In today’s travel guides to Japan, tattoos are generally only mentioned in the context of places where tourists should be prepared to cover them up, such as gyms, public pools and bathing houses known as onsens. A century ago, it was a very different story.
Guidebooks, like Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1893 “Handbook for Travellers in Japan,” feature ads for fine art galleries that double as tattoo parlors; you could pick up a piece of Japanese pottery while getting a more permanent souvenir. In “Vacation Days in Hawaii and Japan,” published in the early 1900s, Philadelphia-based writer Charles M. Taylor Jr. devotes multiple pages to a meeting with Hori Chiyo, an artist who claimed to have tattooed the British princes Albert Victor and George (the future King George V).
In Japan at the time, tattoos were seen as a sign of degeneracy. They were used to brand criminals — and for those criminals to then cover up their brands. As the country opened up to the West for the first time, the emperor outlawed the art, seeing it as antithetical to modernity. Ironically, tattooing for tourists remained legal — and, as Chamberlain wrote in a 1905 travel guide, the Japanese take on the art was considered the champagne of tattooing: “an art as vastly superior to the ordinary British sailor’s tattooing as Heidsieck Monopole is to small beer.”
Today, tattoos are popular among travelers, as ways to pay homage to a place (e.g., Japanese kanji script, an iconic building) or to traveling as a way of life (e.g., a compass, a map of the world). But how far back does the practice go? The history of tattooing as a way to mark travels is hard to pin down. But there is something that most scholars agree on: The most common origin story is wrong, and the meaning of tattoos isn’t always clear cut.
Tracing back to the Holy Land
Yes, Capt. James Cook sailed the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century, and many of his crewmen may have received tattoos from the Polynesian people they encountered along the way. Sometimes there may have even been an overlap in the reasons British and Polynesian sailors got tattoos: protection, for example. The letters “H-O-L-D F-A-S-T” tattooed across the knuckles was thought to save a sailor when letting go of a rope was a matter of life and death.
But the common narrative that those sailors were the first people to bring tattoos back to Europe isn’t true. Rather, according to some, it’s a story rooted in some of the same instincts that make people get tattooed on their travels today.
When can Americans travel to Europe again? We asked 4 insiders.
“There’s a misconception in certain Western cultural memory that tattooing is sort of something