Japanese Tattoos and Their Meanings

Japanese tattooing is unique because the designs are used for storytelling. It's an essential part of Japanese culture and has gained popularity all over the world. 

As an aspiring tattoo artist, understanding the techniques and symbolism of Japanese tattooing can help you create stunning designs that are steeped in cultural significance and personal meaning for your client.

In this article, we'll explore:

  • The traditional methods like tabori and using bamboo needles
  • Common symbols and motifs in traditional Japanese tattooing - and what they mean
  • The cultural significance of tattoos in Japan, including the criminal associations
  • Tips to develop your own Japanese tattoo designs

Traditional Japanese Tattoos: Irezumi Meaning

Irezumi, or the decoration of the body with mythical imagery and symbolism, started around 5,000 B.C. with tattoo-like images on clay figurines showing the earliest versions of irezumi. Japanese records discussing tattoos can be dated back to 300 A.D.

Tabori “Hand Tattooing”

Because the first modern tattoo machine wasn’t created until 1891, the famous Japanese tattoo style we know today started out with the tabori, or “hand tattooing” method. The artist would have a long bamboo needle bar with a metal needle grouping attached to the end. They would use this tool to puncture the skin, one mark at a time. (For reference, a modern tattoo machine punctures the skin about a hundred times per second.) 

Because hand tattooing takes so long, it causes the tattoo to be more painful. Clients endured this pain as a way of “earning” their tattoo. 

While it’s rare, there are some artists who still use this traditional method and clients who prefer hand tattooing.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo Meanings 

The symbols and motifs used in Japanese tattoos are inspired by Japanese mythology, folklore, and art. Common themes include protection, bravery, and good luck. Because traditional Japanese tattoos are meant to tell a story and convey deeper themes, they are usually very large. Sleeves, full-back tattoos, and even bodysuits are “normal” sizes for Japanese tattoos. 

This style of Japanese art can use several different images or symbols. Each symbol within an overall design has a specific meaning, and knowing these meanings is crucial for creating culturally significant tattoo designs

Here are some of the most common elements you’ll see within the style and what they mean:

Japanese Animal Tattoos

Lion

irezumi tattoos
irezumi tattoos

Japanese lion tattoos represent strength, courage, and power. They’re usually drawn to look fierce and majestic, symbolizing the qualities of a strong leader. (In the image above, you can see the combination of American Traditional and Japanese Traditional design to create this effect.)

Note:

You might hear the term “foo dog” (or “fu dog”). This a mythical lion-dog creature, however, it’s not normally a part of Japanese folklore. You’ll see foo dogs more often in Chinese tattoos.

Tiger

Japanese traditional tattoos

Like a lion, the tiger also represents strength and courage, as well as protection. It’s meant to show a creature who is ready to defend its territory.

Snake

Japanese snake tattoos represent both transformation and rebirth. Snakes are considered cunning creatures that can shed their skin and emerge as new beings.

Dragon

A Japanese dragon tattoo is a symbol of wisdom, power, and good fortune. A dragon tattoo usually takes up a large portion of the body and has plenty of details, including scales and claws that represent the strength and resilience of the mythical beast.

Until you become familiar with the different styles, it can be difficult to tell a Japanese dragon tattoo and a Chinese-style dragon apart. Luckily, there’s a simple signal you can look for: Japanese dragons almost always have three toes/claws. Chinese dragons usually have four or five.

Cat

 japanese tattoo designs
japanese tattoo designs with black ink

The cat is a symbol of good luck and fortune in Japanese tattooing. Unlike most other animals in Japanese tattoos, cats are pictured as cute, playful, and charming. 

Cats might also feature other Japanese designs on their bodies such as fish, dragons, wind bars, etc.

Frog

colorful tattoo of a frog
expressive folk art tattoo

Japanese frog tattoos symbolize good luck, fertility, and safe travel. Like cats, they’re designed to look friendly, and they represent the qualities of adaptability and resilience.

Koi Fish

Japanese body art
koi fish tattoo

A koi fish tattoo represents perseverance and determination. A lot of the time, you’ll see koi fish swimming against the current to tell a story about overcoming obstacles.

Octopus

Japanese octopus tattoo leg sleeve

Japanese octopus tattoos are popular because of the animal’s adaptability, intelligence, and protection. Its many arms can also symbolize the ability to multitask and solve problems.

Phoenix

A Japanese phoenix tattoo shows a bird that’s rising from the ashes. It’s meant to be beautiful and majestic with an emphasis on resurrection, rebirth, renewal, and good luck. 

Traditional Japanese Characters and Mythology

Samurai Warriors

Japanese tattoo of a warrior
Japanese style warrior tattoo
Japanese bodysuit tattoos

Discipline, honor, and loyalty are embodied by samurai warrior designs. You’ll often see samurai warriors paired with temples as a way to tell a story about a brave and noble warrior who is ready to defend his honor and his people.

Geishas

A geisha tattoo represents beauty, grace, and femininity, as well as the qualities of refinement and sophistication.

Hannya Mask and Oni Mask

Japanese culture demon mask

Hannya Mask  

 japanese folklore evil spirit tattoo

Hannya Mask  

The hannya mask represents anger, jealousy, and transformation. Japanese tattoos that have hannya masks are meant to show the darker aspects of human emotion.

The oni (and oni mask) is a symbol of demons or ogres. On one hand, they can represent mischief, and on the other, they can signify evil. 

While they look similar, these are two distinct styles of Japanese mask tattoos. Oni masks depict male demons while hannya masks depict female demons. 

Skulls

Japanese leg tattoos

Skulls symbolize mortality in Japanese tattooing. This is a darker symbol that shows the need for protection against danger.

Natural Elements Used in the Japanese Tattoo Style

Flowers

Japanese tattoos incorporate many types of flowers. While they are often used as “filler” between major elements of a design, they are also often used as standalone pieces.

Chrysanthemum

Japanese tattoo of chrysanthemum

An elegant flower, the chrysanthemum represents royalty, longevity, grace, and happiness.

Peony

Japanese tattoo of peonies

Peonies represent wealth, prosperity, romance, and good fortune in Japanese tattooing.

Lotus

cherry blossoms and lotus flowers tattoo

A lotus tattoo represents purity, enlightenment, and rebirth. The story of the lotus tattoo usually revolves around the flower rising from the mud, symbolizing the qualities of spiritual growth and transformation.

Cherry Blossoms

cherry blossom Japanese tattoos

A Japanese cherry blossom tattoo represents the fleeting nature of life, as well as the beauty of things that aren’t permanent. (You’ll often see the cherry blossom already disconnected from the tree and floating in the wind.)

Bamboo

 japanese tattoos of tiger and bamboo

Bamboo is both strong and flexible, which is why Japanese art uses it to represent resilience, durability, and adaptability.

Wind Bars (Kaze), Water, and Waves

Wind bars, water, waves, clouds, fire, and more are often “background elements” you can use to make the tattoo flow better with the body.

Japanese dragon tattoos

Wind bars, or kaze, are vertical lines (or sometimes swirls) of shading in Japanese tattooing, they are often used to symbolize change and the impermanence of all things.

Water usually represents adaptability, purity, and life while waves often represent continuity and resilience in the face of change.

Japanese Tattoo Culture

Tattoos have a complicated history in Japan, and there were periods of time when the Japanese government deemed tattooing illegal. 

For many years, tattoos were associated with criminals and were outlawed in Japan until the late 1800s when tattoos started to become more popular among the general population. 

Today, tattoos are legal in Japan, but there are still some restrictions. For example, many hot springs and public baths prohibit people with tattoos from entering, as tattoos are still associated with criminal organizations, including the Japanese organized crime syndicate. 

These Yakuza members have tattoos that cover most of their bodies (called “horimono”). To this group, a Yakuza tattoo is seen as a symbol of strength, loyalty, and brotherhood. And while tattooing is popular, its relation to crime has led to a generally negative perception of tattoos in mainstream Japanese culture.

Prominent Japanese Tattoo Artists

Just like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy are considered trailblazers in American tattooing, there are several artists who paved the way for traditional tattooing. These artists include:

Horiyoshi III

Japanese tattoo method

A master of traditional Japanese tattooing, Horiyoshi III has worked in the industry for over 40 years. He’s known for his intricate designs, as well as his dedication to preserving the traditions of Japanese tattooing.

Shige

Shige is a contemporary Japanese tattoo artist. His award-winning work has influenced many younger tattoo artists to emulate his style and bold use of color.

Horitomo

traditional Japanese tattoo by Horitomo

Horitomo has written several books on the subject of Japanese tattooing and is known for his expertise in Japanese mythology and folklore.

Kazuo Oguri  

traditional japanese tattoo by Kazuo Oguri

Kazuo Oguri’s intricate and detailed designs have won numerous awards and have helped to bring attention to the art of Japanese tattooing around the world.

Neo Japanese

neo japanese tattoo

Images from Tattooing 101’s Neo Japanese Tattooing Seminar

Neo-Japanese (“new” Japanese) draws inspiration from traditional Japanese tattooing while using modern techniques and design elements. 

This style of tattooing emerged in the late 20th century and became popular in the United States and Europe in the 2000s. 

This is partially because of the internet and other media. People were exposed to more Japanese culture and artwork, and artists began to blend their own ideas and modern takes on the style. 

Instead of sticking to the more rigid rules of Japanese tattooing, neo Japanese uses traditional imagery like dragons and koi fish, but adds in pop culture references or abstract designs. 

What to Think About When Creating Your Own Japanese Tattoo Design

Japanese tattoo art is very detailed, and many masters of the style form long-lasting relationships with clients because it can take years to complete a piece. This is especially true for body suits. 

However, if you’re new to tattooing, it’s still important to understand how to develop your own Japanese designs, and you’ll need to keep a few rules in mind while you’re working.

1

Japanese Tattoos Tell a Story

Traditional Japanese designs relied on stories found in mythology. Very often, clients would get imagery from a myth that resonated with them and their personal journey. This has changed over time, and many clients now want tattoos that relate directly to their own experiences. 

To do that, you will need to know a bit about your client, and what theme they want their tattoo to have. They might have a specific image in mind already, or they might ask for guidance. 

For example, if they wanted a design to represent their bravery, you might talk to them about a Samurai warrior or a lion. With someone who’s overcome significant struggles, a phoenix or koi fish might be a better thematic fit.

2

Working with the Flow of the Body

While you will see small Japanese tattoos on occasion, they generally take up large areas on the body. Because they take up so much space, it is very important to work with the flow of the muscles. If you don’t, the tattoo won’t look like it belongs on the body. 

To work with the body’s flow, you need to find the natural curves (or “S” shapes) on the part of the body you’re tattooing and base the movement of your design on that flow.

Waves and wind bars can be very helpful with this part of your design. Using them as background elements will make the whole piece feel more cohesive and make it easier to follow the body’s flow lines.

3

Use High Contrast and Bold Line Work

Japanese tattoos often have overlapping features and multiple elements in a single design. Because of that, you need to create contrast within your tattoo, or it won’t be readable from afar.

Bold colors, high-contrast background elements like wind bars, and making sure you have strong line work that keeps the clear separation between overlapping items will all make your tattoos easier to read.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning about different styles of tattooing is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straightforward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full-time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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  • 500 video modules
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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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