Click main image below to view enlargements and captions.

Fine Art, Modern, Tattoo Society, Tokyo, Japan, Female Nudes, John Groth, Vintage Drawing, 1952


John Groth (1902-1988)
Tattoo Society Meeting Tokyo
American: c. 1952
Pen and ink and wash on paper
Signed upper right “John Groth”
Titled lower right
Inscribed verso “tatoo [sic] society tokyo”
23 x 32.75 inches overall
30 x 39.75 inches in custom gold leaf frame

Large, unusual pen-and-ink and wash drawing, freely executed in sepia ink, featuring traditional Japanese tattoo art. It illustrates tattooed nude male and female bathers at an indoor pool at a meeting of the Tattoo Society of Tokyo. All of the participants are decorated with the elaborate, flowing tattoos characteristic of horimono, traditional Japanese tattooing, which began during from the latter half of the Edo period in the 18th century. As Groth’s drawing shows, horimono tend to be unified designs covering large areas of skin. As early as 1830, there were formal gatherings of tattoo societies, where people would meet to show off their body art. However, by the late 19th century, tattooing became frowned upon and was suppressed by government officials, only re-emerging after World War II.

Product Description Continues Below


In 1952, Groth published Studio: Asia, a year-long narrative and pictorial document of the Korean War and his travels to Japan, China and Indochina. “I went to Asia, basically, to draw people. I was richly rewarded,” he says in the book’s introduction. The book’s illustrations are all presented as sepia ink drawings, with the entire book, including the text, printed in dark brown ink. Although Groth does not mention his visit to the Tattoo Society in his chapter about Tokyo, there is an account of his visit to a geisha establishment in Tokyo accompanied by an illustration of nude men and women in a bathhouse. Thus, it is likely that the drawing offered here was made during or shortly after that trip.

John August Groth was a painter and illustrator best known for his sports and war subjects. Born in Chicago, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was discovered at the age of 25 by Arnold Gingrich, founding editor of Esquire magazine, who happened by Groth’s work at an outdoor art fair and hired Groth to fill out the first issue with 17 pages of illustrations and gave him the title of art director. Groth held that position for the next four years, until he left Chicago for New York. From the beginning, Groth gravitated toward depictions of men in action, in a style he called “speed line,” in which he made gestural line renderings based on on-site sketches and fleshed out the form with freely brushed watercolors.

An adventurous spirit, Groth was an artist-correspondent during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, drawing battlefield scenes from sketches made on site, and impressing no less than Ernest Hemingway, who said: “He gets to the essence of war.” Yet he was by all accounts a nonviolent man and was among the artists attending the First Congress of American Artists Against War and Fascism in 1936, along with Stuart Davis, Peter Blume and Margaret Bourke-White. In 1945, he published Studio: Europe, a collection of drawings made during World War II with an introduction by Hemingway. This book included front line battle scenes, villages, and Picasso’s studio. In 1952, Groth published Studio: Asia, a narrative and pictorial document of the Korean War and his travels to Japan, China and Indochina.

His sporting subjects included everything from boxing and baseball to the unusual sports from farflung corners of the world depicted in his book John Groth’s World of Sport (1970). These included Thai kite fighting and an assortment of chaotic and dangerous contests involving men on horseback in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Groth’s works are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Naval Historical Center in Washington, the United States Air Force Collection, as well as the National Art Museum of Sport, Indianapolis.

Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning and wear. Very faint toning in extreme outer edges where formerly covered by a mat.


Groth, John, Pat Smith and Arnold Gingrich. John Groth’s World of Sport. New York: Winchester Press, 1970. pp. 5-10, 36-39, 150.

Groth, John. Studio Asia. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1952. pp. 7, 49.

“John Groth.” NationalArt Museum of Sport. (3 March 2003).

“John Groth.” United States Air Force Collection. (20 April 2004).

Kunihiro, Shimada. Adam Guy, trans. “Brief History of the Japanese Tattoo.” Japan Tattoo Institute. (28 December 2011).

Additional information


20th Century