Getting a Head in Life
Updated: Apr 8
Well. Here we are again. Hello. Is there anybody out there? Another week under our belts here at Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles. Hope everyone had an uplifting and positive week. It's been a constant battle with the wind here at the parlor. Those Santa Anas are no joke!
So as promised last week, things have come to a head in our exploration of traditional Japanese imagery utilized in tattooing. We have explored various Yokai, but Irezumi (Japanese tattooing) is not limited to mythical deities and demons. Before getting too much further into this week's subject, let me give a warning: this you may have already noticed if you have read my earlier blogs regarding Irezumi, that Japanese traditions and mythology can tend to be a little gruesome (need I bring up little turtle demons that will pull you into a lake to rape and murder youi?). This week might be the most visually disturbing. So....yeah....."trigger" warning or whatever.
Nmakubi, What does that mean? To put it bluntly, it means "freshly severed head." So, there you have it. Needless to say, this can be a bit shocking and subsequently misunderstood to a casual viewer. And, on a surface level, this isn't wrong; much of Irezumi stems from the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), so naturally there is an element of shock value intended to create an aire of fear. However, as you may have already assumed by my tone, it goes beyond simple surface level shock value.
An important thing to keep in mind is our tendency to have western-centric views on things. In the west, it is a tendency to view death as singularly negative. Sure, you have the concepts of heaven and an eternal soul, but here on the solid, corporeal world, we still view death as tragic, albeit a part of the natural life cycle. And while not wholly the opposite with Japanese tradition (of course the death of a loved one is still incredibly sad) there is an element of romanticism of death in Japanese culture.
Namakubi has its origins in ancient Feudal Japan among the warrior-class. Samurai were expected, and expected themselves, to die at any time. It came with the job. Part of the Bushido code. In the case of a battle, it was tradition for the opposing force to gather the severed head of the fallen warriors and present them to the ruler. Sometimes they were presented in a pile, but often they were hung from trees. If the head was that of someone of greater importance, it was practice to give greater care to the presentation, often including ornate presentation cases.
So what does this represent? Naturally, as with the Samurai, the Yakuza leads a dangerous life. Death is expected at any moment. "His life is not his own." A Namakubi tattoo can serve as a reminder of the impermanence of life and death's ever-present nature. We all die, so relax and take the most joy out of life that we can.
Further, Namakubi can represent a symbol of courage and healthy fear. It is a misconception that a great warrior must be fearless. Fearlessness is recklessness. A fearless Samurai, just like a fearless soldier on the modern battlefield, while on the surface may seem to be the ultimate warrior, they put their own lives as well as the lives of their compatriots at risk without a healthy fear and respect for life. It is managing that fear. Respecting that fear. Understanding that fear and utilizing it to move forward that a warrior is most successful. The Namakubi is intentionally grisly and fear-inducing for this reason.
Further, a Namakubi can represent respect for one's enemies. And lastly, it would be disingenuous to imply that there wasn't an intimidation factor involved in a Namakubi. Not that one wishes to cross the Yakuza in general, but seeing a bloody severed head tattooed on an arm coming for you, you can't tell me that wont put a healthy dose of fear in you.
As all Irezumi, Namakubi is not the sole domain of the Yakuza today. In fact, it is one of the more common motifs in modern Japanese tattooing in the west. Is this something you would have tattooed on yourself? Do you have a healthy respect for life? Personally, I find them striking. There is a beauty in spite of the brutality. You can see an example of one of my Namakubi pictured here.
That's it for this week. Are you enjoying this weekly exploration of Irezumi and Yokai? It is a subject I absolutely love and could talk about endlessly. That said, should we venture west from Japan? Dare we enter the brutality of Soviet gulags and Russian criminal iconography? Do you have epaulettes on your shoulders??
I hope everyone has a great weekend. And remember, death is an inevitability so it is important to enjoy your life in the now and get that tattoo you have been thinking about. We are taking submissions for spring. Do you want a severed head? Why not?!