person of the arts

The Japanese word geisha means ‘person of the arts’ and a true geisha is said to be a livingwork of art. To the Westerner, she is a figure of mystery and intrigue. Her white mask-like makeup hides emotions, her traditional black wig is dressed with tinkling bells, and her small body is wrapped tightly in kimonos of breathtaking colour and exquisite design, bound in the middle with the wide sash or obi. In her thonged sandals, her white-socked feet take tiny steps. In her hand, she holds a fan, the complex and intricate use of which speaks a language of its own. The colour red was also a trademark for the geisha, and kimonos were lined with scarlet silk. It was believed that red symbolized fertility, and that wearing crimson underwear was essential for healthy reproductive organs. Lipstick — always red — was made from crimson flower petals.

Geisha tattoos find their way into designs on sleeves and torsos of both men and women. Not so much in Japan, though, where the geisha and her art are seen as tourist attractions, or as relics of the past.

In feudal times men donned women’s garb, painted their faces white and performed dances for the battle-worn samurai and weary noblemen, who sought entertainment for relief. Centuries later, these practices had become so popular that women joined the ranks of performers. By the 18th century, the geisha industry was becoming popular with men of status and power. At huge expense, the services of a geisha house would provide amusement and entertainment for clients and their esteemed guests in the exclusive teahouses – ochaya – of Kyoto.

A true geisha went through years of training for her art, and the training was expensive. Poor families were sometimes approached by geisha houses offering money for young girls. The young apprentice, called maiko, became skilled in playing traditional musical instruments and mastering ancient dance. Singing, calligraphy, poetry, tea ceremonies, flower arrangement and the correct serving of drinks were among her many skills. She was required to listen and sometimes engage intelligently in conversation with her clients and patrons, and to honour a code of silence with regard to what she heard. The success of a geisha depended on her talent, sophistication, beauty, and skilfulness in etiquette.

The personal life of a geisha was hardly separate from the geisha house to which she belonged. Though she was permitted to take a patron, usually a wealthy man who could afford a costly geisha mistress, as danna, or lover, a geisha was never contracted for sexual favours. It was not unusual for a geisha to remain a virgin all her life. In spite of lurid speculation, her life was extremely demanding and not suited to casual love affairs.

During the 1930s, as Japan began to embrace industrialization and western trends and fashions, geisha houses came to be viewed as old-fashioned. Then, with the onset of WWII and the American occupation of Japan, the highly exclusive world of the geisha was shattered. The geisha tradition was often misconstrued as sexual, due in part to it taking place behind closed doors. For some prostitutes, the geisha’s prestige and favourable image were ‘borrowed’ for their own ends, giving rise to further confusion as to the geisha’s true social role.

Though the traditional training methods still exist today in Japan, most geisha training is voluntary, and greatly reduced in duration and content. Geisha districts are rare and costly to run, and performances are mostly reserved for tourists. Still, the traditional trademarks of the geisha — white face, red lipstick, pretty kimono and obi, and the ornate black wig, still enchant the Western visitor who can dress up in full geisha costume, wig included, when touring Kyoto, the traditional geisha centre in Japan.

As a tattoo design, the geisha represents the epitome of feminine allure, power and mystique. Like a rare orchid, hidden deep in the mists of the jungle, the geisha is famed for her beauty, but is unattainably out of reach, more myth than reality, a dream, an aspiration. The geisha is often part of a larger scene, where a brave samurai comes to her aide, protecting her from evil, harm or danger. Each of the characters plays a role in thetableau, no less than the dragon or the demon.