SAN FRANCISCO — The colorful dragon you saw writhing on the arm of your barista this morning. The bold lion surrounded by peonies inked on the torso of that guy at the gym. Maybe the snake circling your own ankle. Did you know tattoos like these can be traced back to a famous series of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, which was itself inspired by a popular 14th-century Chinese martial-arts novel?

“Tattoos in Japanese Prints,” on view from May 31 to Aug. 18 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. in San Francisco, recounts how large-scale, densely composed pictorial tattoos — what we now recognize as a distinctly Japanese style — emerged in 19th-century Japan in tandem with woodblock prints depicting tattooed heroes of history and myth.

More than 60 superb prints by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) and his contemporaries from the noted collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, explore the interplay between ink on paper and ink on skin. Kuniyoshi’s influential print series “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” (1827–1830), illustrating hero-bandits from a 14th-century Chinese martial-arts novel, probably both inspired and reflected a real-life tattoo trend — art into life and life into art.

Many of the characters in Kuniyoshi’s “Water Margin” prints sport elaborate tattoos. Other artists, seeing the popularity of these works, made their own prints of tattooed “Water Margin” heroes and went on to depict historical figures and kabuki actors with prominent inked embellishment. The iconography of the tattoos in these prints, also found on the bodies of real-life Japanese urban men, included lions, eagles, peonies, dragons, giant snakes and the fierce Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo. These motifs — still popular today — evoked bravery, valor and strength.

The vogue for tattoos in Japan lasted until the early Meiji period (1868–1912), when the Japanese government prohibited them as part of its effort to modernize the country. Woodblock prints are some of the best documentation we have of real-life tattoos of 19th-century Japan, and they continue to provide models for worldwide tattoo artists today.

Exhibition-related events:

Thursday, June 13: Panel discussion on Japanese Tattoos, “The Visual Splendor of the Floating World”

Saturday, June 15: Ukiyo-e printing workshop with Tomoko Murakami

Thursday, June 20: At the Table: “Knives and Needles”

Thursday, July 11: At the Table: Talk and Tea with Monica Lo and Felicity Chen

Saturday, July 13: Live tattooing

Thursday, Aug. 15: At the Table: Talk with Ichi Sushi Executive Chef Tim Archuleta

Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday.

Admission: Free for members, SFUSD students, active members of the U.S. Armed Forces (and up to five family members); $25 for adults; $20 for seniors (65+), college students with ID, youth (13-17); $10 on Target First Free Sundays; $20 on Thursday nights; $18 on Thursday nights for seniors, college students, youth.

Exhibitions now on view: “Your Dog,” Yoshitomo Nara; “Collected Letters,” Liu Jianhua

Coming May 31: “The Bold Brush of Au Ho-Nien,” “Tanabe Chikuunsai IV: Connection”

Coming Sept. 27: “Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan”

Coming Nov. 26 : “Lost at Sea: Art Recovered from Shipwrecks”

For more information, call (415) 581-3500 or visit

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