Accepted Paper:

Negotiating boundaries of skin and ink: horimono and the tattooed body in downtown Tokyo  


Hayley McLaren (Hitotsubashi University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the so-called ‘living art’ of horimono, Japanese tattoos, as practiced in shitamachi Tokyo. Lived experiences of tattooed bodies suggest horimono are more than just visual images, signs, symbols, or markers/makers of identity, inked onto the surface of the physical body.

Paper long abstract:

The process of tattooing permanently alters the surface of the body and draws a myriad of historically and culturally contextualized interpretations of the physical and symbolic breaking of boundaries, namely those between the body/self and society. In the Japanese context, large scale tattoos known as horimono have been approached in academic scholarship from a predominantly visual perspective - as signs or symbols - of such transgressed boundaries. Historical practices of punitive tattooing, along with a present-day yakuza inclination towards horimono, means, more often not, an equation with social (dis)affiliation and criminal identity formation within broader public discourse. Such views of horimono, however, effectively disregard the ontological status of the horimono itself. This paper takes on this issue, exploring the varied ways both wearers of horimono, and horishi, Japanese tattooists, as well as others in the public sphere may experience horimono and tattooed bodies.

Ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the shitamachi, 'downtown' area, of Tokyo, illustrates how horimono may be experienced as protective, talismanic, or some other 'supernatural' physical manifestations. When paying particular attention to both the boundaries brought into question through the process of tattooing, and to the relations between both people and 'things' brought into play within the horimono itself, we can see horimono are implicated in complex entanglements of relations. Engaging Alfred Gell's conceptualization of agency, I suggest that horimono may be at times both part of, and also beyond, either the physical body, the person on whom they are etched, or the image formed in skin and ink.

Panel P059
Anthropology through the experience of the physical body