Gallery of Japanese style tattoos done by professional tattoo artists that can be filtered by subject, body part and size.read more
Traditional Japanese tattoos are known as Irezumi, which is a Japanese word that refers to any of the traditional Japanese forms of tattooing. Irezumi literally means imputing ink into skin, to insert ink. Japanese tattooing has a rich history rooted in Japan’s cultural and aesthetic traditions.
Traditional Japanese tattoos are inspired in the ancient Japanese hand carved tattooing techniques, called "Tebori". This style uses bold black outlines and minimal shading, like the American Traditional style, but features iconic Japanese images, such as waves, snakes, dragons, koi fish, flowers and tigers.
Japanese tattooing dates back to roughly 10,000 B.C., during the Jōmon period (縄文時代), which lasted until 300 B.C. The cultures during these millennia were diverse, made of complex hunter-gatherer communities. Surviving pottery implies that ancient tribes practiced body modification, but very little is known about the techniques or cultural practices around them.
The Yayoi period (弥生時代) ran from circa 300 B.C. - 300 A.D., and marks Japan’s transition to farming communities. Evidence of tattooing in this era shows that modification played a role in the expression of social status, but few specifics about designs or traditions have survived.
Negativity around tattooing in Japan was first confirmed during the Kofun period (古墳時代), circa 300 - 600 A.D. Records of punitive tattoos show that they were applied forcibly to mark criminals, both as a form of punishment and to track them.
Japanese decorative tattooing, as we know it today, can largely be traced back to the Edo period (江戸時代) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) emerged as a popular Japanese art genre, primarily in woodblocks, paintings and masks. The term “Ukiyo” was used to describe human pleasure and hedonism, especially in the economically thriving merchant class. “Ukiyo-e” referred to the art celebrating lavish indulgences and entertainment, such as geishas, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and pornographic fantasy art. Ukiyo-e tattoos carry on the aesthetic traditions of this movement.
Mythology-inspired motifs also grew from this point onward, featuring animals, natural elements, dragons, demons, spirits and the like, all with symbology pulled from Japanese folklore. Each tattoo’s individual meaning was passed down from master to apprentice for centuries.
Irezumi has some traditional compositions that have been inherited for hundreds of years. The designs are composed of a combination of two different motifs with a meaningful purpose. Some traditional combinations are a Foo Dog with peony flowers, a carp with Autumn leaves, or a tiger with bamboo. Some Horishis break this traditional composition “rules”, and create new meaningful combinations. Master Horiyoshi III has tattooed tigers together with cherry blossoms to bring cheerfulness to the design.
The Meiji period (明治時代) of 1868-1912 formally criminalized tattoos in Japan; this ban lasted until 1948. By driving the trade underground, tattooing was soon associated with organized crime and the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent to the mafia. When all tattooing was outlawed, decorative designs were adopted by yakuza members to embrace criminality as an identity. Despite being legalized after WWII, tattoos are still heavily frowned upon in Japan. Many local institutions will still refuse service to anyone with visible tattoos, and some lawmakers are working to reinstate the ban nationwide.
Non-Japanese tattoo art lovers have been attracted to these motifs and techniques for centuries, even if they don’t fully understand the symbology or social history. Younger generations within Japan are simultaneously more influenced by the west, growing up with access to nontraditional ideas via the internet. As a result, there are subcultures moving back toward purely decorative tattoos within Japan, but they do face social tension domestically.
It’s worth noting that the Ainu (蝦夷), a tribal community of Northern Japan, have unique and separate tattoo practices related to womanhood. Specifically, girls transitioning into adulthood would receive black ink tattoos on their lips and faces, believing it would protect their souls after death. There is no tangible anthropological connection between existing Ainu tribal tattoos and contemporary Japanese tattoos.
A FEW KEY JAPANESE WORDS:
Bukkiri: Means cutting-out by a straight line.
Horimono: Another word for traditional Japanese tattoos, literally meaning carving, engraving. The engraved images in the blade of a Japanese sword, which may include katana or tantō blades, are also know as horimono. Hori, and Bori (彫り) are the same word, and both mean to engrave (in Japanese the way a word is pronounced is often changed depending on how the word in compounded).
Hori-shi: Traditional Japanese tattoo artist.
Kakushibori: Hidden tattoos. The non-visible parts of the body, such as the inner arm, is used to include somehow funny or erotic tattoos,
Mikiri: Borders of the tattoo. There are different border styles: botan-giri, bukkiri, jari mikiri, akebono mikiri and matsuba mikiri.
Munewari: Chest tattoo with the opening in the middle. This is one of the traditional tattooing distributions. A strip running down the center of the upper body is left without tattoos. The idea is to avoid tattoos showing from the collar line when one wears a kimono, so that tattoos may not show up from the neckline.
Shunga: Japanese erotic art.
Tebori: Describes the technique of tattooing by hand. Literally means “to carve by hand.”
Yobori: "Yo" (Western) tattooing. The Japanese-English slang term for tattooing done with the machine.
Wabori: Wa, (和) as used in wabori is the kanji for ocean, and when used in this way means Japan. For example, washoku (和食) means Japanese food. So wabori (和彫) means Japanese tattoo. In Japan western style tattoo is commonly called tattoo, while wabori is commonly called irezumi.
TRADITIONAL IREZUMI MOTIFS:
Baku: Japanese supernatural beings that eat nightmares and dreams.
Botan: Peony, one of the most common and special flowers found in traditional Japanese tattoos.
Heikegani: Samurai Crabs.
Hou-ou / Hō-ō: Japanese phoenix or sacred bird. In Japan, as earlier in China, the mythical Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of the imperial household, particularly the empress. This mythical bird represents fire, the sun, justice, obedience, fidelity, and the southern star constellations.
Hyottoko: Man's mask.
Kitsune: Japanese word for Fox. Japanese stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. The nine-tailed fox, Kyūbi no Kitsune in Japanese, is a mythological creature who can be either a good or a bad spirit.
Namazu: Mythical giant catfish who causes earthquakes.
Okame: woman's mask.
Qilin or kirin: Mythical hooved chimerical creature.
Sakura: Cherry blossoms.
Ume: Japanese plum blossoms. Japanese tradition holds that the Ume works as a protective charm against evil. Traditionally, Ume trees are traditionally planted in the northeast of the garden, direction from which evil is believed to come. Eating the fruit for breakfast is
Yōkai: A class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore.
Hitotsume-kozō: a Yōkai that take on the appearance of a bald-headed child with one eye in the center of its forehead similar to a cyclops.
Tōfu-kozō: Tofu boy, a Yōkai on the appearance of a child possessing a tray with tōfu on it.
Oni: A kind of yōkai, variously translated as demons, devils, ogres, or trolls.
Nue: Mythical supernatural monsters and spirits known as yōkai (such as kasa-obake) or mononoke.