Photo By Jorge from Tokyo, Japan (Nothing to hide) [ CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most iconic parts of a yakuza (besides flashy suits and missing pinky fingers) are their tattoos.  Irezumi is a traditional form of Japanese tattooing.  For all of the beautiful colors and woodblock-print-style artwork, tattoos became associated with criminality at the beginning of the Meiji period.

Traditional Irezumi tattoo artists tend to be a secretive bunch, often requiring you to know someone personally who can make an introduction in order to hire one.  After a consultation, a tattoo begins as a freehand outline of the desired design, and the recipient will return on a regular basis to have the design colored whenever they can afford another session.  The full bodysuit tattoo that people tend to think of when imagining a yakuza, may take up to five years worth of weekly visits, and cost in excess of $30,000 USD.

Tattoo sleeves may extend to the mid bicep, mid forearm, or occasionally all the way to the wrist.  Likewise, they may extend down the legs from the hip to the knee, may wrap around the entire leg, and may extend to the mid calf or ankle.  Typically, a center strip extending from the clavicle, down the middle of the chest, and through the groin area is left bare.  Not only does this avoid tattooing on the genitals but it also makes it easier to hide the tattoos; to be so covering, they’re strategically placed as not to be visible under clothes.

Ironically, modern yakuza are beginning to avoid tattoos, precisely because they mark them as criminals.  However, traditional irezumi remain a part of yakuza culture.

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