THE TATTOOER It was an age when men honored

It was an age when men honored the noble virtue of
frivolity, when life was not such a harsh struggle as it
is today. It was a leisurely age, an age when professional
wits could make an excellent livelihood by keeping rich
or wellborn young gentlemen in a cloudless good humor
and seeing to it that the laughter of Court ladies and
geisha was never stilled. In the illustrated romantic
of the day, in the Kabuki theater, where rough masculine
heroes like Sadakuro and Jiraiya were transformed into
women – everywhere beauty and strength were one.
People did all they could to beautify themselves, some
even having pigments injected into their precious skins.
Gaudy patterns of line and color danced over men’s
Visitors to the pleasure quarters of Edo preferred to
hire palanquin bearers who were splendidly tattooed;
courtesans of the Yoshiwara and the Tatsumi quarter
fell in love with tattooed men. Among those so adorned
were not only gamblers, firemen, and the like, but members of the merchant class and even samurai. Exhibitions
were held from time to time; and the participants,
stripped to show off their filigreed bodies, would pat
themselves proudly, boast of their own novel designs,
and criticize each other’s merits.
There was an exceptionally skillful young tattooer
named Seikichi. He was praised on all sides as a master
the equal of Charibun or Yatsuhei, and the skins of
dozens of men had been offered as the silk for this brush.
Much of the work admired at the tattoo exhibitions was
his. Others might be more noted for their shading, or
their use of cinnabar, but Seikichi was famous for the
unrivaled boldness and sensual charm of his art.
Seikichi had formerly earned his living as an ukiyoye
painter of the school of Toyokuni and Kunisada, a background which, in spite of his decline to the status of a
tattooer, was evident from his artistic conscience and
sensitivity. No one whose skin or whose physique failed
to interest him could buy his services. The clients he did
accept had to leave the design and cost entirely to his
discretion – and to endure for one or even two months
the excruciating pain of his needles.
Deep in his heart the young tattooer concealed a secret
pleasure, and a secret desire. His pleasure lay in the
agony men felt as he drove his needles into them, torturing and vermilioning – these are said to be especially
painful – were the techniques he most enjoyed.
When a man had been pricked five or six hundred
times in the course of an average day’s treatment and had
then soaked himself in a hot bath to bring out the colors,
he would collapse at Seikichi’s feet half dead. But
Seikichi would look down at him coolly. “I dare say
that hurts,” he would remark with an air of satisfaction.
Whenever a spineless man howled in torment or
clenched his teeth and twisted his mouth as if he
were dying, Seikichi told him: “Don’t act like a child.
Pull yourself together – you have hardly begun to feel
my needles!” And he would go on tattooing, as unperturbed as ever, with an occasional sidelong glance at
the man’s tearful face.
But sometimes a man of immense fortitude set his jaw
and bore up stoically, not even allowing himself to
frown. Then Seikichi would smile and say: “Ah, you
are a stubborn one! But wait. Soon your body will begin
to throb with pain. I doubt if you will be able to stand
For a long time Seikichi had cherished the desire to
create a masterpiece on the skin of a beautiful woman.
Such a woman had to meet various qualifications of
character as well as appearance. A lovely face and a fine
body were not enough to satisfy him. Though he inspected all the reigning beauties of the Edo gay quarters
he found none who met his exacting demands. Several
years had passed without success, and yet the face and
figure of the perfect woman continued to obsess his
thoughts. He refused to abandon hope.
One summer evening during the fourth year of his
search Seikichi happened to be passing the Hirasei Restaurant in the Fukagawa district of Edo, not far from
his own house, when he noticed a woman’s bare milkwhite foot peeping out beneath the curtains of a departing palanquin. To his sharp eye, a human foot was as
expressive as a face. This one was sheer perfection. Exquisitely chiseled toes, nails like the iridescent shells
along the sore at Enoshima, a pearl-like rounded heel,
skin so lustrous that it seemed bathed in the limpid waters
of a mountain spring – this, indeed, was a foot to be
nourished by men’s blood, a foot to trample on their
bodies. Surely this was the foot of the unique woman
who had so long eluded him. Eager to catch a glimpse
of her face, Seikichi began to follow the palanquin. But
after pursuing it down several lanes and alleys he lost
sight of it altogether.
Seikichi’s long-held desire turned into passionate love.
One morning late the next spring he was standing on the
bamboo-floored veranda of his home in Fukagawa, gaz-
ing at a pot of omoto lilies, when he heard someone at
the garden gate. Around the corner of the inner fence
appeared a young girl. She had come on an errand for a
friend of his, a geisha of the nearby Tatsumi quarter.
“My mistress asked me to deliver this cloak, and she
wondered if you would be so good as to decorate its
lining,” the girl said. She united a saffron-colored cloth
parcel and took out a woman’s silk cloak (wrapped in a
sheet of thick paper bearing a portrait of the actor
Tojaku) and a latter.
The letter repeated his friend’s request and went on to
say that its bearer would soon begin a career as a geisha
under her protection. She hoped that, while not forgetting old ties, he would also extend his patronage to
this girl.
“I thought I had never seen you before,” said Seikichi,
scrutinizing her intently. She seemed only fifteen or
sixteen, but her face had a strangely ripe beauty, a look
of experience, as if she had already spent years in the
gay quarter and had fascinated innumerable men. Her
beauty mirrored the dreams of the generations of
glamorous men and women who had lived and died in
this vast capital, where the nation’s sins and wealth were
Seikichi had her sit on the veranda, and he studied her
delicate feet, which were bare except for elegant straw
sandals. “You left the Hirasei by palanquin one night
last July, did you not?” he inquired.
“I suppose so,” she replied, smiling at the odd question. “My father was still alive then, and he often took
me there.”
“I have waited five years for you. This is the first
time I have seen your face, but I remember your foot.
... Come in for a moment, I have something to show
She had risen to leave, but he took her by the hand
and led her upstairs to his studio overlooking the broad
river. Then he brought out two picture scrolls and unrolled one of them before her.
It was a painting of a Chinese princess, the favorite
of the cruel Emperor Chou of the Shang Dynasty. She
was leaning on a balustrade in a languorous pose, the
long skirt of her figured brocade robe trailing halfway
down a flight of stairs, her slender body barely able to
support the weight of her gold crown studded with
coral and lapis lazuli. In her right hand she held a large
wine cup, tilting it to her lips as she gazed down at a
man who was about to be tortured in the garden below.
He was chained hand and foot to a hollow copper pillar
in which a fire would be lighted. Both the princess and
her victim – his head bowed before her, his eyes closed,
ready to meet his fate – were portrayed with terrifying
As the girl stared at this bizarre picture her lips trembled and her eyes began to sparkle. Gradually her face
took on a curious resemblance to that of the princess. In
the picture she discovered her secret self.
“Your own feelings are revealed here,” Seikichi told
her with pleasure as he watched her face.
“Why are you showing me this horrible thing?” the
girl asked, looking up at him. She had turned pale.
“The woman is yourself. Her blood flows in your
veins.” Then he spread out the other scroll.
This was a painting called “The Victims.” In the
middle of it a young woman stood leaning against the
trunk of a cherry tree: she was gloating over a heap of
men’s corpses lying at her feet. Little birds fluttered
about her, singing in triumph; her eyes radiated pride
and joy. Was it a battlefield or a garden in spring? In
this picture the girl felt that she had found something
long hidden in the darkness of her own heart.
“This painting shows your future,” Seikichi said,
pointing to the woman under the cherry tree – the very
image of the young girl. “All these men will ruin their
lives for you.”
“Please, I beg of you to put it away!” She turned her
back as if to escape its tantalizing lure and prostrated
herself before him, trembling. At last she spoke again.
“Yes, I admit that you are right about me – I am like that
woman... So please, please take it away.”
“Don’t talk like a coward,” Seikichi told her, with
his malicious smile. “Look at it more closely. You won’t
be squeamish long.”
But the girl refused to lift her head. Still prostrate, her
face buried in her sleeves, she repeated over and over
that she was afraid and wanted to leave.
“No, you must stay – I will make you a real beauty,”
he said, moving closer to her. Under his kimono was a
vial of anesthetic which he had obtained some time ago
from a Dutch physician.
The morning sun glittered on the river, setting the
eight-mat studio ablaze with light. Rays reflected from
the water sketched rippling golden waves on the paper
sliding screens and on the face of the girl, who was fast
asleep. Seikichi had closed the doors and taken up his
tattooing instruments, but for a while he only sat there
entranced, savoring to the full her uncanny beauty. He
thought that he would never tire of contemplating her
serene masklike face. Just as the ancient Egyptians had
embellished their magnificent land with pyramids and
sphinxes, he was about to embellish the pure skin of this
Presently he raised the brush which was gripped between the thumb and last two fingers of his left hand,
applied its tip to the girl’s back, and, with the needle
which he held in his right hand, began pricking out a
design. He felt his spirit dissolve into the charcoal-black
ink that strained her skin. Each drop of Ryukyu cinnabar
that he mixed with alcohol and thrust in was a drop of
his lifeblood. He saw in his pigments the hues of his
own passions.
Soon it was afternoon, and then the tranquil spring
day drew toward its close. But Seikichi never paused in
his work, nor was the girl’s sleep broken. When a servant
came from the geisha house to inquire about her, Seikichi
turned him away, saying that she had left long ago. And
hours later, when the moon hung over the mansion across
the river, bathing the houses along the bank in a dreamlike radiance, the tattoo was not yet half done. Seikichi
worked on by candlelight.
Even to insert a single drop of color was no easy task.
At every thrust of his needle Seikichi gave a heavy sigh
and felt as if he had stabbed his own heart. Little by little
the tattoo marks began to take on the form of a huge
black-widow spider; and by the time the night sky was
paling into dawn this weird, malevolent creature had
stretched its eight legs to embrace the whole of the girl’s
In the full light of the spring dawn boats were being
rowed up and down the river, their oars creaking in
the morning quiet; roof tiles glistened in the sun, and the
haze began to thin out over white sails swelling in the
early breeze. Finally Seikichi put down his brush and
looked at the tattooed spider. This work of art had been
the supreme effort of his life. Now that he had finished
it his heart was drained of emotion.
The two figures remained still for some time. Then
Seikichi’s low, hoarse voice echoed quaveringly from the
walls of the room:
“To make you truly beautiful I have poured m soul
into this tattoo. Today there is not woman in Japan to
compare with you. Your old fears are gone. All men
will be your victims.”
As if in response to these words a faint moan came
from the girl’s lips. Slowly she began to recover her
senses. With each shuddering breath, the spider’s legs
stirred as if they were alive.
“You must be suffering. The spider has you in its
At this she opened her eyes slightly, in a dull stare.
Her gaze steadily brightened, as the moon brightens in
the evening, until it shone dazzlingly into his face.
“Let me see the tattoo,” she said, speaking as if in a
dream but with an edge of authority to her voice. “Giving me your soul must have made me very beautiful.”
“First you must bathe to bring out the colors,”
whispered Seikichi compassionately. “I am afraid it will
hurt, but be brave a little longer.”
“I can bear anything for the sake of beauty.” Despite
the pain that was coursing through her body, she smiled.
“How the water stings! ... Leave me alone – wait in
the other room! I hate to have a man see me suffer like
As she left the tub, too weak to dry herself, the girl
pushed aside the sympathetic hand Seikichi offered her,
and sank to the floor in agony, moaning as if in a nightmare. Her disheveled hair hung over her face in a wild
tangle. The white soles of her feet were reflected in the
mirror behind her.
Seikichi was amazed at the change that had come over
the timid, yielding girl of yesterday, but he did as he
was told and went to wait in his studio. About an hour
later she came back, carefully dressed, her damp, sleekly
combed hair hanging down over her shoulders. Leaning
on the veranda rail, she looked up into the faintly hazy
sky. Her eyes were brilliant; there was not a trace of
pain in them.
“I wish to give you these pictures too,” said Seikichi,
placing the scrolls before her. “Take them and go.”
“All my old fears have been swept away – and you
are my first victim!” She darted a glance at him as bright
as a sword. A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.
“Let me see your tattoo once more,” Seikichi begged.
Silently the girl nodded and slipped the kimono off her
shoulders. Just then her resplendently tattooed back
a ray of sunlight and the spider was wreathed in flames.