As we know one of the places where tattooing is heavily practiced as a beautiful art form and with the greatest skills level is Japan. The history of tattooing there dates back to the fifth century where historians found clay figurines (haniwa) in a grave that show distinct facial marks. These marks are believed to be early forms of tattoos that represent decorative and religious functions.
Unfortunately this early form of Japanese tattooing largely died out by the end of the fifth century and tattooing was revived only in the thirteenth century as a way of marking criminals and other social desirables. Interestingly, the practice of labeling criminals using tattoos was also practiced in many other countries, notable in neighboring areas as we collectively known as China today.
During that time in Japan, criminals were tattooed with the nature of their crime and the geographic location where is took place. Members of outcast groups were also marked with stigmatizing tattoos. These people include the 'hinin' who were lowly entertainers and the 'eta' who slaughtered animals and tanned leather.
By the seventeenth century an intriguing form of tattooing called 'irebokuro' (from "ire" meaning "to inject" and "bokuro" meaning "beauty spot") started to enjoy widespread popularity. This special form of non-pictorial tattooing often symbolizes one's undying loyalty or love and would include the name of a lover, for example.
In the mid-eighteenth century during the Edo period a Chinese folklore known as Suikoden that revolve around the adventures of 108 bandits became wildly popular in Japan. They led a Robin Hood-style life and devoted their lives to fighting against the wealthy and corrupt government officials.
One of the most popular outlaw characters in the novel is Shishin or the 'Nine Tattooed Dragon' who bore extensive full-body tattoos. Soon Japanese from all social levels started to tattoo ornate designs (irezumi) on their bodies that depict heroic figures, gods, mythical creatures and other traditional and popular images.
From then, irezumi flourished until the mid-nineteenth century when it was forcibly stopped by the Emperor Meiji as he viewed it as an immoral practice favored by the much-despised Westerners. By now, Japanese tattooists or 'hori' had become immensely popular with the newly-arrived American sailors and merchants.
Due to official prohibition the art of irezumi was driven underground and was adopted predominantly by laborers, artisans, criminals, entertainers and fire fighters. Eventually, it became hugely visible on the bodies of the yakuza, a famed grouping of organized Japanese underground gangsters.
Presently in modern day Japan the art of tattooing is still slightly stigmatized though it remains a highly regarded art form. Many youths and young adults think nothing of going for stunning full-body tattoos that used to be associated only with hard-core criminals.