You can say Japanese tattoo are one of the most special styles in the world, because it’s one of the ancient ones and, moreover, it has a lot of thing to tell.
On this guide you are going to read about:
So, let’s go!
As we told you before, it’s easy to be attracted by Japanese tattoos, just because they are something really special.
But, as all special things, they have a lot of traditions and rules (rules that you can break, of course).
When you do some research of Japanese tattoo designs in Google, you can see a lot of colors and a lot of ink on that, isn’t it?
Well, every color and every shape have a meaning.
Here you can find the meaning of the most dominant colors on this tattoo style:
Japanese tattoos often have a lot of black ink, and it’s 100% normal, because, in the very beginnings of tattoos, black ink was the only one available.
When you use black and white in Japan in some ways, it’s a symbol of mourning, so be careful with this.
Irezumi tattoos have a lot of red ink presence, and that is because red color it’s an important one in Japanese culture.
Red is happiness, is passion and it’s being alive.
Moreover, in traditional Japanese painting and drawing, it symbolizes protection against the evil forces.
In the most of Japan area, yellow color is prosperity (gold) and joy (sun), but in some areas is the color for frauds and hoaxes, so be careful.
As in Europe, green color represents the nature, the earth and young life, so you can be straight with this one.
Blue color in Japan is the symbol of luck and fidelity, and it is related with work.
White in Japan is a color for purity, truth, and for death too, because it symbolizes a new start, a new beginning with all the time to do the things right.
In Japan, as in Europe, purple is the color for the royal families and royalty stuff in general.
But in Japan this stigma is more intense because poor people were not allowed to wear it.
In Japan, pink represents spring, being healthy and, of course, femininity.
As you can see, we are not as far as you may think from Japan culture!
Speaking about the traditional Irezumi designs, you must know a few tips that can bring some light to you if you are searching for a Japanese tattoo design.
The most important colors in Japanese tattoos are black and red ones.
It usually covers up a lot of the tattoo area (more than a 50% for sure), then, you can add some different touches of color.
Traditional tattoo styles in Japan have two things in common:
And yes, a little bit of horror vacui on that. We mean it.
As we told you, Japanese tattoo is an artwork by itself, and you do need to talk about the history if you wan to really know something about it.
The first things you can imagine is a tattoo in Japan comes from the Jomon period, back between 10000 and 300 bC.
Yes, you have read it well.
That’s the first thing because tattooing in Japanese style is so special.
We only have some clay figures with marks that seems to be like a rudimental tattoo drawing.
Then, back in 1600 in Edo period tattoos start being more famous. In fact, in the XIV Century you can find some artistic expressions (usually painting or tapestry) with human figures 100% tattooed.
The point with these paintings is the designs. They can be actual, and we think it’s beautiful.
Now, a fun fact that changes the history of Japanese tattoo:
Then, in Meiji era, tattoos were completely banned (but some people keep doing it, of course), this era is from 1868 to 1912, and this ban were law until… 1948!
And, for this, tattoos are not a good thing in Japanese culture.
Now we can tell you some of the different names for different concepts inside the Japanese tattoo culture.
Henrik Grysbjerg (France).
As we told you some lines back, in the Edo period they started to use tattoo for marking criminals instead making an amputation.
Yes, the punishment is quite better, you know.
They usually mark the criminal, and then, banish.
Each Japan area has their own marks and, in some places, there was like a point status:
3 marks for 3 crimes, and then, a harder punishment.
Not bad, isn’t it?
As we told you before, tattoos started being very popular at Edo Period but, when the Samurai disappeared, the tattoo artists started to work for the different gangs.
This is the beginning of the relationship between traditional Japanese tattoo artists and the mafias.
Yakuza have a strong relationship with tattoo, they used to do it for different reasons, and loyalty to the boss is one of them.
Yakuza traditional tattoo designs are made for being completely inked but anyone can view it unless the person is naked.
This is because for Japanese people tattoos are something private, not for showing.
And this concept is in Japanese actually.
For this, in Japan tattoos are not a good thing, because they are something private and mafia related.
So, you must cover your tattoos in Japan, specially at work or in social meetings.
In fact, in Japan there are some rules you cannot accomplish.
For example, you must cover your tattoos at the fitness centers, but in waterparks, pools, beaches and Onsen (public baths) too, and this is just not possible, because at the Onsen you must be naked.
So, if you visit Japan, first please do some research about tattoo-friendly business.
Now we are going to show you some Japanese tattoos so you can get inspired by a lot of different tattoo designs.
First, we are going to show you some tattoos depending on the part of the body inked, an then, about the different motives you can get tattooed.
Look at this sleeve and half-sleeve Japanese tattoos:
Wu Zi Xu.
Just in case you want to see something not so big:
Augusto de Filippo (Italy).
Getting all the back inked is very common in Japanese traditional tattoo:
Ghis Melou (France).
Twix Horiki (France).
And a couple of shoulder tattoos too:
Andrew Kosmin (Ukraine).
Munewari tattoo style is a thing inside traditional Japanese tattoo.
This kind of tattoos are something 100% Japanese and we are sure you are asking yourself something like “why these designs?”
The answer is more direct than you can think:
In Japan, the tattoos are something for yourself, not for showing.
With a Munewari tattoo you can have the hole body inked, but you are not going to show anything with a kimono wear.
Tattooer Asuka (Japan).
And now, a huge list about different tattoo ideas by the concept, not by the place.
First you can find animals, then people, weather and lettering ones.
The first list about different tattoo designs is about animals, real or legendary ones, just enjoy:
In all Asia, and in Japan too, dragons (Ryu in Japanese) are an important thing.
The dragon is one of the two big animals in Taoism, related with the yang energy, and that is the main influence in Kung Fu, for example.
Dragon is the symbol of flexibility, adaptability, wisdom, and the feminine energy in the Asian way.
Moreover, the dragon concept is to learn how to move among all the different energies (once more, wisdom and flexibility).
Hwido (South Korea).
The other big animal in Taoism and Kung Fu is the tiger.
Tiger is the symbol of yin energy, and it represents the power, strength, and the masculine energy, again, in the Asian way.
If dragon is flexible and wavy, tiger is straight and direct.
The snake (hebi in Japan) represents a lot of things in Japanese culture.
For example, the snake is a symbol of protection against illness or misfortune, good look, change (rebirth or transformation too), strength or wisdom.
Phoenixes symbolize is strong in Japan too.
The main symbol of a phoenix is the power sent from the heaven to the Empress (yes, not the Emperor), and is a symbol of loyalty and honesty.
Moreover, the Phoenix (Fenghuang in Japanese) has another strong symbol to tell: the phoenix only stays when the ruler is without darkness or corruption.
Amelia Budiman (Indonesia).
Sonnee Ho (Indonesia).
Another fantastic animal to get ink is a koi fish, and it symbol is about luck, perseverance in adversity and strength of purpose.
If you want to know more about the koi fish symbol, for Buddhist, it represents courage.
Savannah Ink Tattoo (USA).
In Japan, the crane is a mystical bird, in fact, in Japanese crane is “the bird of happiness”.
The creature is supposed to live for a thousand years, so the crane is the symbol for longevity and for good fortune too.
Erica Ware (New Zealand).
Rose Tattoo (South Korea).
Wolf (okami) symbol in Japan is not the same than in Europe.
In fact, the wolf in Japan represents divine messengers and Shinto gods, so their meaning is strong, usually it represents devotion to a companion.
Jiang Inkart (USA).
If Norsemen has the Kraken, Japan has a big octopus too called Akkorokamui.
This Akkorokamui is not a bad guy and, in Shingoism it has a lot of offerings (of course, seafood, crab and fishes), and it represents heal power and wisdom.
Robert Pain Tattoo (Spain).
Fil Wood (UK).
It is true that in Japanese tattoo we often see more cranes than little birds, but you can get them too.
As in Europe, birds always represents freedom, in the most pure and simple way.
Erik Svensson (Sweden).
Santiago Lombardi (Spain).
In Japanese (and Irezumi) tattoos about people are important too, so here you can find some examples of this:
You cannot understand Japan as a country if you don’t know about Samurai.
You know, Shogun period in Japan history hasta lot of legendary things, and I think all the Wester people imagine the ancient Japan like this.
So, it is fine to get a samurai inked.
Kai Tattoo (Malaysia).
Derek (Nghia) Chung (USA).
In Japan skulls are not as negative as in Western countries, because it symbolizes the deep change, so skulls in Japan are a little more positive than in Europe or America.
As you may know, in all Asian countries the acceptance of the death is more common than in Westerns.
Simone Avesani (Italy).
Dani Olmos (Spain).
Another archetype for the ancient Japan culture are geishas and, of course, geisha symbolizes the extreme beauty and the divinity.
Baku Spirit is present in Japanese mythology since 14th Century, and it is a chimera creature.
Elephant head, lion body and tiger claws, sometimes with the belly like a reptile.
But Baku spirit is a good one, because it symbolizes a guardian of the good sleep, because Baku spirit feed about dreams and nightmares.
Fantastic, isn’t it?
Adrian Hing (Australia).
Vincent Moison (USA).
In Japan Mask like Oni and Hannya are in the folklore.
Oni is a male demon and Hannya a female one, and they are present from centuries in the songs, literature, music and every culture stuff in Japan.
Caneho Tattoo (Barcelona).
Sarah Black (Spain, Italy).
Another element always present in Japanese traditional tattoo are nature and weather things, usually inside the complex design of the tattoo.
Here we want to show you 3 different nature or weather tattoo designs:
The first one is the flower, very inked in Japanese traditional tattoo in men and women.
Usually lotus flower or peonies, but it can be different.
Flowers in Japan symbolize perseverance, so it is quite different from European or American symbols.
Dr Frankestein Tattoo (Italy).
Bambi Tattoo (France).
In Japan and in all Asia, the cloud and the sky have a strong and bold symbol.
For example, in China or in Japan you do not say you want to conquer the world, you say you want to rule everything what is down the sky.
For this, the cloud has a strong meaning about elevated position or ideas on a masculine approach (again, masculine for Asian concept, not for European one).
Akatsuki Tattooer (Japan).
Waves are very present in Japan culture, in painting and in the literature.
The wave symbolizes the day-to-day life and the strength of this life.
Sometimes you can do some complex designs with other elements in the wave (dragon or koi fish) to symbolize the obstacles in life, and how you solve it.
Marc Mestre Tattoo (Spain).
Another important thing in Japanese tattoo are the lettering ones.
It is true lettering Japanese tattoo are not a trend like 10 or 15 years ago, but they are still present in tattoo industry.
Studo Muscat (Japan).
Mauricio Cardoso (Brazil).
In Japan, as well as in other Asian countries, they do not write letters to make words.
Instead, they use symbols called Kanjis, and every kanji means 1 complete word (or more than one).
So, each kanji sounds on a different way and write on an unique way.
Moreover, calligraphy (shodo or shuji) is something really important for Japanese people and, more than writing, is an art by itself.
Finally, we want to tell you a little bit about Tebori, the traditional way to get a tattoo in Japan.
Tebori is the Japanese art for getting a tattoo without machine. In fact, Tebori means “hand poke tattoo”.
It born as a discipline at 18th-19th Centuries, and it was the traditional way to get a tattoo before electrical machines arrives.
In Tebori, the tattoo artist has a instrument made of wood with some metal needles, and just hand poke the tattoo design like woodcarving.
Kotobuki Tattoo Studio (Buenos Aires & Sao Paulo).
Well, the speed and the number of needles are a thing about pain while getting a tattoo, so with Tebori the pain is less intense, but the tattoo sessions are longer, so is up to you, do you prefer something quick and painful or something slow and not-so-painful?
Another thing is the experience, Tebori is more personal and sensitive, of course.
Finally, here you can find some Japanese style tattoo artist that you may follow:
Well, we cannot be objectives with Ghis Melou because he is as good as tattoo artist as a person.
He is focused on traditional Japanese style and he got a lot of big size tattoos so you can know more about his art.
Ghis is tattoing in France, but sometimes he travels around for some guests.
Horiyoshi_3 born name is Yoshihito Nakano, and he is one of the most famous Japanese tattoo in the world.
Of course, he has a tattoo studio in Yokohama, Japan, and his tattoos are made by electrical machine and with Tebori for shadowing.
And yes, you should follow him. Now.
Horikitsune is the tattoo artist name of Alex Reinke.
He is from Germany, but he is one of the few European that has been apprentice from a Japanese tattoo artist.
In fact, he is maybe the only European who has learned Tebori with Horiyosi.
And, of course, he does spectacular traditional Japanese tattoos!
Tattoos are not banned now in Japan, but it has been banned for a lot of years ago. For this, in Japan tattoos are related to Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
In most of the places and situation is not ok to show tattoos in Japan. In Japan, tattoos are for yourself, not for the others.
Not really, tattoos are not illegal in Japan but they have a lot of restrictions to show them in public, not only Yakuza tattoo, all of them.
It depends on you. If you think you are doing a cultural appropriation, you should not get inked with a Japanese tattoo. If you are honoring it, you may get inked.
Usually because they like it, as other people in other countries. In traditional Japanese tattoo style they have tattoos for everything.
Yakuza is the Japanese mafia, and they usually get inked as a symbol of status and loyalty with a lot of designs and patterns, from small tattoos to minewari.
Speaking about rules is maybe to hard. Black and red colors maybe are the more traditional, and you have intricated patterns with some key elements who represents things.
Yes, but not all samurai get tattoos, and a lot of non-samurai people had it too. Tattoo is something cultural, not status.
It’s called Tebori tattoo because of the tool is used to do it, like a blade with needles on a stick.
Tebori tattoo is more an art than a tattoo style. Very traditional, long sessions and slow work for having amazing pieces of work.
Tebori is slower than machine tattoo, so the relationship between the tattoo artist and the person who get inked is closer.
Not really, it depends on the quality of the ink and the level of the tattoo artist.