Japanese tattoo

100+ Japanese Tattoos: History, Symbolism & More

Japanese Tattoos

As popular tattoo styles go, Japanese tattoos are among the most common and easily recognizable.

The imagery used in Japanese tattoos is distinct, featuring a blend of cultural significance and detailed line work.

For those looking to add a piece of work to their current collection of tattoos that stands out as detailed and symbolic, there are few better choices than Japanese tattoos.

Today, we will be telling you all about Japanese tattoos.

From what Japanese tattoos are to how to pick the best design for you, we’ll be giving you all the details.

We hope it will be all that much easier for you to select the perfect Japanese tattoo design for you.

Let’s get started!

What Are Japanese Tattoos?

Japanese tattoos are among the oldest styles of tattoos.

In fact, the lineage of Japanese tattooing spans back almost 5,000 years ago.

Specifically, mention of Japanese tattooing can be found in an ancient Chinese text known as Wei Chih from around 297 AD.

In this text, it is mentioned that men of all ages would have tattoos on all parts of their body, sometimes even their faces.

These tattoos were viewed as a form of expressive folk art but quickly became perceived as holding negative connotations.

This is due to the fact that criminals, rather than being sentenced to death or long sentences, started to be branded with tattoos.

These branding tattoos often included imagery such as Japanese characters, symbols, and/or bands.

Japanese tattoos come in two forms: traditional and modern.

Each of these forms of Japanese tattooing are nearly identical to each other with the main difference being in how the tattoo itself is applied to the skin.

Traditional Japanese tattooing, for example, is applied using the most traditional means, using non-electrical tools.

Modern Japanese tattooing, on the other hand, use a modern tattoo machine.

Japanese tattoos, most often, come in a mix of black-and-gray and colors although there are a variety of Japanese tattoos that come completely in black-and-gray.

One thing, however, that doesn’t change when it comes to Japanese tattoos is that the subject matter is rooted in Japanese culture.

The most popular subject matter featured in Japanese tattoos are koi fish, geishas, dragons, samurai, and tigers.

Japanese Tattoo Colors

If you’ve been looking at traditional Japanese tattoos online, you probably know they often feature bold explosions of color.

Though there are some gorgeous black and grey tattoos in the mix, contrasting colors make classic Japanese imagery pop.

You’ll see all kinds of pinks, oranges, turquoises, and bright blues often against black backdrops for an extra hint of drama.

Before diving into a sea of beautiful colors, it would behoove you to learn a bit about colors in Japan.

Every culture has its own associations with color; that’s why in America people wear black to funerals and red to feel sexy.

Let’s brush up on our colors, the meanings behind them, and how you can incorporate all of it into your next piece.

  • White: white is a dominant color in Japan’s culture, and a very popular color for cars as well! Opposite to America where black is the chosen color for funerals, white is the color of death in Japan. It also symbolizes purity and truth. Like a thick blanket of snow, white can symbolize a fresh start or new beginning in Japan, which can be a comforting attitude toward death.
  • Black: black can also be a color of mourning in Japan, but only when used with white. Some sympathy gifts will be tied with black and white ribbon to show sympathy. With Black ink being the only available color for early tattoos, there is a strong association between black and tattoos. Being a color of mystery as well, it is a perfect color to Japan’s underground tattoo culture, and complicated history with the art of tattoos.
  • Red: red is a very important color in Japan. Symbolizing happiness and joy, it is usually incorporated into merry events such as weddings, birthdays, and new year’s eve. Because red is the color of blood, it symbolizes passion and vitality. If you are looking into a traditional Japanese tattoo a splash of red would be a good idea; it is said to protect against evil.
  • Blue: blue is a lucky color in Japan, and subsequently the color of choice for job interview outfits. Many corporate workers wear blue. It is a symbol of fidelity, and could show your dedication to your work.
  • Green: because so many things in nature are green, in Japan it is a color that represents life, youth, energy, and respect for the earth. Green tea is also a popular drink in Japan, known for its health benefits.
  • Purple: purple is a regal color in Japan and elsewhere. As it used to be an incredibly difficult and expensive color to produce- it was reserved for the ruling class. During the Edo period, lower-class people were not supposed to wear any vivid colors at all. They wore brown robes to show their status (or lack thereof,) but many people would rebel with a colorful lining. Treat yourself like royalty and mix a little aubergine or lavender into your Japanese tattoo design.
  • Pink: pink represents femininity, the delicate nature of life, spring, and good health. This is also a popular color of lingerie in Japan, so it might add a little feminine sex appeal to your tattoo.
  • Yellow: yellow can signify joy, optimism, and prosperity but be careful! In some areas of Japan it is thought of as the color of deceit! To have a “yellow voice” is to have a shrill way of speaking in Japan. A complicated color, but it does look pretty in tattoo art.

There may be colors with multiple meanings in Japan, and certain colors mean different things when worn in different situations.

As far as your Japanese tattoo is concerned though, there really aren’t any “bad” colors.

Work with a reputable artist and they’ll be able to create something harmonious and beautiful with an auspicious blend of vibrant hues.

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Popular Placements for Japanese Tattoos

When it comes to choosing the best placement for a Japanese tattoo, it is important to keep in mind that Japanese tattoos often look the best when a large amount of space is allowed.

This is because they tend to look the best when covering a large portion of skin that allows for enough room for the extensive detail used in the style.

For this reason, those looking to add a Japanese tattoo to their collection typically select an arm or the entire back.

Some even go for a full-body tattoo but this should be reserved for those that are sure about the subject matter and design that they want to feature.

How to Pick the Best Japanese Tattoo For You

If you are considering a Japanese tattoo for yourself, you are likely wondering where to start in terms of choosing a design.

Whether you are of Japanese descent and want to pay homage to your culture or have a deep appreciation for Japanese art, the Japanese tattoo style is perfect for you.

When considering the best Japanese tattoo design for you, there are a few different factors that you should consider.

Placement

The first big factor to consider when picking a Japanese tattoo design is placement.

As highlighted, Japanese tattoos are typically benefited by using a large amount of space so as to have ample room for detailed line-work.

For this reason, it is important that you consider placement when finalizing your design.

Be sure to select an area that allows for enough space for your tattoo artist to fully bring your design to life.

Subject Matter

Subject matter is a huge factor to consider when choosing your Japanese tattoo design.

Luckily, there are many subjects to choose from in the Japanese style.

Most popularly are dragons, koi fish, geishas, and other subjects with symbolism tied to Japanese culture.

Dragons are best-suited for those wanting to convey an atmosphere of power and strength while koi fish are suitable for those who want to symbolize good luck, independence, or perseverance.

Think long and hard about what you want your Japanese tattoo to say when choosing the perfect design for you.

Japanese Mask Tattoos

Oni Mask Tattoos

Oni Mask Tattoo

Kitsune Mask Tattoos

Kitsune Mask Tattoo

Tengu Mask Tattoos

Tengu Mask Tattoo

Okame Tattoos

Okame Mask Tattoo

Okina Mask Tattoos

Okina Mask Tattoo

Hyottoko Mask Tattoos

Hyottoko Tattoo

Namahage Tattoos

Namahage Tattoo

Saru Mask Tattoos

Saru Mask Tattoo
Yokay Tattoos

Kappa Tattoos

Kappa Tattoo

Tanuki Tattoos

Tanuki Tattoo

Daikoku Tattoos

Daikoku Tattoo

Tofu Boy Tattoos

Tofu Boy Tattoo

Karura Tattoos

Karura Tattoo

Baku Tattoos

Baku Tattoo

Nue Tattoos

Nue Tattoo
Tattoos of Japanese Gods

Daikijin Tattoos

Daikijin Tattoo

Raijin Tattoos

Raijin Tattoo

Fujin Tattoos

Fujin Tattoo

Fudo Myoo Tattoos

Fudo Myoo Tattoo

Ebisu Tattoos

Ebisu Tattoo
Tattoos of Japanese Mythical Creatures

Kirin Tattoos

Kirin Tattoo

Heikegani Tattoos

Heikegani Tattoo

Komainu Tattoos

Komainu Tattoo

Other Japanese Tattoo Subjects

Koi Fish Tattoos

Koi Fish Tattoo

Geisha Tattoos

Geisha Tattoo

Namakubi Tattoos

Namakubi Tattoo

Kabuto Tattoos

Kabuto Tattoo

Japanese Snake Tattoos

Japanese Snake Tattoo

Color Scheme

Japanese tattoos use a variety of color schemes. When thinking about your own Japanese tattoo design, it is important that you consider the color scheme as it relates to your chosen subject matter.

Looking to add a dragon to your Japanese tattoo design, consider colors associated with power like bold reds or greens. Looking to feature a more soft, feminine subject matter like a geisha?

Use a color scheme filled with soft colors like light pinks. Color plays a huge role in how a Japanese tattoo design turns out so consider your choices carefully.

Tattoo Artist

Finally, the last factor you will want to consider when choosing the perfect Japanese tattoo design for you is your tattoo artist.

We highly recommend choosing a tattoo artist that specializes in the style.

While this may mean paying slightly more or adding your name to a wait-list to be tattooed by an artist specializing in the Japanese style, you are sure to get the biggest bang for your buck.

Select your tattoo artist carefully! A seasoned tattoo artist specializing in the Japanese tattoo style is sure to be helpful in helping you to decide on the perfect design for you.

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Japanese Tattoo Ideas

We know that choosing the best Japanese tattoo design for you can be difficult.

Luckily, we are here with a few of the best Japanese tattoos to offer a little bit of inspiration!

Take a look at these exquisite, detailed Japanese tattoos and use them to come up with the perfect design for you!

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History of Japanese Tattoos

So, you’re thinking of getting a traditional Japanese tattoo. You’re not alone!

Many people are fans of Japanese tattoos, and will even travel great lengths to have them done by an expert.

Irezumi tattoos feature bold blocks of color and unforgettable designs so vibrant, their sense of movement is enhanced by the breathing canvases they live on.

Japanese tattoo artists have been seeing more Westerners coming to their shops in recent years.

It seems that, while not every person native to Japan is interested in tattoos, those living outside the culture are endlessly fascinated by the striking designs.

Cultural Appropriation

The contemporary debate of who can get what kinds of tattoos rages on.

Some believe that getting a tattoo outside of your culture is disrespectful.

The argument is that these symbols are rich in history, and mean something more to people who grew up with that history.

To get a tattoo merely because “it looks cool” is considered flippant and dismissive of the people who treasure that symbol.

Further to that point, people who are visibly Asian encounter a kind of prejudice that a Caucasian person with Japanese tattoos will not.

So it is easier for someone from the outside to pluck something from another culture and enjoy it without many ramifications.

A challenge specific to Japanese tattoos is the fact that they are linked to criminal activity.

So it isn’t nearly as easy for a Japanese person to have tattoos and navigate their world freely.

With that in mind, no matter what background you come from, it’s best to do a little research on the subject matter at hand before committing to a design for life.

If you are someone who admires Irezumi but did not grow up in the Japanese culture, you can show your respect by deepening your knowledge.

Let’s explore the history of Japanese tattooing, or Irezumi, its implications in day to day life, and what Irezumi culture looks like in contemporary Japan.

Irezumi is often Under Wraps

Though tattoos are a visible medium, they are often something to be kept private in Japan.

Though there are some places where people wear their body art openly in Japan, many people keep their work hidden underneath their clothing.

There are some locations where people with visible tattoos are not welcome and will be politely asked to cover up or leave.

The reasons for this secretive attitude toward tattoos are complicated and vary from place to place, person to person, but there are two main elements to consider.

Cultural Sensibilities

Every culture expresses itself differently through its people. In Western society, part of getting a tattoo is being able to show it off.

The time, money, and care spent on the design is often motivated by its aesthetic appeal.

In an interview with Vice, tattoo legend Horiyoshi 3 talks about keeping tattoos hidden.

He says the beauty of Irezumi is that not everyone can see them, and when they are visible something is lost in that visibility.

He uses the analogy of a Western church vs a Japanese temple- the church will likely be ornate and brightly lit, featuring statues, stained glass windows, and candles.

A Japanese temple, conversely, is minimal and shadowy.

Though only someone who grew up in Japan like Horiyoshi could really understand, he illustrates an important distinction between more outgoing and demonstrative cultures and one that values subtlety.

It’s not that Japanese people can’t be proud of their tattoos- it’s that this pride doesn’t have to be visible.

The tattoo is for no one other than the person wearing it.

A History with Crime

Irezumi are also hidden because of links to general criminal activity and the Yakuza- which many Westerners refer to as the Japanese mafia.

Having tattoos can’t fool someone into thinking you’re part of the Yakuza, and it would be silly to assume that’s why they’re frowned upon.

It isn’t that Japanese people are so naive to assume that everyone who has tattoos is a criminal, it’s more the connotations that come along with it.

It’s also easier to say “no tattoos” than it is to say “no Yakuza,” because it’s difficult to identify who is part of the organization, but it is true that many of them have Japanese bodysuit tattoos.

In some ways, having visible tattoos in certain public spaces can show a disregard for the complicated history that comes with body art in Japan.

How Did Japanese Tattoos Become Associated with Crime?

Let’s start at the beginning of tattoo culture in Japan.

The farthest historians can trace body art in Japanese culture is the Jōmon period, which stretched from 10,000 to 300BC.

Even during this time, it is believed people were using rudimentary tools to create tattoo designs.

The evidence for this is in Dogū, ancient clay figurines. Dogū are covered in markings on their faces and bodies that are believed to be tattoos.

The earliest tattoos were used as protective symbols as well as identifying markers for people’s bodies.

Tattoos Rise in Popularity

Cut to the Edo period (1600-1867) in Japan, when tattoos began to rise in popularity toward the end of the time period.

Part of the credit for this mainstream acceptance goes to artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who created a popular series of woodblock prints from 1827- 1830.

The prints were inspired by a 14th-century novel and feature people with impressive full-body tattoos.

The traditional Japanese tattoos depicted in those woodblocks are rich with themes we continue to see in contemporary Japanese artwork and tattoo designs, so the ripple effect from way back then is immeasurable.

Tattoos as Punishment

Curiously, in the earlier parts of the Edo Period, tattoos were used as punishment for non-violent crimes.

It was was a gentler alternative to amputation, which had been a punishment in more bloodthirsty years.

Criminals would be tattooed in a highly visible area, usually their face.

These tattoos were meant as a form of embarrassment and public shaming, but also as a way of identifying the criminals.

Generally a lawbreaker would be exiled as well as tattooed, and each region had its own markings.

In some areas, they had tattoo symbols that came in 3 “parts,” which you would collect as you re-offended.

After you had 3 strikes, a more severe punishment or even death were considered.

Eventually face tattoos gave way to arm tattoos, and the policy completely fizzled out to the point where it was officially abolished in 1872.

As criminal tattoos became rarer, and Kuniyoshi’s prints were brought to the mainstream, every-day folks started to warm up to the idea of having tattoos themselves.

Tattoos Outlawed

In 1868, however, everything changed. A second ripple was set into motion when tattoos were outlawed.

This time in Japan (1868-1912) is known as the Meiji era, because it lines up with the reign of Emperor Meiji.

This period is marked by influences from the Western world and a strong effort to both keep up with and improve upon the new technology being developed in the West.

Though many people had tattoos for spiritual or protective reasons, the desire to present a professional face to visiting Westerners was great.

Tattoos were frowned upon in professional settings, and officially outlawed in 1871 as more foreigners began to arrive in Japan.

Those who did choose to get tattoos during this period were sometimes just rebellious folks with devil-may-care attitudes, but tattooing was also embraced by criminals because of its forbidden qualities.

By the time the tattoo ban was officially lifted in 1948, the stigma around Irezumi had been steeped into the Japanese culture.

While tattoos are technically legal now, there are some contemporary struggles attached to Japan’s fraught history with tattoos.

Where do I Need to Cover My Tattoos in Japan?

Tattoos carry a stigma in Japan. Because of this and the private nature of the culture, there are spaces where you’ll need to cover your ink.

If you’re planning on visiting Japan, or live there currently and are looking to get a tattoo, these are things you will have to consider.

It’s not impossible to live freely as a tattooed person in Japan, there’s just some planning involved when entering certain spaces.

You’ll likely need to cover your tattoos in the following places:

  • Pools & Beaches
  • Waterparks
  • Fitness Centres
  • Public Baths (Onsen)
  • Some Workspaces

This may seem tricky to navigate since the majority of these are spaces where your skin is going to be exposed.

In the case of an onsen, you aren’t supposed to wear a bathing suit, so some situations seem impossible to navigate! But you do have some options.

Do Some Research on Tattoo-Friendly Spaces

Because this is a part of living in Japan, there are resources available. Many websites are dedicated to tattoo-friendly spaces in Japan.

There are some onsen where tattoos are permitted, so plan your day around those locations and you’re golden.

You also have the option to book a private onsen for maximum relaxation. Nobody minds what nobody sees!

Cover Up

Japan has a sub-tropical climate which means if you visit in the summer, you must be prepared for extreme heat and humidity.

With this in mind, you may feel overwhelmed at the task of keeping your skin covered in certain areas.

You can invest in a Rashi, a lightweight body-covering top designed for athletes, or you can carry around a light scarf.

Some tattooed folks who work in Japan simply cover their ink with bandages when in these settings.

If your tattoo is small enough, it’s easy to carry around a box of waterproof bandages for emergency cover-up situations.

Contemporary Struggles with Traditional Japanese Tattoos

Though tattoos have been legal in Japan since 1948, contemporary tattoo laws in Japan have not made it easy for tattoo artists to do their thing.

In 1948 when tattoos were officially legalized in Japan, they were not listed as a medical procedure, because why would they be?

Cut to 2001, the Japanese government was looking for a way to regulate cosmetic face tattoos and invasive beauty procedures, which can be very dangerous if not done properly.

Tattoos were then classified as “medical procedures” using the justification that a needle pierces the skin during a tattoo application.

Using these new laws, it was easier to regulate cosmetic procedures, which was the original goal.

Tattoo artists weren’t scrutinized using this law, which was fairly obscure until recently.

Tattoo Artist Arrests and Fines

Suddenly, within the same short period, many tattoo shops in Japan were raided, and artists were handed hefty fines.

In 2015 Japanese tattoo artist Taiki Masuda was among several tattooers who were convicted under the Medical Practitioners Act, which many people were not even aware of until being punished for violating it.

Artists were fine 300,000 yen, which converts to roughly 2,700 US Dollars. In the eyes of the law, they got off easy.

The Medical Practitioners Act allows tattoo artists in Japan to be fined up to 1 million yen, or even spend 3 years in prison.

This crackdown on Japan’s tattoo artists started in Osaka, where Tōru Hashimoto served as mayor from 2011-2015.

Hashimoto has a vocal dislike of tattoos, and sent out questionnaires in 2012 to find out which government employees had tattoos.

Even if their body art was hidden, Hashimoto felt that tattooed people were not fit to work for the government, and gathered this information so he could suggest the offending parties be fired.

Hashimoto’s opinions were pervasive, and many people still feel distrusting of those with tattoos.

Those who do own tattoo shops now work in a legal gray area, and try to keep their aesthetic as minimal as possible to maintain a low profile.

When the Olympics were set to come to Tokyo in 2020, the hope among some civilians was that these laws would be loosened for the sake of tourism.

Many high profile athletes have tattoos, and if they are comfortable both showing off their art and visiting local tattoo parlors- it would be a huge boost to the economy.

But that old stigma toward tattooing is still so pervasive.

With tattoos only being legalized in 1948, and so much tattoo history in Japan before that, it’s hard to picture a time when people will get on the same page about body art.

Tebori – Traditional Japanese Tattoos

When we say “traditional” in terms of Japanese tattooing, we may be talking about the style of art, the method of application, or both.

The traditional Japanese art style dates back to wood prints that inspired the average Edo period town folk to get tattoos- something that had become associated with criminal activity prior.

Of course, people have been getting tattoos long before tattoo guns (and even electricity!) were used.

The Japanese tradition is known as Tebori.

Some people know traditional tattoo methods as “stick and poke,” which is something of an umbrella term for different cultural versions of these handmade tattoo applicators.

Some Japanese artists still use Tebori techniques in their tattooing, and it has become a requested method in recent years.

While many people consider “stick and poke” tattoos to be unhygienic or time-consuming, they have made a resurgence in the tattoo world.

The Popularity of Japanese Traditional Tattoo Methods

There are a couple of different reasons why modern tattoo clients are asking for Tebori tattoos:

  • A new appreciation for handmade – many young adults today are starting to realize the downsides of our fast-paced pre-made culture.
  • Many older traditions are becoming popular as people start to re-embrace slow, mindful lifestyle changes.
  • The artistry behind a Tebori tattoo makes the experience special and intimate.
  • It honors a tradition that doesn’t always get proper respect. In Japan, there is a stigma around tattooing. Because of Irezumi’s long history with criminal activity and the Yakuza, some think less of people with tattoos. There have even been some polls showing that certain people in Japan are uncomfortable swimming with or even sitting next to people with tattoos.

Embracing the old ways is almost a reclaiming of this as an art form, a spiritual experience, and creative expression.

The original tattoos in Japan were thought to protect the wearer from bad spirits.

Getting a tattoo the same way an ancestor would have pays homage to that person.

What is the Tebori Method?

The word Tebori is made up of two parts: Te meaning hand and Bori meaning “to carve.”

Great tattoo artists in Japan are allowed to call themselves “Horishi,” or carvers.

This isn’t a title to be taken lightly, and should be passed on to you by your mentor.

This is the same title given to woodblock artists, and the original woodblock carvers are believed to have also worked as tattoo artists.

The great tattoo artist Horiyoshi III does not call himself an artist, but a craftsman.

He uses a tattoo gun, but blends his gun work with some Tebori to keep the tradition alive.

Tebori tools consist of two parts: a metal or bamboo rod and a bundle of needles.

The needles were fixed to the rod using a silk string traditionally, though some people use different materials today.

Instead of the tattoo machine moving the needles, the person applying the Tebori will move their arm back and forth in a rhythmic fashion.

This method will take longer and requires a different skill set than a tattoo machine.

Tebori is less painful than other stick and poke techniques, where the artist uses a little hammer or mallet type object to drive the needle into the skin.

Are Tebori Tattoos Safe?

As young people begin embracing these old practices, there have been some concerns from public health organizations.

Tattooing is something that needs to be very sterile to keep clients safe, and there is some worry that these older tools are more difficult to sanitize.

Modern Tebori artists have responded to this concern by switching out their needles after every use, the same practice used with a machine.

There is always a risk of infection with tattoos, but the right Tebori artist will keep a clean shop and want you to be safe.

Do Tebori Tattoos Hurt More?

There is some debate in the tattoo community about whether tattoos hurt more from a gun or from Tebori methods.

A tattoo gun will be quicker, about half the time it takes to get a Tebori tattoo.

But the needle is moving quickly – a tattoo gun can pierce the skin between 50 and 3000 times per minute!

So in some ways, a gun can be more painful because there is more happening at a much faster rate.

Tebori tattoos take longer though, so it may depend on your endurance level.

Would you rather have a lot of pain that ends quickly, or a slightly less intense pain that goes on longer?

Another thing to consider is your tattoo artist.

No matter what kind of tool an artist uses- technique is key.

Some tattooers have a light touch, while others aggressively drive the ink into the skin.

Generally a tattoo from someone with years of experience will be gentler, because they’ve practiced longer.

Do Tebori Tattoos Look Better?

With all of the vibrant colors we see in many traditional Japanese designs, it’s no wonder artists would want to work with whatever is going to give them the best result.

How a tattoo comes out on your skin will depend almost as much on the artist as it does on the tools.

Some people can achieve amazing, hyper-saturated results with a tattoo machine.

Others argue that they see a deeper, more fleshed out result from their Tebori work.

Do Tebori Tattoos Heal Better?

Because the process of Tebori is slower and gentler than a fast-moving needle, many Tebori artists say it is less traumatic to the skin.

Because the skin is less traumatized, it may heal more quickly and evenly than a tattoo applied with a machine.

Again, this will be influenced by the artist you work with and how much care they take.

There is no official research to show which method heals quicker or more evenly.

Should I choose Tebori or Modern Techniques for my Irezumi?

If you’re more interested in the finished result than the process itself, it’s a good idea to research artists and find someone who’s aesthetic appeals to you.

If it’s more about the journey, you’ll experience a longer more intimate process with Tebori style tattooing, and tap into a centuries-old practice while you’re at it.

Either tattoo technique can be a safe, beautiful way to show your love of traditional Japanese tattoos; just do your research and find a great artist first!

Famous Irezumi Artists

If you’re looking to get a traditional-looking Japanese tattoo (Irezumi), it would only make sense to see a traditional Irezumi tattoo artist.

Be discerning, and save your pennies!

Artists with a great reputation may be more expensive, but they’re charging for the years of experience they’ve poured into their craft.

Some Irezumi artists use traditional tools, but many use modern machines and will hone techniques to make them resemble traditional Japanese tattoos with their own artistic flair.

The nice thing about social media is, you can always creep on the artists in your area without committing to a consultation.

Check out a few Instagram profiles and see what suits you.

Of course, if you’re looking to find the best possible person for the job and have the budget to travel, the possibilities are truly endless.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most amazing artists working in the traditional Japanese style today.

You may have to hop on a long wait list to get in the same room with these people, but the finished product may be worth it!

Here are a couple of our favorite Japanese tattoo artists to follow:

Horiyoshi 3 (@horiyoshi_3)

Horiyoshi 3 is a living legend in the tattoo community.

He has been working for roughly 40 years in the industry, and does not plan on retiring.

Born as Yoshihito Nakano in Japan in 1946, he found his calling as a tattoo artist at a young age.

When 10-year-old Yoshihito Nakano was visiting a public bath, he saw a man with a striking Irezumi, the Japanese word for tattoo.

He spent the rest of that evening asking his family about tattoos and was delighted to discover that his great grandfather had a piece on his back.

Soon he was able to find books on tattooing and lost himself in the images.

He got his first Irezumi on his foot at the age of 15, and was asked by a friend if he would do a design on him.

Nakano began making a little pocket money with his self-taught techniques, and developed his style until it was time to study under a master.

Now completely absorbed in the dream of becoming a great tattoo artist, Nakano wrote to several legendary artists asking to be their apprentice.

He received no reply, until eventually he went right to one of them.

Horiyoshi 1 and his son, Horiyoshi 2, were the only 2 people with that title at the time. The prefix “Hori” means “to carve,” and is an honor to be given this title.

After Horiyoshi 3 agreed to take Nakano on as an apprentice, he eventually gave him the title of Horiyoshi 3.

Horiyoshi 3 uses a combination of tattoo machines and the traditional Tebori equipment he started with.

He is known not only for his striking tattoos, but also for his activism.

Horiyoshi believes in de-stigmatizing tattoos, especially the belief that they are inextricably linked to criminal activity.

While Horiyoshi has been known to tattoo members of the Yakuza, he feels they are largely misunderstood and do good things for the community. Many people in Japan have come to share this belief.

They may not love that the Yakuza commits criminal acts, but the level of organization within the group cuts down on petty or randomized crimes, which keeps innocent people safe.

The Yakuza has also been known to do charity work and make large donations in times of need.

Looking to get tattooed by Horiyoshi III? Unfortunately, he is getting on in years and has made the decision to finish up the tattoos he has already started, but not take on new clients.

But don’t despair! Horiyoshi III has a brilliant apprentice, his own son.

His title is Horiyoshi “Souryou” the 3rd, and he can be found on Instagram souryou.

Horiyoshi “Souryou” the 3rd

Souryou uses a mix of Tebori and tattoo machine techniques to create his artwork.

Keen on continuing the Horiyoshi legacy, he plans to travel to prestigious tattoo conventions across the world.

To Horiyoshi, having an understanding of Japanese traditions and mythology is important when getting a tattoo of these images.

There are some images he will not combine in a tattoo.

To him, every image must honor the history behind it.

George Bardadim (@bardadim)

Living a little far from Japan?

Maybe you’d be interested in meeting a Russian born artist living in NYC who happens to be a master at traditional-looking Japanese tattoos.

Another legend on the scene, Bardadim has been perfecting the art of the Japanese tattoo for 30 years.

His website states that he is interested in executing Japanese designs only, so he’s dedicated to the craft.

Similar to Horiyoshi 3, Bardadim caught the tattooing bug at a young age.

Growing up in Russia, he was endlessly fascinated by his father’s wrist tattoo.

He asked him about it all the time and was so curious as to how it didn’t wash off with soap and water.

Bardadim started “from scratch” in his words in 1988, when there wasn’t really a tattoo scene to speak of in Russia.

He fell in with a group of punk rockers and one night a friend of his insisted on getting an amateur tattoo.

Because Baradim was the best artist of the group, the task fell on him.

His first piece was executed using a sewing needle and the ink he used to draw on paper.

After practicing with this experimental and time-consuming method, he decided to build a machine.

This was in a time before Google and Youtube tutorials, but luckily Bardadim had the next best thing- a friend who had just gotten out of prison.

He taught him how to build a rudimentary machine, and Bardadim continued to study by practicing and reading anything he could find on the art of tattooing.

Bardadim has worked in other styles of tattooing in the past, but will no longer work in mediums other than the traditional Japanese style.

He feels that, while tattoo artists may choose a style to start with, over time a style will choose them.

He prefers the Japanese style of tattooing because of its bold lines and bright colors.

After years in the industry, he has seen what does and doesn’t age well, and isn’t shy to tell his clients if their tattoo concepts will become less attractive over time.

Ever the perfectionist, he will work with clients to improve upon their designs.

Japanese tattoos, he says, tend to maintain their integrity over the years, so he has chosen to work with Irezumi for the foreseeable future.

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Japanese Tattoo FAQ

What Are Japanese Tattoos?

Japanese tattoos come in two forms: traditional and modern.
Each of these forms of Japanese tattooing are nearly identical to each other with the main difference being in how the tattoo itself is applied to the skin. Traditional Japanese tattooing, for example, is applied using the most traditional means, using non-electrical tools. Modern Japanese tattooing, on the other hand, use a modern tattoo machine. Japanese tattoos, most often, come in a mix of black-and-gray and colors although there are a variety of Japanese tattoos that come completely in black-and-gray.

What are the meanings of Japanese tattoo colors?

White: white is a dominant color in Japan’s culture, and a very popular color for cars as well! Opposite to America where black is the chosen color for funerals, white is the color of death in Japan. It also symbolizes purity and truth. Like a thick blanket of snow, white can symbolize a fresh start or new beginning in Japan, which can be a comforting attitude toward death.
Black: black can also be a color of mourning in Japan, but only when used with white. Some sympathy gifts will be tied with black and white ribbon to show sympathy. With Black ink being the only available color for early tattoos, there is a strong association between black and tattoos. Being a color of mystery as well, it is a perfect color to Japan’s underground tattoo culture, and complicated history with the art of tattoos.
Red: red is a very important color in Japan. Symbolizing happiness and joy, it is usually incorporated into merry events such as weddings, birthdays, and new year’s eve. Because red is the color of blood, it symbolizes passion and vitality. If you are looking into a traditional Japanese tattoo a splash of red would be a good idea; it is said to protect against evil.
Blue: blue is a lucky color in Japan, and subsequently the color of choice for job interview outfits. Many corporate workers wear blue. It is a symbol of fidelity, and could show your dedication to your work.
Green: because so many things in nature are green, in Japan it is a color that represents life, youth, energy, and respect for the earth. Green tea is also a popular drink in Japan, known for its health benefits.
Purple: purple is a regal color in Japan and elsewhere. As it used to be an incredibly difficult and expensive color to produce- it was reserved for the ruling class. During the Edo period, lower-class people were not supposed to wear any vivid colors at all. They wore brown robes to show their status (or lack thereof,) but many people would rebel with a colorful lining. Treat yourself like royalty and mix a little aubergine or lavender into your Japanese tattoo design.
Pink: pink represents femininity, the delicate nature of life, spring, and good health. This is also a popular color of lingerie in Japan, so it might add a little feminine sex appeal to your tattoo.
Yellow: yellow can signify joy, optimism, and prosperity but be careful! In some areas of Japan it is thought of as the color of deceit! To have a “yellow voice” is to have a shrill way of speaking in Japan. A complicated color, but it does look pretty in tattoo art.

How Did Japanese Tattoos Become Associated with Crime?

Those who did choose to get tattoos during this period were sometimes just rebellious folks with devil-may-care attitudes, but tattooing was also embraced by criminals because of its forbidden qualities.
By the time the tattoo ban was officially lifted in 1948, the stigma around Irezumi had been steeped into the Japanese culture.

Where do I Need to Cover My Tattoos in Japan?

You’ll likely need to cover your tattoos in the following places:
Pools & Beaches
Waterparks
Fitness Centres
Public Baths (Onsen)
Some Workspaces
Do Some Research on Tattoo-Friendly Spaces!

What is the Tebori Tattooing Method?

The word Tebori is made up of two parts: Te meaning hand and Bori meaning “to carve.” Great tattoo artists in Japan are allowed to call themselves “Horishi,” or carvers. Tebori tools consist of two parts: a metal or bamboo rod and a bundle of needles. The needles were fixed to the rod using a silk string traditionally, though some people use different materials today. Instead of the tattoo machine moving the needles, the person applying the Tebori will move their arm back and forth in a rhythmic fashion.

Are Tebori Tattoos Safe?

Tattooing is something that needs to be very sterile to keep clients safe, and there is some worry that these older tools are more difficult to sanitize. Modern Tebori artists have responded to this concern by switching out their needles after every use, the same practice used with a machine. There is always a risk of infection with tattoos, but the right Tebori artist will keep a clean shop and want you to be safe.

Do Tebori Tattoos Hurt More?

There is some debate in the tattoo community about whether tattoos hurt more from a gun or from Tebori methods. A tattoo gun will be quicker, about half the time it takes to get a Tebori tattoo. But the needle is moving quickly – a tattoo gun can pierce the skin between 50 and 3000 times per minute! So in some ways, a gun can be more painful because there is more happening at a much faster rate. Tebori tattoos take longer though, so it may depend on your endurance level.

Do Tebori Tattoos Heal Better?

Because the process of Tebori is slower and gentler than a fast-moving needle, many Tebori artists say it is less traumatic to the skin. Because the skin is less traumatized, it may heal more quickly and evenly than a tattoo applied with a machine.