Distinct in style and full of symbolism, Japanese style tattoos are identifiable by their unmistakable subjects and color choices.
Japanese style tattoos themselves are seen as talismans or good luck charms to be worn with purpose and intention. However, their history is deep and complicated.
Keep reading to learn more about Japanese style tattoos, their origins, and their characteristics!
All About Japanese Style Tattoos
Referred to in the Japanese as Irezumi, translating literally to “inserting ink,” Japanese style tattoos are rich in symbolism and history.
The practice itself is ancient, dating back more than 5,000 years ago.
The distinct style of Japanese tattoos is said to be inspired by the country’s popular woodblock printing, called Ukiyo-e.
Much of what we recognize today as Japanese art, tattoos included, reflects the aesthetics of Ukiyo-e, translating to “picture of the floating world.”
Japanese style tattoos exist in two distinct spaces, each with its own connotations and reception: the traditional and the modern.
In the ancient texts where Japanese style tattoos were first mentioned, men of all ages, particularly samurais, were covered in tattoos.
Full body tattooing was an honored tradition and meaningful folk art, telling a story of man’s connection to nature, religion, iconography, and one another.
These early tattoos were done without any electrical tools or tattoo guns, using long bamboo sticks with a group of small needles at the end to hand-poke the ink into the skin.
However, this meaning took a turn as time went on. Tattoos became a way of marking criminals as a sort of branding.
Tattoos became an inescapable, life-long punishment instead of a revered art.
By the Edo period, the connotation had completely flipped. In the Meiji era that followed, tattoos were banned entirely due to their association with criminal activity.
Eventually, tattoos became inseparable from their prevalence in the Yakuza, the most prominent gang in Japan.
Members used tattoos to identify themselves and prove their masculinity and ability to endure pain.
In keeping with ancient tradition, many Yakuza members are tattooed head to toe with only a sliver of blank skin down their sternum, which would be visible in a kimono.
This law held until the late 1940s. Though the ban was lifted, the negative associations of tattoos remain.
Japanese Style Tattoos Today
Nowadays, tattoos are often done using an electric tattoo gun, though some artists stick with the traditional hand-poked method.
Due to the societal stigmas that have followed tattoos throughout history, it is still considered uncouth and sometimes even an indictment of character to have visible tattoos in Japan.
Though it isn’t the law of the land anymore, some businesses still do not allow visible tattoos in their establishment, especially in places like a gym where they would be obvious.
This milieu around tattooing has pushed many artists to practice underground.
Ironically, though Japanese style tattoos are appreciated, replicated, and respected worldwide, they are still controversial in their homeland.
What makes a Japanese Style Tattoo
As with any style of tattooing, the colors in Japanese style tattoos are full of deep, significant meaning.
However, the symbolism and history of these colors in Japanese culture may differ from what you would expect in Western artistry.
When paired with certain symbols and icons, the meaning of the color choices is nuanced even further.
Predictably, black is probably the single most used color in Japanese style tattooing.
Since black was the only color of ink available in ancient tattoo art, it remains an important dimension of Japanese style tattooing and tattooing in general.
Specifically in Japanese style tattoos, black represents mystery, wisdom, masculinity, and, when paired with white, mourning.
Aside from black, red is one of the most popular and prevalent colors in Japanese style tattooing.
It’s symbolic of the country itself, featured prominently in the nation’s flag.
Red is also common in Japanese festivals and celebrations as a symbol of protection, strength, happiness, and peace.
Blue is commonly understood to represent fidelity, dedication, and acceptance.
Many corporate employees are known to wear blue in the workplace, especially if they’re going in for an interview. As a color associated with success, it can’t hurt to add a dash of blue to your tattoos for good luck!
Additionally, water is often a feature in Japanese style tattoos, calling for different shades of blue to feature prominently.
Like in many other cultures around the world, white is a particularly sacred color in Japan.
Beyond its most common meanings as a symbol of purity and peace, white is also a color of mourning in Japan. On the other hand, white represents transition and new beginnings with a deep tie to the spiritual world.
In Japanese style tattoos, white is used to add detail, contrast, and dimension and convey meaning when appropriate.
Many centuries ago, when inks and dyes were handmade and labor intensive, purple was the most difficult and expensive to create. As such, it became associated with wealth and royalty since only the well-off could afford to wear it.
In artistic symbolism, that meaning still holds true. It’s common to see highly regarded spirits or icons detailed in purple throughout Japanese style tattoos.
As the color of peonies and cherry blossoms, both important flowers in Japanese culture, pink symbolizes femininity, health, and beauty.
Green, as in most cultures, is tied to nature, growth, and life.
In Japan especially, green is also known to represent energy, youth, and vitality because of its prevalence in the growing, flowering world.
Of all the common colors in Japanese style tattooing, yellow is probably the most complicated and easily misunderstood.
Usually, yellow is linked to power, wealth, and the gods and can be found in many sacred spaces in Japan. However, in some contexts around the country, yellow represents fraud, hoaxes, and trickery.
Ultimately, the meaning of your tattoo colors will be informed by the tattoo design. For example, a tattoo of a yellow shrine will have a very different outward expression than a tattoo of a yellow Yōkai mask.
Symbols and Imagery
Throughout Japan, symbolism and imagery pay homage to tradition and honor religion, spirituality, and folklore.
Some of the most common symbols come from nature and myths that share stories of the country and culture in their meaning.
Combining different figures and images in your Japanese style tattoo design with different color schemes tells different stories.
One extremely common animal in Japanese style tattooing is the koi fish. Koi have intrigued humans for millennia because they swim upstream.
In Japanese myth, a koi that swims up the entirety of the Yellow River is rewarded by turning into a dragon.
As such, koi fish in Japanese style tattoos represent victory, strength, power, and overcoming adversity.
Another super popular animal is the tiger. Tigers are fearsome protectors, so in Japanese symbolism, they are used to ward off evil spirits and represent ferocity and power.
Though in Western contexts snakes are far from revered and seen as dangerous pests, snakes in Japanese style tattooing are good luck charms thought to ward off disease.
Dragon tattoos are another example of a frightening creature turned good omen in Japanese culture and history.
In tattooing, dragons are not seen as a beast to be slain but as a representation of immense wisdom, benevolence, and strength.
Phoenixes tend to be viewed as the dragon’s other half, thus pairing well together in Japanese style tattoos. Sometimes seen as enemies and sometimes as lovers, dragons and phoenixes embody opposing elements, yin and yang, and male and female.
A phoenix on its own is a symbol of rebirth, transformation, and justice and is often detailed with flame motifs, gesturing towards the mythical bird rising from the ashes.
Another bird that holds significant meaning in Japanese style tattooing is the crane.
Unlike the phoenix, cranes are very much real birds, though myths and legends view them as otherworldly beings. Typically, cranes are a symbol of peace, hope, good fortune, and longevity.
In Japan, cherry blossom season is a joyous and beautiful time, and that celebratory connotation carries over to the art world. However, cherry blossom season is fleeting, thus imbuing the flower with a sense of impermanence.
Thus, the cherry blossom has come to represent life – full of beauty and tradition, but ultimately not eternal.
Another flower that crops up often in Japanese style tattoos is the lotus.
Representative of enlightenment and strength, it’s common to see a lotus flower paired with a koi fish in a tattoo design.
Water, most notably waves, can be seen as the background and the subject of many different Japanese style tattoos.
Another metaphor for life, waves are often shown to represent the cyclical ups and downs of being alive. No matter how often the waves crash on the shore, the tide always pulls it back in.
They can also indicate resilience, strength, and going with the flow.
History and Culture
Masks and talismans are commonly found throughout Japanese style tattoo designs.
Both the Oni and Hannya masks are prevalent symbols in tattoos, as well as the guardian statues called fu dogs. Typically, these kinds of figures are seen as wardens of good and evil with the ability to fend off evil spirits and negative energy.
Viewed as a symbol of an ideological Japan, geisha tattoos symbolize elegance, mystery, and beauty. Their masculine counterpart, the samurai, represents loyalty, respect, discipline, and bravery.
Together, the geisha and the samurai represent the traits and graces humans should strive to achieve.
Japanese Style Tattoo Examples
Cindy Maxwell: Tiger
San Francisco-based artist Cindy Maxwell uses the popular tiger motif featuring oranges and greens, possibly gesturing towards a fierce reverence for nature and country.
The tiger tattoo is a protector and spirit.
Jun of Phoenix Tattoo: Cherry Blossoms
This Taiwanese artist uses exclusively greyscale to highlight the cherry blossoms against the dark background.
Soft cherry blossoms contrasted with the harsh black and white juxtaposition could represent strong, uncompromising femininity.
Joe Gettler: King Ghidorah
Artist Joe Gettler uses a yellow-ish gold to shade this King Ghidorah, a fictional creature based on a dragon from Japanese myth.
In this case, since King Ghidorah is a destructive figure, yellow is used in its more negative context.
Houryu Tattoo: Waves
The coverage done by this Tokyo-based tattoo artist follows the trend of kimono-friendly body tattoos.
The dark waves and red florals contrast beautifully, telling a story of grace and beauty amidst adversity.
Small Paul: Woman in Traditional Dress
Tokyo tattoo artist Yoshimasa Hori or “Small Paul,” uses thoughtful pops of color to accentuate his geisha design.
The greens, yellows, and reds adorning her kimono and accessories associate the woman with nature, wealth, power, and nation.
Japanese Style Tattoos: FAQ
Are tattoos allowed in Japan?
Legally, yes, tattoos are allowed in contemporary Japan.
However, not every individual business is tattoo-friendly, and many more traditional communities and establishments seriously disapprove of them.
The best thing to do is to research the places you want to visit and understand their views and policies towards tattoos before you go.
What is the best placement for Japanese style tattoos?
There is no rule book when it comes to tattoo placement.
However, because Japanese style tattoos are so intricate and expressive and typically inspired by traditional art pieces, the designs tend to be quite large and sprawling.
Very rarely do you see a small Japanese style tattoo on the ankle or wrist.
More common spots include the back, the ribcage, the chest, and down the arms like a sleeve where the artist has a larger canvas to paint their picture.
Is Tebori the same as stick and poke?
Essentially yes, Tebori tattooing is the same stick and poke in concept. Both refer to the practice of hand-poking tattoos as opposed to using an electric tattoo gun.
However, Tebori draws from an ancient Japanese tradition of tattooing using a bamboo tool with groups of needles attached to the end.
Tebori means “to hand carve,” referencing the woodblock art style that acted as a catalyst for widespread tattoo practice.
Stick and poke is not rooted in the same tradition and is often a DIY tattoo method using one large needle and India ink.
The Rich Symbolism of Japanese Style Tattoos
If you’re looking for a tattoo style that is as interesting and historical as it is pleasing to the eye, look no further than Japanese style tattoos.
Interested in learning more about different tattoo styles? Then read other blog posts in our Tattoo Styles Explained series.