Tattooing has gained significant ground as a cultural mainstay in the West in recent years. In fact, the practice is so popular that many of the most common designs – butterflies, Asian characters and the like – have become ubiquitous among younger generations of tattoo enthusiasts.

With the surge in both popularity and visibility that body art has seen recently, it can be easy to associate the practice of tattooing as a whole with these common Western symbols and cultural attitudes. But it is important to note that tattoo practices are as diverse as they are widespread, with many cultures imbuing their own symbolism and meaning not just to their tattoo designs, but also the practices that are used to ink them onto skin. One such example can be found in the Japanese tattoo style known as Irezumi, which has found its way from Japan to countries all over the world.

A symbolic evolution
Here in the West, we know tattooing primarily as a means of aesthetic expression, serving a decorative purpose almost exclusively. However, many other cultures have traditionally taken a much more utilitarian approach to tattooing. One example can be found in early feudal Japan. According to tattoo blog Irezumi Art, ancient Japanese body art used to be restricted to symbols rather than imagery. It wasn't until the Edo period – between 1600 and 1868 – that tattooing took on the more decorative approach that we are familiar with today. 

Tattooing was outlawed by the Japanese government in 1869, but the U.S. occupation beginning in 1945 reinvigorated the art, and Irezumi artists could once again practice in the open. More than a system of designs or particular aesthetic, Irezumi is as much centered around the methodology and placement on the body as it is on the imagery used. For example, the source noted that many recipients often receive "body suit" tattoos – inking a vest- or jacket-shaped pattern on the torso, leaving an unmarked spot down the center of the chest. Such a procedure is, as you can imagine, very expensive and time-consuming, taking anywhere from one to five years to complete.

Cultural adoption
Who then, outside of this traditional Japanese context, would be interested in pursuing such an extensive method of body art? Actually, Irezumi is more popular among non-Japanese patrons than many would initially believe. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that many enthusiasts of the style are located in nearby Australia. Some, such as 47-year-old Woolloomooloo, Australia, resident Paul Roberts, have taken their love of the form to an extreme degree.

According to the source, Roberts has been receiving tattoos since he was 14. In the ensuing decades, he has taken a substantial liking to the traditional Irezumi style. Now, Roberts' whole body is covered in Japanese-style ink from his neck to his ankles. 

The ink affinity is more than just an aesthetic appreciation for Roberts. As the source reported, he is staged to take his first trip to Japan while flying the flag of tattoo enthusiasm. Tokyo hosts its yearly King of Tattoo convention, which is one of the largest and most well-known event of its kind in Asia. For Roberts, it represents an opportunity for him to rub elbows with some of the most talented artists in the world – ultimately a humbling and inspiring experience, he noted to the source. Roberts is far from a unique example of Western enthusiasts taking an interest in older cultural tattoo traditions. Instead of tattoo regret, these individuals are anxiously immersing themselves in these new and exciting ways of approaching their body art habits.

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