Phillip Valys, South Florida Sun Sentinel

February 24, 2016


Kip Fulbeck has been hassled in hotels, criticized in gyms and mocked in bathhouses for showing too much of his body, a tattooed canvas for fire-breathing dragons, Buddhist goddesses of mercy and other bold Japanese motifs. Fulbeck caught the bulk of this ridicule while living in the small fishing village of Yokohama in Japan, which has condemned tattoos as taboo for centuries.

“Japanese tattooing is revered in every country except in the country of its origin,” says Fulbeck, a photographer will full-body tattoos and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s still quasi-illegal there. There’s a very old stigma about Japanese tattoos about being barbaric and backward, or used to mark criminals.”

It was these old prejudices that Japanese men and women harbored about ink that drove Fulbeck to photograph the tattooed subjects on display for “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World.” Opening Friday, Feb. 26, at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, the show is as much a historical roundup of Japan’s stigmatizing of ink as it is a mash note to tattoos as art forms.

In Fulbeck’s 90 photo prints that decorate the Morikami (some are life-size), dozens of nude and loinclothed male and female subjects bear their body suits – slang for full-body tattoos – keeping the Japanese tattoo tradition alive by showing the flora, fauna and folk figures needled into their skin. Each traditional tattoo motif is rich with symbolism and historical meaning, says Fulbeck, who tapped Japanese artist Takahiro Kitamura, who goes by the tattoo moniker “Ryudaibori,” to corral 40 artists whose ink is represented in these photos.

“The show’s title is about staying focused through the pain of being tattooed all over,” says Fulbeck, whose exhibit has toured the country since debuting at Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum in 2014. “But it’s also about Japanese culture, which is like a dandelion – it keeps growing back and persevering – despite the stigmas artists face.”

“Perseverance” opens with a handful of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints that recall the quiet, secretive ritual of tattooing in brothels (in one print, a courtesan is tattooed on the forearm by her lover). But most prints pay tribute to characters from the 16th century Chinese novel “Tales of the Water Margin, translated into Japanese in the late 19th century. The translation set off a flood of tattoos emulating the book’s Robin Hoodlike warrior-hero Shi Jin, whose band of 108 merry thieves sported full-body tattoos and stole from the rich.

Tamara Joy, the Morikami Museum’s chief curator, says tattoos earned their bad reputation 1,000 years earlier, when Japanese feudal lords would mark criminals with ink. The stigma persisted through the 19th century, when a rapidly modernizing Japan outlawed tattoos as a “form of barbarism” that would turn off new Western tourists. (In fact, Joy says, Westerners loved the full-body tattoos, often found on retired samurai and farm workers.) Tattoos also earned an unsavory association with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia whose members branded themselves with ink.

“But tattoos are getting more popular because people are now seeing tattoo and body adornment as more of an art form than an outlier,” Joy says. “There is no more personal canvas than the human body.”

In traveling “Perseverance” to multiple museums, Fulbeck says he has encountered pushback from schoolteachers and Japanese docents, who refused “to work the show in Los Angeles” because it displayed tattoos so brazenly.

“I’m hoping to destroy that stigma,” Fulbeck says. “The woodblock print, Japanese pottery, kabuki theater –why do people say these are examples of great artwork when Japanese tattoos came from the same period? It’s the same level of craftsmanship. It’s fine art.”

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