Japanese tattooing is an incredibly important cultural art form that needs to be preserved, supported, and cultivated with understanding and respect. It’s beauty lies within the vast historical and symbolic aspects that make is such an awe inspiring artists outlet. From brightly colored kimono, water lilies of the floating world, Buddhist deities, and compelling, dynamic dragons of ancient folklore, Irezumi is one of the foundations of modern tattooing worth complete reverence and admiration.
Irezumi tattoos are used as a blanket term to describe various tattoo-by-hand styles originating in Japan.
Tattoo technology has caught up to tradition and most designs are now done by a tattoo artist using a machine, however the mystique of traditional Japanese tattooing remains.
History of Japanese Tattoos
The lineage of Japanese tattooing can be traced back almost 5,000 years ago to primitive clay figurines who were decorated with tribal tattoos and found within archaic tombs within the continent. There are also some ancient Chinese texts, the first from about 297 AD called Wei Chih, that speak about the Japanese tradition of tattooing, and mentioned that men of all ages would have designs on all parts of the body, including the face. Although it seems that this was an expressive folk art, tattooing quickly became perceived as a negative practice. Criminals, rather than be put to death or receive long sentences, were branded with tattoos. These were often bands, symbols, Japanese characters, or dots on the arm or forehead.
However, at this time, there are also indigenous tribal peoples like the Ainu who are well-known for their mouth tattoos that were created from rubbing birch ash in small incisions. These pieces were only for Ainu women, and were started from a young age at the hands of a priestess. Not only were these tattoos seen as a way to distinguish social status and coming of age, they were also deeply sacred and religious. It was said that demons and disease would be kept away because of the ritual. Very similar to this practice are the tattoos of ancient Okinawans, or rather Uchinanchu peoples. Again, only reserved for women, these Japanese tattoos were indigo in color and done mostly on the hands, called hajichi, to symbolize the onset of marriage, womanhood, or social status. They were also thought to ward off evil and bring security within this lifetime. But again, as time went on, the Japanese tattooing tradition was observed with negativity, and in the late 1800’s was officially banned.
There were many reasons behind the ban. Hopes to be viewed as a sophisticated country by European states, as well as a wish to repress criminal activity, created a foundation for making tattoos illegal. In connection with the Uchinanchu women in Okinawa, Alexis Miyake explains. “The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses. According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki — the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.” Destroying culture and religious affiliations also meant more control and power to the government, and the perception around Japanese tattooing continued to evolve.
Of course, many people persisted in their practice of the Japanese tattooing tradition underground, and mainly they were within the lower casts of society. Firemen, laborers, and gang affiliated members, those who fought against government control and laws, all continued to be enamored with tattoos. The ink was a symbol of courage and bravery, not only due to the illegality of it, but also due to the intense pain of the lengthy process. For fireman, and others involved in dangerous exploits, they were also a protective element. Perhaps one of the main reasons outlaws were so captivated with tattooing, however, was a Chinese novel by the name of Shui Hu Zhuan, or Water Margin; a story about 108 outlaws and their exploits. The lengthy tome described how many of the characters had intricate tattoos illustrating legends and folkloric creatures, all of which were greatly influenced by the woodblock movement called Ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e prints were to drastically shape the aesthetics and design iconography of Japanese tattooing.
Issues of Legality Within Japanese Tattooing
No matter the depth in meaning, the high quality in artistic skill, nor the important cultural and historical aspects of Japanese tattooing, there is the point of legality to be noted. With contemporary affiliations to gang members, Yakuza, and criminal activity, tattooing is still being waged against by government officials and mainstream society. In 2012 the Economist did an article on Irezumi mentioning that Toru Hashimoto, the then mayor of Osaka, “is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere”. This is a sentiment shared by much of the professional world of Japan, and indeed, most of society. In fact, the law states that the only people who can put ink into the skin with a needle are those with the sufficient medical license. In 2015, Taiki Masuda, a tattooist in Osaka, had his studio raided by police and he was fined US$3,000 for tattooing without a medical license. Still fighting against the charges laid against him, his case continues to be open in 2018.
Due to the illegality of Japanese tattooing, many artists practicing in Japan have been pushed underground, and their studios are often difficult to find. However, tattooing thankfully still continues, not only through traditional Irezumi artists, but also through non-Japanese tattooists who practice in Japan and other parts of the globe.
Japanese Tattoo Colors
If you’ve been looking at traditional Japanese tattoos online, you probably know they often feature bold explosions of color. Though there are some gorgeous black and grey tattoos in the mix, contrasting colors make classic Japanese imagery pop. You’ll see all kinds of pinks, oranges, turquoises, and bright blues often against black backdrops for an extra hint of drama. Before diving into a sea of beautiful colors, it would behoove you to learn a bit about colors in Japan.
- White: white is a dominant color in Japan’s culture, and a very popular color for cars as well! Opposite to America where black is the chosen color for funerals, white is the color of death in Japan. It also symbolizes purity and truth. Like a thick blanket of snow, white can symbolize a fresh start or new beginning in Japan, which can be a comforting attitude toward death.
- Black: black can also be a color of mourning in Japan, but only when used with white. Some sympathy gifts will be tied with black and white ribbon to show sympathy. With Black ink being the only available color for early tattoos, there is a strong association between black and tattoos. Being a color of mystery as well, it is a perfect color to Japan’s underground tattoo culture, and complicated history with the art of tattoos.
- Red: red is a very important color in Japan. Symbolizing happiness and joy, it is usually incorporated into merry events such as weddings, birthdays, and new year’s eve. Because red is the color of blood, it symbolizes passion and vitality. If you are looking into a traditional Japanese tattoo a splash of red would be a good idea; it is said to protect against evil.
- Blue: blue is a lucky color in Japan, and subsequently the color of choice for job interview outfits. Many corporate workers wear blue. It is a symbol of fidelity, and could show your dedication to your work.
- Green: because so many things in nature are green, in Japan it is a color that represents life, youth, energy, and respect for the earth. Green tea is also a popular drink in Japan, known for its health benefits.
- Purple: purple is a regal color in Japan and elsewhere. As it used to be an incredibly difficult and expensive color to produce- it was reserved for the ruling class. During the Edo period, lower-class people were not supposed to wear any vivid colors at all. They wore brown robes to show their status (or lack thereof,) but many people would rebel with a colorful lining. Treat yourself like royalty and mix a little aubergine or lavender into your Japanese tattoo design.
- Pink: pink represents femininity, the delicate nature of life, spring, and good health. This is also a popular color of lingerie in Japan, so it might add a little feminine sex appeal to your tattoo.
- Yellow: yellow can signify joy, optimism, and prosperity but be careful! In some areas of Japan it is thought of as the color of deceit! To have a “yellow voice” is to have a shrill way of speaking in Japan. A complicated color, but it does look pretty in tattoo art.
Techniques and methods in Japanese tattooing
It’s also worth going over the particular techniques and methods that are associated with Japanese tattooing, too. These methods will have changed over time in modern studios, as the tattoos would have originally been hand poked by old-school tools. If this is something you’re interested in, don’t be put off! There are still plenty of people who do this in Japan.
If you’re really intrigued by the old-school method of tattooing, look into irezumi and tebori. Irezumi means tattoo in Japanese, and tebori is the term that’s used to describe tattooing with traditional implements in a Japanese style. It’s done by hand, with tools made of wood, metal, and silk. There’s a particular ink that is required for the tattoo to be considered traditional.
A Japanese tattoo artist, does irezumi by hand, using wooden handles and a metal needle that is attached to a silk thread. Special ink is required for this process, and is known as Nara ink, or zumi.
The needles are incredibly painful and the process of getting this traditional tattoo done is time consuming. Because of this, many individuals view all-over body tattoos as a sign of strength and perseverance, and it requires literal hours and sometimes days to complete using the process of irezumi.
Not only time consuming, irezumi also takes years of practice and decades to master. Horishi undertake apprentices that work for any number of years just trying to get the process right.
The word Tebori is made up of two parts: Te meaning hand and Bori meaning “to carve.” Great tattoo artists in Japan are allowed to call themselves “Horishi,” or carvers. This isn’t a title to be taken lightly, and should be passed on to you by your mentor.
This is the same title given to woodblock artists, and the original woodblock carvers are believed to have also worked as tattoo artists. The great tattoo artist Horiyoshi III does not call himself an artist, but a craftsman. He uses a tattoo gun, but blends his gun work with some Tebori to keep the tradition alive.
Tebori tools consist of two parts: a metal or bamboo rod and a bundle of needles. The needles were fixed to the rod using a silk string traditionally, though some people use different materials today. Instead of the tattoo machine moving the needles, the person applying the Tebori will move their arm back and forth in a rhythmic fashion.
This method will take longer and requires a different skill set than a tattoo machine. Tebori is less painful than other stick and poke techniques, where the artist uses a little hammer or mallet type object to drive the needle into the skin.
Japanese Tattoo Ideas
Japanese tattoos have a strong cultural meaning attached to them, which make it quite symbolic to the Japanese culture and people. In older times, they used to wear these tattoos as a symbol of specific societal status. Japanese tattoos include many elements and symbols and each has a different meaning.
If you’re up for attaining some mystical feature sin your Tattoo, then you must try out this Japanese phoenix tattoo. This Tattoo is the perfect way to showcase traditional Japanese tattooing as this Tattoo consists of a colored inked phoenix situated around a couple of beautiful pink flowers. The color palette of this Tattoo is marvelous as it comprises of some of the best colors like blue, green, sea green, orange, and many other colors.
This Tattoo is quite symbolic as it represents rebirth, and a change you’ve wanted to showcase to people. This particular creature comes from the Greek mythology, which has been also adapted by the Japanese culture.
- Dragon Tattoo
You can also try out this traditional Japanese dragon tattoo and achieve some bold imagery on your body. This Tattoo includes a black and grey inked dragon that swirls around your hand. Dragon tattoos look extremely good on the hand as the swirly design compliments the hand. Japanese dragon tattoos are quite popular; however this design is one of a kind as it consists of a bolder look.
The tattoo artist has done a wonderful job with the contouring and shading, as it helps bring out the realistic and graphic touch in this Tattoo. This classic dragon tattoo is a symbol of strength and power, which are two important traits hidden inside everybody’s personality, but people are often too scared to discover it. This Tattoo may motivate you to use your powerful characteristics.
If you’re opting for a more feminine touch in your Tattoo, then you must go for this Japanese lotus tattoo. This Tattoo consists of pink inked lotus surrounded by green inked leaves that look wonderful. The tattoo artist has used two types of pinks on each side of the petal which helps give the Tattoo a three-dimensional look.
This Tattoo has a very subtle vibe to it and is perfect if you’re looking for something meaningful. This popular lotus tattoo symbolizes passion and love which are the two most important traits that everyone should live by without fail. This Tattoo is the perfect choice for all the pretty women out there.
Japanese wolf tattoos are quite ancient and include and include exquisite details. This tattoo consist of Wild dog-like black and grey inked Wolf with its long pink tongue out, and the background features orange inked flowers. The tattoo artist has put in his best with grey shading and contouring that helps make this Tattoo so unique and attractive.
This is the best tattoo if you have a fondness for the ancient Japanese folklore. This tattoo originates from the native Japanese time where these Wolves represented being the messengers of the Kami spirits and were an important part in rituals to catch the attention of the Shinto gods. The meaning behind of this Tattoo may be too ancient for you to relate to; however, the Irezumi,which is known as tattooing in Japanese art, is present in this Tattoo, which is why you should go for it.
- Spider Web Tattoo
If you want to get the right essence of Japanese Tattoo which is one that includes covering a large area of the body then you must go for this Japanese spider web tattoo. This Tattoo includes a large black and grey spider web in the background, and on the web consists of a brown inked spider with many other Japanese elements including a samurai. This Tattoo includes the right Japanese Tattoo detailing which is what makes it look so spectacular.
For this type of Tattoo you will need a large space like your chest or back as the Tattoo includes many elements. Japanese spider tattoos are quite meaningful as they represent your personality as warrior like, and showcases how you’re not scared of anything and are willing to fight anything that comes in your way.
If you’re in search of something dramatic in your Tattoo then you’re at the right option. This Japanese skull tattoo is one of the most common skull tattoos that look amazingly good, especially with colored ink. The Tattoo includes a realistic black and grey inked skull, with some vintage pink inked flowers above the skull and detailed lines to bring out the realism in this Tattoo.
Other than the beautiful outlook of this Tattoo, it is also very symbolic; it represents a major change in your life and also symbolizes the celebration of a good life. People go to many different changes in life, and most of them may consist of good things, hence getting this work of art tattoo is the best way to appreciate the good changes in life that has bought nothing but happiness.
- Flowers and symbols of nature:
Japanese work is heavily inspired by nature, and as such, there’s always plenty of beautiful, botanical work featuring flowers, trees, and plants. Peonies, leaves, blossoms and cherry trees are all particularly popular. Cherry blossoms are particularly significant- did you know that cherry blossom petals falling can actually symbolize death?
Animals are another very popular topic in Japanese tattooing, and the most common one that you’ll probably have seen includes koi fish, tigers and snakes. Each animal will have a different meaning to the wearer, some may represent strength or vitality, for example.
- Mythical creatures:
When you read the words ‘Japanese tattoos’, chances are that you think of dragons. They’re one of the most popular mythical creatures to get tattooed, alongside fu dogs, demons, Oni masks and Hannya masks. Japanese mythology is utterly fascinating, and it makes for some stunning artwork.
- Heroes and warriors:
Lots of Japanese work is inspired by the ideas of strength and courage, so you’ll see a lot of powerful heroes featured in the artwork. Expect to see brave Samurai or roguish outlaws fighting demons in Japanese art. There’s such a narrative behind every single piece of work.
- Beautiful women and geishas:
Another common theme in Japanese tattooing is the celebration of beauty. Geishas are particularly popular, and they look fantastic in a portrait style tattoo.
- Script and traditional text:
A final common subject that’s worth noting is traditional script, lettering, and text. The Japanese language is beautiful, and the alphabets are all visually stunning. Plenty of people choose to get their favorite quotes or significant texts tattooed in Japanese script. It looks great drawn down the spine or on a wrist, although please make sure that you check the translation first before you get anything tattooed in a foreign language.
As you can see, there is a wealth of subject matter to enjoy and explore in the world of Japanese tattooing. The symbolism and history are rich, and they’re incredibly pleasing to the eye as well, which is why they remain so popular to this day.
Placement for Japanese Tattoos
The human body is a canvas to plan a story: considering the body in its vertical development, it should always be taken into consideration, the rule according to which there should be earth from the feet up, water in the middle, than air. The mentioned rule is flexible, ofcorse, for instance, the main design (back) is a water subject. In this case the whole body could be dedivated to this element.
Traditionally, the main subject matter is placed on the back and the arms and legs are the ornamental subject matters.
Where ever you may start from, the ultimate goal is to join tattooed sections of the body together into a whole (bodysuit) and it is very important to keep these features consistent. Although this is the end goal that is encouraged, obviously we welcome people who are wanting to start with smaller tattoos such as sleeves.
Below are some names and different styles of tattooed sections of the body.
Nukibori – main subject matter on back with no background
Kamenokogakubori (turtle shell) – subject and background occupy only the back, including the whole buttocks, leaving the rest of the body blank
Sousinbori – Full body tattoo. Filling the entire boy with the exception of the hands, feet, head, neck and genital area.
- ARM SLEEVES
Gaku from the arm must be from the chest stopping just below the elbow (1/2 Go-bu), Below the elbow (3/4 Shichi-bu, Hati-Bu) or all the way to the first (full Nagasode)
Kantobori – sleeves with chest plate, used around Tokyo covered only partially the chest leaving the lower pectoral and nipple blank.
Kansabori – sleeves with chest plate used around Osaka, covered completely the pectoral, nipple included.
The most common design for the arm tattoo reaches the half forearm (often called 3/4 sleeve). This was common as tattoos can be hidden even wearing a kimono with wide sleeves) It is important to bear in mind that traditionally, not flaunting ones tattoos is fundamental; they are only displayed only on extremely rare occasions.
Munewari – this features a gap of untattooed skin roughly one firsts width positioned vertically in the middle.
Donburi – fills the whole area of the front.
The leg from in case of Munewari can be straight down on the thigh and drawn in an arc to connect with the bottom of Sewari, or it can be tattooed up to just above the knee (Han-zubon) or tattooed under the knee (Hati-bu) or tattooed just above the ankle (Naga-Zudon).
Overall, Japanese tattooing is incredibly beautiful and worth looking into if you’re a body art fan. The history is simply fascinating, and the level of detail showcased in this style is absolutely breathtaking. It’s been truly revolutionized by modern techniques and styles too, and it remains one of the most popular and most gorgeous tattoo forms to this day.
GETTING A JAPANESE TATTOO
The best way to approach getting a Japanese tattoo is to research the style further, and gather together images that you really love. Decide on size and placement, and have an idea of your preferred subject matter.
Be sure to look at the portfolio of the potential artist you want doing your tattoo, as certain aesthetic styles like Japanese will take more time to learn and master. If you’re traveling, you may be able to find one of the only 300 tattoo shops located in the country, with higher prices that you may expect to pay elsewhere, but the level of quality and condition that you can trust coming from an experienced traditional artist.
Once you’ve found someone will the skills to appreciate and design your tattoo, you’ll be able to adequately represent one of the world’s greatest and oldest permanent art styles.
We know that choosing the best Japanese tattoo design for you can be difficult. Luckily, we are here with a few of the best Japanese tattoos to offer a little bit of inspiration! Take a look at these exquisite, detailed Japanese tattoos and use them to come up with the perfect design for you!