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).

japanese-sleeve-demon-oni

Le Cinq (France).

japanese-all-body-tattoo-samurai-black

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.

japanese-back-color-samurai-tattoo

Nicckuhori (Singapore).

two-japanese-sleeves-flowers-red-mature-man

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.

Japanese tatto history

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:

two-color-sleeve-japanese-tattoo-style

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:

japan-tattoo-koi-fish-leg

Ohmuroo (Spain).

japanese small tattoo samurai

Augusto de Filippo (Italy).

A couple of Japanese back tattoo

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

japanese-tattoo-back-dragon

Ghis Melou (France).

japanese tattoo back samurai

Twix Horiki (France).

And shoulder tattoos too

And a couple of shoulder tattoos too:

japan-tattoo-irezumi-shoulder-demon

Andrew Kosmin (Ukraine).

japan-shoulder-tattoo-flowers

Gaston Bandi (Argentina).

Munewari style

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.

munewari-japanese-tattoo-color

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:

Dragon

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).

japanese-tattoo-dragon-ryu

Hwido (South Korea).

japanese-tattoo-dragon-black-ink

J0rdan Smith.

Tiger

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.

japanese-tiger-tattoo-irezumi

Jesse Britten Tattoo (USA).

japanese-tiger-tattoo-color-back

Butch Works.

Snake

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.

hebi-snake-japan-tattoo-shoulders

Ivan Cassio (Brazil).

hebi-snake-japan-tattoo-leg

Jason Owens.

Phoenix

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.

phoenix-japan-tattoo-color-ink

Amelia Budiman (Indonesia).

fenghuang-japan-tattoo-colored

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.

koi-fish-tattoo-japan

Savannah Ink Tattoo (USA).

koi-fish-watercolor-japanese-tattoo

Marta (Poland).

Crane

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.

japanese-tattoo-crane-sun

Erica Ware (New Zealand).

crane-shoulder-japanese-tattoo

Rose Tattoo (South Korea).

Wolf

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.

okami-japanese-tattoo

Jiang Inkart (USA).

okami-watercolor-japanese-tattoo

Tiggy (UK).

Octopus

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.

japanese-akkorokamui-tattoo-red

Robert Pain Tattoo (Spain).

japanese-akkorokamui-tattoo-sleeve

Fil Wood (UK).

Birds

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.

japanese-tattoo-color-bird

Erik Svensson (Sweden).

japanese-birds-tattoo

Santiago Lombardi (Spain).

Japanese tattoos about people

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

Some Japanese samurai example 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).

traditional-samurai-tattoo-japan

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.

japanese-skull-tattoo-arm

Simone Avesani (Italy).

japanese-tattoo-skull-flowers-red

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.

japanese-tattoo-geisha-haynna

Kevin Navarro.

japanese-tattoo-geisha-all-back

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?

japanese-tattoo-baku-spirit-green-ink

Adrian Hing (Australia).

baku-spirit-and-tiger-japanese-style-tattoo

Vincent Moison (USA).

Mask

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.

oni-hannya-tattoo-japanese-mask

Caneho Tattoo (Barcelona).

oni-mask-leg-japanese-tattoo

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:

Flower

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.

japanese-tattoo-flower-sleeve

Dr Frankestein Tattoo (Italy).

japanese-tattoo-flower-sleeve-black

Bambi Tattoo (France).

Cloud

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-tattoo-clouds-ankle

Ginaapop.

Wave

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.

japanese-tattoo-wave-sleeve

The UFO.

japanese-tattoo-dark-wave

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.

kanji-tattoo-art-forgiveness

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 traditional Japanese tattoo 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.

tebori-tattoo-technique

Kotobuki Tattoo Studio (Buenos Aires & Sao Paulo).

tebori-tattoo-artwork

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-color-dragon-back

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.

horisyoshi_3-traditional-japanese-tattoo

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.

traditional-samurai-japanese-tattoo-reinke

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 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.

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