Mystery and seduction, enigma and spirituality… that is what Japanese calligraphy represents to the Western world, which has been conquered by the exotic signs of the Land of the Rising Sun.
More and more people from a wide range of social backgrounds, choose kanji tattoos to mark a concept, an ideal or a phrase to represent them on their skin.
The subjects are extremely varied, from religion to love, from spirituality to good luck, strength and so on, but the use of kanji has a further fascination: the difficulty in interpreting the tattooed designs, making them more personal and intimate.
VIP Tattoo and Kanji
Celebrities from the worlds of show business and sport led this tattoo movement, with their high profile making them trendsetters and a source of inspiration for those who follow their example.
But just who are the stars with at least one kanji tattoo? The most famous include actresses Angelina Jolie, Alyson Hannigan, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jaime Pressly.
In the music world there are singers such as Janet Jackson, Natalie Imbruglia, Samantha Fox, the soul diva Mary J. Blige, pop star Britney Spears, ex Spice Girls Melanie C., Emma Bunton and Melanie B., without forgetting Nicole Appleton of All Saints, wild-girl Pink, and Australian Dannii Minogue as well as men including Nick Carter and Alexander James McLean of the Backstreet Boys.
Stars of the small screen, such as Anne Igartiburu, Reality Show participants and various models and sports personalities from every sport are not immune to this phenomenon either. They include three stars of American basketball: Derek Fisher, Marcus Canby and Allen Iverson, who all have oriental symbols on their bodies.
The Art of Shodo
Shodo is the Japanese art of reproducing words or phrases using calligraphy (or “beautiful writing”), combining the written text with the aesthetic nature of the sign.
Contemporary Japanese has two systems of phonetic writing, known as Iragana and Katakana, and the actual script made up of Kanji, which have been derived from ancient signs: Chinese hieroglyphics, as shown by various archaeological finds. The first engravings date back to the 15th century BC.
These signs originally represented simple objects connected to humans and nature, then during the centuries the graphic forms were simplified to become the present day kanji shapes, where the symbols that represent actual things have been joined by characters developed to express abstract concepts.
In addition, two or more symbols put together form different concepts, thus giving origin to a language that boasts a huge range of terms.
The Dai Kan-Wa jiten, the Japanese dictionary with the most symbols contains almost 50,000 (fifty thousand!) characters, enough to challenge anyone’s memory. However, only 2000 of them are commonly used and needed by the Japanese when reading and writing.
The kanji were adopted in Japan around the fifth century AD and today they are a written form of communication, but that’s not all; they are above all an expression of Japanese culture, whose importance is celebrated in various events and competitions related to the art of calligraphy.
The 5 Japanese calligraphy styles
The Japanese styles used to create the symbols can be identified in five distinct classes of writing:
Tensho – seal script
Sosho – italic script
Gyosho – semi-italic script
Kaisho – normal script
Reisho – writers’ script
On our special issue Japan Tattoo 2 you can also find an amazing section dedicated specifically to this calligraphy styles used in Japan, with the most popular kanji designs reproduced in five different styles.