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Japanese Tattoo: The complete guide!

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!

More about Japanese tattoo

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).

Table of Contents


Le Cinq (France).


Horichiro (South Korea).

About the meaning of Japanese tattoo traditional colors

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:

Black color, the main one

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.

Red in Japan tattoo

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.

Yellow one

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.

Green color

As in Europe, green color represents the nature, the earth and young life, so you can be straight with this one.

Blue one

Blue color in Japan is the symbol of luck and fidelity, and it is related with work.

White color

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.


Nicckuhori (Singapore).


Tutti Serra (UK).

Purple, another important color in Japan

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.

Finally, pink

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!

About the desings

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.

History of Japanese Tattoos

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.

Japanese tattoo in the beginnings

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.

Irezumi tattoo and other substyles

Now we can tell you some of the different names for different concepts inside the Japanese tattoo culture.

koi fish all back color japan tattoo

Henrik Grysbjerg (France).

japanese leg sleeve colorfull samurai

Jorge Tattoo (Spain).

Why in Japan tattoos are related with crime

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?

Yakuza tattoo

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.

Japan and the tattoos now

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.

Different placement for a Japanese tattoo

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.

Some Japanese tattoo sleeves and half sleeve

Look at this sleeve and half-sleeve Japanese tattoos:


Wu Zi Xu.

sleeve japanese tattoo dragon

Paolo Esse (Italy).

Here you can find smaller tattoos

Just in case you want to see something not so big:


Ohmuroo (Spain).

japanese small tattoo samurai

Augusto de Filippo (Italy).


Small Lotus Japanese Tattoos

Well, Japanese tattoos perform awesome in large tattoos (or even on entire body tattoos), but we know this kind of design is not for everyone.

And that is ok.

In fact, there are a lot of examples of small Japanese Tattoos, even in a traditional way, like this one, to get inked without spending a lot of inches of your skin.

This flower lotus tattoo is a perfect example.

The tattoo is done by David Sáez, a talented tattoo artist working at The Old Way tattoo, in Spain, and Crossroad Classic Tattooing, in Belgium.

small wave and sun japanese tattoo conll

Small wave and sun tattoo

Another nice example of how a small Japanese tattoo can be eye-catching and unique is this perfect work.

As you can see, it is a wave tattoo with a sun.

The illustration itself is very traditional, but the design is not, and this mix brings the composition a different point.

This tattoo was done by Con Ele, working at Ouch Lab in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A couple of Japanese back tattoos

Getting all the back inked is very common in Japanese traditional tattoo:


Ghis Melou (France).

japanese tattoo back samurai

Twix Horiki (France).

And shoulder tattoos too

And a couple of shoulder tattoos too:


Andrew Kosmin (Ukraine).


Gaston Bandi (Argentina).

Some Japanese leg tattoos

Another way you can get inked with the design you want is making it on your leg. 

You can do it on several ways, from sleeves or big tattoos to smallest one. 

The limit is your imagination, so, keep imaging!


Tùng Chibi (Malaysia).

leg japanese tattoo koi fish lotus

Phill (UK).


Japanese Dragon Tattoo in Black Ink

Here you can see a nice example of what a Japanese tattoo is, not in 100% traditional style, but not in neo-Japanese also, just in the middle.

This tattoo is unique, with a very bold design and totally eye-catching. We know it is not for everyone, only for the brave ones!

We do love the way it’s done and the final result, it is just amazing.

This tattoo is made by Kyoung Mi Zo, a very talented woman tattoo artist from South Korea who works at Betterday and Tattoo Factory Studio, and you should follow her right now!


Japanese Traditional Leg Sleeve

And this is a very traditional leg sleeve done with Japanese Tattoo style.

As you can see, there are a lot of elements, with intricate patterns and color, specially black and red.

In this design you can see some waves, an Oni mask, some lotus flowers and many more.

This composition is just the perfect example to get inspired!

The tattoo itself is done by Phill, a tattoo artist from Middleburg, in the UK and we always enjoy his work.


Two legs suit tattoo Sleeve

If one leg sleeve is bold and awesome, can you imagine getting a two leg tattoo?

Well, that is the point of this one.

As you can see, a perfect and completely Japanese Traditional Tattoo in both legs, with very connected designs.

In one leg, you can see the main character Oni and, in the other, Hannya, the two traditional Japanese folklore demons.

Moreover, some Koi Fish, waves, flowers, patterns and much more, all done with maestry.

The tattoo is done by Mahn Huynh, working at Freedom Ink in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), in Vietnam, and you should follow this Instagram account.


Munewari style, like japanese bodysuit tattoos

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.


Horiran (Japan).

munewari japanese tattoo black and grey

Tattooer Asuka (Japan).

Japanese tattoo meanings and ideas

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.

Japanese tattoos about animals (real or legendary):

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).

If you want to know more about Japanese Dragon tattoos, just check our complete guide clicking the button!


Hwido (South Korea).


J0rdan Smith.


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.


Jesse Britten Tattoo (USA).


Butch Works.


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.

If you want to know more about Japanese Snake (Hebi) tattoos, just check our complete guide clicking the button!


Ivan Cassio (Brazil).


Jason Owens.


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).

Koi Fish

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).


Marta (Poland).


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).


Tiggy (UK).


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).

Japanese Lion tattoos

Now you can find a couple of lion tattoos in Japanese style. 

It’s true that the lion symbol is not as present in Japanese culture than in Europe or in the US, but this animal has something special too. 

For Japanese culture, lion symbolizes protection, strength and power and, as you can see, the last two seems really close to European culture, not the protection one. 

Moreover, in Japan is common to find a pair of lion statues at the gates of a worship (or a temple), guarding the entrance. 


Covo Tattoo (Italy).


Marco Donoso (Chile).

Japanese frog tattoos

At the end of the list of the animals’ tattoos and their meaning, we have the frog. 

It’s true that in Europe the frog means almost nothing (at least, nothing good), but in Japan is not the same. 

In Japan, China and Southeastern Asia frogs and toads are symbols of good fortune and luck (sometimes prosperity and wealth too), usually with magical powers. 


José Trigeros (Costa Rica).

japanese frog tattoo with swords

Anholt Tattoos (Netherlands).

Japanese tattoos about people

In Japanese (and Irezumi) tattoos about people are important too, so here you can find some examples of this:

Some samurai example (you know, japanese warrior tattoos)

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.

japanese tattoo samurai black

Kai Tattoo (Malaysia).


Derek (Nghia) Chung (USA).

Japanese skull tattoos

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).

Some geisha ones

Another archetype for the ancient Japan culture are geishas and, of course, geisha symbolizes the extreme beauty and the divinity.


Kevin Navarro.


Bismer (UK).

Baku Spirit

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).

Japanese demon tattoos (usually masks)

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).

Japanese tattoos about the weather and nature

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).

Japanese cherry blossom tattoo

Well, the flower tattoos are a thing in traditional Japanese culture, but the cherry blossom maybe it’s the one. 

It’s known as Sakura in Japanese and it has a strong symbolism, representing a time of renewal and optimism, because the cherry tree blossom represents the end of the winter and the beginning of the spring. 

Moreover, the cherry tree blossom is a short period of time, so it represents you have to live the moment, too. 

Nice, isn’t it? 


Sidney Baggett.

japanese cherry blossom shoulder tattoo

Boobies Tattoo Ginowan (Japan).

Japanese Cloud tattoos

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).

japanese clouds tattoo chest

Akatsuki Tattooer (Japan).



Japanese Wave Tattoos

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.


The UFO.


Marc Mestre Tattoo (Spain).

Finally, some lettering tattoo ones

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).

kanji lettering tattoo

Mauricio Cardoso (Brazil).

About kanji tattoo

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.

Tebori, the Japanese traditional tattoos style

Finally, we want to tell you a little bit about Tebori, the traditional way to get a tattoo in Japan.

What is Tebori art

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).


Ucciostyle (Spain).

What about the pain with Tebori?

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.

Some traditional Japanese tattoo artists you may follow

Finally, here you can find some Japanese style tattoo artist that you may follow:


Ghis Melou (France)

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.


Horiyosi_3 (Japan)

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 (Germany)

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!

Some woman tattoo artist in Japanese style

Yes, sometimes is difficult to reach some women tattoo artist, and in Japanese Style I can tell you it’s hard.

But, you know, play hard or go home, and we want to play, so here you can find a small selection about amazing women tattoo artist at Japanese style.

Enjoy them.


Asao (Japan)

Asao is a woman tattoo artist working at Studio Muscat, in Shibuya, Japan. 

She has a lot of work on different styles like linework, abstract or black and grey and, of course, in Japanese style. 

She has a lot of designs with harmony and delicacy, all with Japanese aesthetic, and we think you should know more about here. 

Here you can find just 3 examples of her art. 


Claudia de Sabe

Another special tattoo artist is Claudia de Sabe. 

She works at Red Point Tattoo, in London, and she has and spectacular style. 

Her tattoos are usually full of colors, with a lot of presence of big elements like flowers, skulls or different faces and bodies. 

Sometimes she is in the line between Japanese and Neo Traditional, and always her work is perfectly done from the beginning to the end. 

claudia de sabe japanese crysanthemum


Kanae is a female tattoo artist based in London with a fantastic technique and perfect finished tattoos. 

If you are looking for a traditional Japanese tattoo design, we are 100% sure Kanae is your tattoo artist. 

As is usual in this style, big bold designs with colors is a must, just let her works and the result will be amazing! 

kanae traditional japanese tattoo tiger sleeve

Some random Japanese Tattoos for you!

Yes, this guide is quite big enough, but you know, there can be some more tattoos at the end, isn’t it?


Some New Japanese Tattoo

What do you think about this?

This cute mix between ancient Japanese Tattoo designs with a touch of anime and more modern stuff is known as New Japanese Tattoo, and we do love it.

The tattoo is done by Chen, a wonderful tattoo artist based in Malaysia, with some guest spots in other parts of the world.


Cloud/Waves Japanese Tattoo

Yes, this is completely different to almost every tattoo in this huge list, isn’t it?

First, because it is like a cloud outside, with waves and lines inside, and the final result is awesome.

This tattoo is done by Saki, another fantastic tattoo artist, this time based in Seoul, South Korea, with a very special way to see the Japanese tattoo and a completely different color palette, with this awesome blue color.

Yes, you may follow that Instagram account.


Geometric Black Ink Japanese Tattoo

What if you can have a very special tattoo in Japanese style but only with black ink and with tons of geometric elements.

Well, this spectacular mix is one of the specialities for Raimundo Ramírez, another very well-known and talented tattoo artist.

He is working in Blanes, Spain, at La Tarara Tattoo, and we can say he is truly an artist!


Purple Flower Japanese Tattoo

And let’s move again to something more traditional, as this one.

This is another perfect example of something beautiful, perfectly finished, nice color palette, very eye-catching and traditional.

You can say this artwork has everything you want!

This tattoo is done by Horinami, based in Taiwan, and we can say all his artwork are just perfect.


Twin Blue Dragons with Waves

Well, well, well.

Another different thing, isn’t it?

What can we say.

This twin dragon tattoo is just perfect. Not only the final result, the design is very harmonic, we do love the wave detail in the center of the back and all the patterns, as well as the color chosen.

This piece of work is done by Nobody Tattoo, working at Vism Studio, a tattoo parlor based in LA, in the US, of course.

Some FAQs about Japanese tattoo

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.

There are a lot of meaning in traditional Japanese tattoo, it depends on the design, colors and the drawing itself, from a dragon to a demon or a flower, every tattoo has its own meaning.

Maybe you are searching for Irezumi tattoos, because it’s the most popular one, but there are more, like Horimono, Horisi, Ikakubori, Irebokuro and Suikoden.

Not really. Tattoos were banned in Japan from a long time, but now there are legal. Because that, tattoos are banned in some places in Japan, that’s true. 

Yakuza are the Japanese mafia, so Yakuza tattoos are the tattoos from the Japanese mafia. Their meaning are kind of hierarchy, position, and more.

Well, in Japan, not. Yakuza are in the society and we are sure you don’t want to be a part of them (if you are not) so, if you have a Yakuza tattoo in Japan, cover it.

Japanese traditional tattoos are one of the most famous in the world. They have a huge tradition (then tattoos were banned), and traditional Japanese tattoos are an important thing.

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