Ancient relics such as clay pottery and statues showed images of Japanese people who were intricately tattooed. Even more fascinating, the first Japanese tattoo designs were found on people of high social standing. Many Japanese historians now agree that the earliest Japanese tattoo designs were utilized in rituals to signify the positions of people in society, as well as to provide ways to protect one's self from evil spirits.
The Japanese people are one of the first great civilizations to incorporate tattooing into their culture. While in China the art of tattooing began as a way to mark off the prisoners and the other outcasts of society, the Japanese tattoos were valued in a different manner from the start.
Japanese tattoos are rich in inspiration. Like all arts, the Japanese learned to incorporate their most important values into their skin through tattoos. This is the reason why one of the cherished values of the early Japanese people, religion and love, is often the primary motifs of the people's tattoos. The courtesans, artists, and even the geishas of Japan were all acquainted with tattooing and used it as personal markers of their religious backgrounds and who they love.
An example of how Japanese tattoo designs were used to symbolize love was in the vow tattoo. Some geishas will have their lover's names imprinted in their arms in order to show their promises of lasting love. Aside from being used for making promises about love, the tattoo in Japanese society also evolved aesthetically.
During some periods, the design of these tattoos were rendered with intricate detail. On the other hand, during some other times the Japanese had tattoos were less like pictures and more like moles. These dot tattoos were symbolic and were also often used by lovers to indicate the places where their loved ones had touched them, such as the hand.
Eventually, the Japanese tattoos came to posses not only a cultural note, but also a social and political one. From the late seventeenth century up to the latter half of the nineteenth century, many middle class people used tattoos to express their social and political sentiments.
Everyone from the office workers of that time, to the farm hands and the street merchants began placing high value on the political statements that were expressed through Japanese tattoo designs. Even the upper class members of society looked upon tattoos with high regard, and many shows were conducted to showcase the craftsmanship of many tattoo artists.
In general, Japanese tattoo designs are intricately linked to the cultural values of the people. Before full body tattoos developed, the back was the sole place where these skin art works were rendered. Often the themes were the epics and folktales of the Japanese people themselves, which mean that in the past, a Japanese body filled with tattoos can actually contain the history of the people itself. Eventually, full body tattoos became popular and Japanese tattoo designs began to be used to show another aspect of the values that were important to the Japanese, aesthetics itself. Today, Japanese inspired tattoo designs are popular because of the designs that are distinct to Japanese artists or those that have been heavily influenced by the Japanese, seen by such motifs as the carp and other water elements.