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Sandi Fellman (* 1952)
Japan, Tokyo, 1983
Polaroid Polacolor 20x24, ca. 75 x 56 cm
Signed in the lower right of the margin; titled on the lower left and former Polaroid Coll. No. “83:682:50” on the reverse
© Sandi Fellman

In 1979, Polaroid presented a 20x24 inch camera constructed by Edwin Land for the first time. This gadget – 1,50 meters in height and with a weight of 106 kilos – delivered giant instant prints of impressive quality by using an image transfer film. Supervised by Polaroid-experts like the chief operator Jan Hnizdo, selected photographers were invited to work with the camera and film material in the 1970s and 1980s. One of them was Sandi Fellman, who travelled to Tokyo several times since 1982 to produce a series of photographs that show members of the Yakuza with their full body tattoos.

A purple carp struggles to reach the spring of a waterfall, while a blooming peony adorns the opposite chest. The right biceps sports a horned dragon whose tail ends in a cloud bank on the left arm. The tattooed man only wears a “fundoshi”, the traditional male underwear in Japan.
This specific kind of traditional tattoo-art is called “Kawa” (river) and is named after the stream of untouched skin that flows in the middle of the chest. The arms as well as the legs are only half covered by motives, which leads to the impression of a vesture made up of a coat and trousers. The large tattoos go back to a hundreds of years old tradition and are worn as an identifying symbol of the Yakuza, a criminal organization (often called the “Japanese mafia”). They refer to their descent from the gambling syndicates of the Edo period (1603-1868) and follow strict rules and ideas of virtue and modesty.

The 20x24 Polaroid with its impressive quality of colour and its attention to detail offers a perfect platform for Fellman’s “Modesty”. The vivid colours of the Irezumi tattoos are accentuated by their contrast to the bright gleam of the skin. Contrary to the criticism on poor quality or the swift colour fading, the large format instant prints appear as the ideal medium of particular consistency.

Johanna Pröll, © WestLicht

Lit: Sandi Fellman, D.M. Thomas, The Japanese Tattoo, New York 1986, p. 28–29.