The Edo period form of erotic Japanese art called Shunga (Jap. “spring pictures”) was something I was vaguely familiar with through my daily studies of Ukiyo-e and other Japanese arts in my profession as a traditional Japanese style tattoo artist. After 10 years as a common tattooer creating pretty much on customer demand I had grown tired of not properly approaching my ideas of what kind of an artist and person I was. For various personal reasons and circumstances Japanese art, culture and spirituality increasingly came to play an important role in my life so the decision to become a Horishi (traditional Japanese tattoo artist) suddenly became unavoidable and necessary.
I quickly came to understand that in order to master this great feat I had to study. Very Hard and everyday. So I did just that. I read everything I could get my hands and eyes on. In Irezumi, the traditional Japanese tattoo, the artist usually used Ukiyo-e woodblock prints or paintings as reference for composition, style and content. Most of my clients wanted the images of warriors, heroes or various animals tattooed on their backs, arms and legs, usually combined with Japanese seasonal flowers and a background depicting water or wind.
In the world of Ukiyo-e there were many active artists at any given time during its 250 years of success. Many of these came and went without leaving traces in art history but a few such as Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Utamaro, Kunisada, Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi ended up changing even the evolution of western art. Hokusai created on of the most recognized pieces of art in global human art history when he designed the famous Kanagawa-oki nami ura, (“Under a wave off Kanagawa”).
One thing that all these important artist have in common was that they at one time or another produced Shunga. The time and place in history where they lived and worked was unique. Edo was a “boom town” with a surplus of male inhabitants. Sexual or intimate encounters with females were rare or in many cases unobtainable. So pornography became a commodity of necessity. Images of sex became high in demand for masturbation purposes and the business of Shunga was highly a highly lucrative one.
It was the winter 2012/13. I had been tattooing since 1991. My marriage was since long failing. At the time I didn’t know it but I had been ignoring or postponing the discovery of my artistic voice. I was highly successful as a creator of Japanese tattoos and my popularity was painted in an ever ascending arc of more clients, further recognition and a steady income. Inside I was struggling. I was becoming depressed and emotionally depleted. I had lost myself in the process it seemed.
A few years earlier I had ventured into book publishing together with another creator of Japanese Tattoos and we were supposed to go to a famous tattoo convention in Milan in order to present and release our latest book. As a tattoo artist it is common to design and print sheets of design, “Flash”, and sell these to other artists and collectors at the event. If these sheets proved popular it usually provided the opportunity for a little extra income during the convention. I had been doing it for years and years. This time, as so many times before this, I was thinking hard in order to come up with something new and unique. It had been a bit of a trademark for me. Since my studies into to Japanese culture and art were so deep and intense and since so many other artist did not really study these things I had been constantly able to present new approaches to the old subject matters.
I can’t really remember why I chose Shunga as the theme this time. Perhaps it was because at the time hardly any other tattoo artists painted or drew any designs like this. Perhaps it was an attempt of self love. In a failing relationship I was just like the men of Edo. Alone and thirsting for intimacy. Also, I had always liked to push boundaries and break taboos. What ever the reasons were I started to create five images doing the best I could with the materials and knowledge I possessed at the time. Suddenly ideas were flooding my creative mind. I found use for knowledge unusable in tattooing. The designs quickly evolved into complex images and each of them became a Shunga painting in their own right. This is how the finished sheets came out.
I had them printed as a limited edition of 25 sets and put them in a specially designed slipcase and went to Milan. In all honestly they weren’t as successful as I had hoped for but the reactions I received and the many interesting and positive conversations that took place surrounding these sheets during the convention really inspired me. I understood that perhaps I have found that voice.
As a person I am soft spoken but with many words. I experience emotions on a deep level. I am not an aggressive type. Positivity and always rising from the debris of everything imaginable is something I have always done. I am very serious person yet full of humor and laughter. Emotionally I take my time and stay out of rash decisions but creatively I take leaps of one thousand miles at a time and fear nothing. I do believe in love as the most valuable of jewels of the human heart ( not just romantic love but all types of love). All of the above are perhaps the reason why I lean towards Zen buddhism, non-violence and dialog. Unfortunately this way of being as a person isn’t exactly the easiest path to tread in societies like ours. You can perhaps say I make a very lousy “Man”. Hopefully a better Hu-Man.
As I continued exploring (I still continued tattooing at full time as well as published books) I found that I already had a strong sense of imagery and how to combine the erotic with things I wanted to say and questions I wanted to pose. Also it was arousing to paint these images. The idea of being horny took on new dimensions and I slowly started to re-discover myself. And heal.
Edo period shunga usually depicts sexual encounters in-between couples, perhaps wife and husband or other constellations of lovers or persons intimate, and is mostly free of body shape ideals or the idea of sinfulness (no God, no Sin). Not many things were taboo when it comes to sex in Edo Japan. Homosexuality for example was not considered abnormal but was rather a part of the sexual society in Shunga. Most of the images are intimate and private, focusing on the encounter and placing the viewer or user as a voyeur. There are of course exceptions to this rule where and sometimes even rape is portrayed but these images are very rare and cannot be seen as even remotely relevant in a discussion regarding Shunga.
A great book to read, and a personal favorite, on the subject of Shunga is Sex and the floating world: erotic images in Japan 1700-1820 by Timon Screech. In this book he shares the conclusion that the imagery of Shunga is one that is strongly linked to the erotic and intimate fantasies of the men of Edo a that specific time in history. Namely that the idea of closeness and intimacy with a person on a romantic / passionate / Intimate level was for most men an unobtainable dream. Another great book on the subject is this wonderful book by Rosina Buckland.
Of course, women in feudal Japan did not experience much freedom, locked away by conventions and gender roles instituted by the male ruling classes, and their story remains sadly untold to a great extent in Edo shunga, since it was mostly orientated towards male consumers of pornography.
This is why taking the ideas of Edo period Shunga into my own contemporary world, blending and grinding it together with who I am, what I feel and my life experiences works so well for me. What comes out of this union of Then and Now and Me and You can perhaps be the beginning or part of reclaiming the erotic, the intimate, the passionate and the sexual. I certainly hope so.