In 1970, photographer Martha Cooper spotted a man in a crowd. On his back was a Japanese tattoo, figures drawn in the style of a woodblock print. Entranced by this vision, Cooper followed him until he disappeared, and soon thereafter began questioning her friends about the subject. It was a touchy topic—it had been outlawed in 1872 and legalized again in 1948 and as the decades intervened, tattoos became symbols of the yakuza, the gangsters and the underworld of Japan. This is because the images of tattoos were seen in films, and is all too common, what is constructed for entertainment is taken as truth.

Fortunately, Cooper delved deeper, and discovered an ancient art, the art of the ornamental flesh that has traditionally defined members of the working class. As Cooper explains, “Tattooing properly is a difficult skill and therefore to get tattooed has always been expensive. A bad tattoo artist could kill you by pricking your skin to deeply with poisonous inks. A laborer who as a full upper body tattoo has to earn a lot of money to pay for it. Thus the most beautiful and extensive tattoos are symbols of wealth and prestige.” And it was with this basis for understanding that Cooper visited tattoo master Horibun I in Tokyo and documented his world….

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