In the 18th century, Japanese tattoos underwent yet another transformation. Due to the prevalence of the colorful and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock print, tattoos rendered in this style became popular among groups of people with lower social statuses, like laborers, peasants, and even gangs. Given its ties to the lower class and its long and unsavory history, Irezumi was eventually outlawed in Japan—though artists based in the country could still legally tattoo foreigners.

This loophole proved particularly important in the 19th century, when artists began tattooing nonnative sailors. As a result of this, their work—and all of the cultural motifs, symbols, and styles that accompanied it—was eventually “exhibited” all over the world. Thus, though still an illegal form of art for residents of its home country, the Japanese tattoo gained unexpected global prominence.