There was a time when tattoos were taboo, even in the US — associated with criminals or societal rejects.
But since the 1970s, tattoos have seen a rise in popularity in Western societies especially. And it’s a trend that’s reflected in this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.
From solid Olympic rings to bright blue sharks, many of this year’s athletes are sporting a wide range of ink. But it’s a far cry from what one sees in Japanese society in general, where tattoos are still largely rebuked.
An Olympic swimmer, with a striking bright blue shark tattoo on their rib cage, during a training session at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre venue for the swimming competitions on Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Martin Meissner/AP
Dominican Republic women’s volleyball player Brenda Castillo during a training session on July 22, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Castillo has multiple visible tattoos, including on her neck, arms and hand. Credit: Manu Fernandez/AP
In 1872, under the Meiji regime, that changed. Concerned that the tattoos would be looked down upon by Western powers, the new government banned both the act of tattooing and the display of tattoos, according to Center. Though traditional Japanese tattoo style, sometimes called “wabori” or “irezumi,” has now become famous and highly sought after around the world, it was initially suppressed.
Poland’s Zofia Noceti-Klepacka competes during race two of the women’s RS:X class on July 25, 2021, in Fujisawa, Japan. Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP
In recent years, though, the popularity of tattoos in Japan has been growing — but it hasn’t been easy.
United States’ Nyjah Huston, who has two full leg sleeves, competes in men’s street skateboarding at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Sunday, July 25, 2021. Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP
Women’s soccer player Yenny Acuna of Chile warms up before the match against Canada on Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Sapporo, Japan. Acuna has two thigh tattoos, pictured here, along with a full sleeve on her arm. Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Culturally, though, tattoos still aren’t always looked at favorably in the country, even as their presence has grown in Western nations like the US. Though tattoos are growing in popularity in some subcultures within Japan, they’re still heavily stigmatized. In some cases, people with tattoos are asked to cover their ink, according to the Center for Asia Pacific Studies.
United States men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team Bowen Becker, Blake Pieroni and Caeleb Dressel celebrate after winning the gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Monday, July 26, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Dressel has a full sleeve on his left arm, while Pieroni sports the Olympic rings. Credit: Matthias Schrader/AP
Generations of athletes have since followed suit.
The classic Olympic rings tattoo is seen on Canada’s Jennifer Abel’s foot, as she prepares to compete in the women’s synchronised 3m springboard diving final event on July 25, 2021. Credit: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
So Olympic tattoos, it seems, are very likely here to stay.