels on both sides of the object. As Japanese clothes (kimono) did not have pockets, inro became a substitute for the latter.

Kimono are fastened with a sash that sits at waist level, which was where an inro would be hung from. The inro was suspended at the bottom of the sash, a netsuke securing it in place, while an ojime bead at the top of the inro protected the container from opening accidentally. Initially worn by men, they filtered into female fashion over time.

Inro were perfect for insulating items such as medicine against Japan’s particularly humid and hot climate, because they were largely made of wood and leather coated with lacquer, which is a material that is known for its preservative qualities. Occasionally, ivory, paper, cloth or ceramics were used as additional materials to make these cases.

Lavishly decorated with various types of lacquer work and sometimes supplemented with inlays of ivory, mother of pearl and coral, an inro could be a very personal item. Even today, it has the potential to reveal a lot about the person that it belonged to. While the first motifs that were used for the decoration of inro reference ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), the number of inspirations and designs grew countless, only limited by the owner’s circumstances and the artist’s imagination.