Tuesday, December 10, 2019

1940's Yakuza Tattoo Culture ~ Horace Bristol

Born in 1908, Horace Bristol studied at the Art Center of Los Angeles, where he was influenced by the work of Edward Steichen and Margaret Bourke-White. He moved to San Francisco, met Ansel Adams and through him befriended fellow photographers including Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, and Imogen Cunningham.

He became a LIFE magazine contributor in the late 1930s and was soon hired on staff. In 1937 Bristol proposed a story about migrant farm workers in California’s Central Valley—a project that would include accompanying text by novelist John Steinbeck. LIFE turned down the story and Steinbeck withdrew from the partnership to write the story as a novel, which became his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath but Bristol photographed the region on his own.

In 1941 Bristol became one of five photographers documenting World War II under the direction of Edward Steichen, and he photographed battles in North Africa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima.

Following his documentation of World War II, Bristol settled in Tokyo, Japan, selling his photographs to magazines in Europe and the United States, and becoming the Asian correspondent to Fortune. He published several books, and established the East-West Photo Agency.

 In 1956, devastated by the suicide of his wife, Bristol burned all the negatives and photographs that he kept at his seaside house in Japan, effectively ending one of the most intense photographic careers of his time. His remaining photographs were packed into footlockers, stored, and left untouched for nearly thirty years. Below are some of his stunning documentation of mid-century tattoo culture in Japan.

Horace Bristol, Yakuza Public Baths, Japan, 1947

During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), criminals in Japan were tattooed by authorities in a practice known as bokkei, making it hard for them to reenter society and find work. This is a primary reason why the tattoo culture of the Yakuza evolved in protest to this branding.
The meaning of Yakuza tattoos are usually related to imagery and symbolism in Japanese art, culture, and religion. The full body suit tattoo, in particular, is a product of Yakuza culture. In the past, it was obligatory in many Yakuza clans for members to get tattoos.
In modern times, the practice is no longer as common. Many Yakuza in the 21st century maintain clean skin to better blend in with society. Conversely, more and more non-Yakuza in Japan are getting tattoos.
Despite these changes, being tattooed is considered a rite of passage for the Yakuza.

1946, Tokyo, Japan ~ A Japanese tattoo artist works on a group of  Yakuza gang members.


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