More than 60 works on loan from the museum of Fine Arts in Boston comprise the exhibition “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” at the Asian Art Museum, on display through Aug. 18. The woodcuts are what remain of the popular art of urban life in Japan, specifically 19th-century tattoo culture.
Japanese tattoo artists began their craft back in the Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD). Back then, Japanese tattoos were associated with spirituality and status symbol, separating the master from the slave. However, in the Kofun period (300 –600 AD), things changed and tattoos began to have a negative connotation since they were used as marks for criminals. An indigenous population of Japan, the Ainus, who have lived in Japan for thousands of years, also used to have tattoos on their arms, mouth and even in their foreheads. Until recently this marked them as barbarians in the main stream Japanese culture.
The show is a snap shot, quick pick history of the tattoo, how it started, what the motifs mean and a stab at trying to explain how tattoos became so important in certain aspects of contemporary American Culture.
The show is sure to be popular with visitors and those looking for a colorful afternoon, reveling in the graphic skills of Japan. At least, this exhibit of a popular art form, unlike the show on Kimonos which didn't have any kimonos, is not divorced from the culture and history which produced it. But is it art? Well, the Asian is trying hard to reach out to those who run away at the word "ART." So perhaps we shouldn't scare them. If they show it, will the masses come and perhaps take some time to look at the real art and history in the museum. One can only hope.
Tattoos in Japanese Prints
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Mondays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays; through Aug. 18
Admission: $20 to $25
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org