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.
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.
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.
Japanese Tattoo Placement
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.
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.
- Japanese Tattoos on Forearm
Your forearm is ample enough space to be able to showcase the intricate detail that goes into Japanese tattooing without committing to a larger area like your back.
Your forearm can easily be covered up if need be, or roll up your sleeves and show off your ink.
- Japanese Tattoos on Chest
Do you want to be a little bolder in your placement?
Why not on your chest? There is no hiding the colors and details that go into your design.
- Japanese Tattoos on Back
If you are someone that isn’t afraid of making a statement, consider getting a large-scale tattoo on your back.
If you want to accentuate the intricate details that come with Japanese tattoos, your back is the perfect canvas for that!
A back tattoo also can be significant, but it is easy to cover up if need be.
There seems to be no downside when it comes to inking your back!
- Japanese Tattoos on Thigh
Dragons exude power and strength in Japanese culture.
They are a popular tattoo amongst those who want to encompass that.
A dragon tattoo placed on your thigh can give off the true size of these mythical creatures.
- Japanese Neck Tattoos
Those who have no intention of covering up their Japanese artwork might want to consider tattooing their neck.
This space is smaller, so one might consider a bright and bold Japanese mask like the examples below.
- Japanese Hand Tattoos
The hands are another area that is difficult to cover up and another way to display your tattoos.
Koi fish would be a perfect addition to your collection of Japanese tattoos.
They can be created small enough to fit your hands without taking away the details that make up this beautiful, traditional Japanese fish.
- Japanese Tattoos on Shoulder
Your shoulder is a perfect placement that can accommodate a dragon’s long body, a larger scale of a Koi fish, or a bold statement like a Japanese mask—all while having the option to cover it up easily.
- Japanese Tattoos on Foot
Your foot’s size is similar to your hands, so that a Koi fish would be an excellent option for this area.
Your foot can also be easily concealed compared to your hand if that is a concern.
Either way, you will be able to showcase your beautiful Japanese artwork.
- Japanese Tattoos on Calf
Think about placing one of your Japanese tattoos on your calf.
It is easily covered up in a more subtle location without taking the stunning components away from a Japanese tattoo.
- Japanese Tattoos on the Side
One might choose to showcase a more significant piece on the side of their body.
There will be no missing any detail when one of these Japanese tattoos is scaled across your body.
Japanese Tattoo Subjects
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
A synonym for an Oni mask would be that of a demon whose origin is of a Hindu-Buddhist belief system.
Oni’s are under an umbrella of goblins and ghouls called Yokai.
Many Yokai characters are only pranksters at best, but not the Oni.
Oni’s are believed to be the reason for epidemics and massive disasters.
An Oni possesses beastly characteristics and moves slowly because of its size.
An Oni is powerful despite its speed and has an aggressive nature.
Someone might get an Oni Mask tattoo to attract that forceful nature and ward evil spirits off.
- Kitsune Mask Tattoos
Kitsune translates to a fox in Japanese.
One will find the importance of a fox in Japanese culture within Shintoism and Mythology.
Kitsune are celebrated and used to work alongside workers in Ancient Japan.
According to mythology, though, they were considered pranksters and could shape-shift.
They would dress as monks and collect money from unknowing people or shapeshift into women to humiliate men.
Shintoism had a different spin on a Kitsune.
They were believed to be messengers of the gods.
Receiving a Kitsune tattoo can represent so many different meanings, so there is an endless amount of possibilities!
- Tengu Mask Tattoos
One will find the origin of the shapeshifting Tengu in China and Japan.
There is not just one characteristic available to describe a Tengu.
The story has been told that the Tengu was a shooting star that touched down with a thundering noise and only brought chaos and destruction.
It revealed itself with dog-like features and a beak-like nose.
A Tengu’s story has been written in many different ways, but his main characteristic is that it can shapeshift.
It is believed that the Tengu shapeshifted so many times that it started to possess more human-like features, which is the more popular image found today.
A Tengu can be portrayed in many different lights, and each image represents a different story, so make sure when choosing a Tengu Mask tattoo that you thoroughly did your research.
- Okame Tattoos
Okame is a religious figure in Japan.
In the religion Shinto, the goddess Okame was created to portray beauty and femininity.
Her delicate features and smiling face portrays her as approachable and gentle.
Her skin is pale, which causes her rosy, plump cheeks and bright red lips to stand out.
Her demeanor is as pleasant as her appearance.
The word “mirth” is associated with an Okame tattoo, which means a happy spirit.
Okame comes with happiness and good fortune, which makes a perfect addition to your tattoos.
- Okina Mask Tattoos
An Okina Mask can be created in many different ways.
The most famous portrayal of the Okina Mask is that of an older man.
An Okina is seen smiling, which gives off a pleasant nature.
In Japan, old age is highly respected.
Old age represents wisdom because of the long years they have lived.
It only fits that an Okina Mask was believed to be God’s physical form due to its all-knowing characteristic.
An Okina Mask tattoo is an excellent choice if you are looking to manifest wisdom and respect.
- Hyottoko Mask Tattoos
Mythology is full of demonic and evil spirits, stirring up chaos and misfortune throughout the land, so it is refreshing, to say the least when we come across a comedic character.
Hyottoko knows how to make light of things amid the turmoil.
Many entertaining legends go along with this funny little boy, which makes it worth looking into.
Hyottoko tattoo is an excellent choice if you are looking for a comedic character known to bring good fortune and prosperity into your life.
- Namahage Tattoos
Namahage is not one of the more well-known characters, but that does not take away from his demonic character.
Namahage is an unfortunate and evil spin on Santa Claus.
Instead of bringing presents to good children, he seeks to punish bad behaving ones.
The legend goes that he takes the bad-behaving children into the mountains.
Parents would tell this tale to ensure their children start to behave.
It usually will do the trick which prompts them to offer Namahage rice cakes and sake to go back to the mountains.
Having a Namahage tattoo could offer you protection from other evil spirits.
- Saru Mask Tattoos
Saru translates to a monkey in Japanese.
A Saru has many different qualities, which include being playful, silly, or even a trickster.
In Japanese legends, monkeys often seek recognition, and there is no shortage of an arrogant attitude.
Their competitive nature but also their need to be mischievous often distract them from achieving their desires.
One might think they self-sabotage themselves.
Saru tattoos are a great way to add a metaphorical piece to represent their similar characteristics in this way.
- Kappa Tattoos
Being part of the Yokai family, the Kappa is a creature found in Japanese Mythology and Folklore.
Kappas are bizarre in their features and have a hole in their hard filled with water.
This water holds all of their secrets that they are known to be very good at keeping.
Unfortunately, Kappa’s are obliging, and if a devious person wants to know deceit them, all they have to do is bow.
The Kappa will reciprocate but also spilling all of their secrets.
A Kappa will be internally grateful if someone refills the water, and for that, they gained a companion.
This is only one tale of the Kappa, but if you are generally loyal and helpful, a Kappa tattoo might fit!
- Tanuki Tattoos
A Tanuki has a friendly and adorable look about them, but one distinctive characteristic is hard not to notice.
His prominent round belly is nothing compared to his scrotum, which often is exaggerated for maximum effect.
Unlike most Yokai, the Tanuki is a real animal called a raccoon dog.
It was believed that a Tanuki was of a cheerful nature which can bring a light-hearted laugh if you choose to get a Tanuki tattoo.
- Daikoku Tattoos
In Japan, there are seven gods of good luck and fortune; Daikoku is one of them.
There are many different associations with a Daikoku as it originates back to Hindu belief.
A Daikoku mask is mainly known to ward off evil and bring in good luck.
He is found carrying a bag of gold thrown over his shoulder and a wish-granting mallet.
Someone might choose to have a Daikoku tattoo to manifest prosperity, good fortune, and exude optimism.
- Tofu Boy Tattoos
Tofu Boy is an interesting addition to the Yokai clan and is not a traditional religious figure but from old tales told over generations.
He is known as one of the weaker Yokai and tends to get bullied for his timid and shy behavior.
Don’t let this fool you; Tofu Boy is mischievous if the opportunity arises.
Despite Tofu Boy’s trickster demeanor, his weaker stature among the Yokai is being used to teach children against bullying.
If you experienced bullying in your life, a Tofu Boy tattoo might be a great fit to stand against bullying.
- Karura Tattoos
Karura has ties to Hindu and Japanese Mythology.
Karura is better known as Garuda within Hindu mythology.
He is a birdman with impressive gold wings who can fly at remarkable speeds.
It is believed that when he hatched from a giant egg, his birth nearly demolished the world.
He was merciful and extinguished the fire.
He did not want to scare anyone after what he had done, so he shrunk himself down to a less intimidating size.
Garuda is a powerful tattoo that encompasses merciful qualities.
- Baku Tattoos
Have you ever had trouble sleeping because haunting dreams encompass you at night?
A Baku tattoo might do the trick to ward off bad dreams.
Baku is best known as a sleep guardian.
Children are often told that Baku helps to take bad dreams away.
In addition to warding off bad dreams, Baku can turn good dreams into lucky ones as well.
If you are looking for a figure to help you when you sleep, a Baku tattoo might be the right one for you.
- Nue Tattoos
Japanese folklore possess a terrifying creature called the Nue.
It has a monkey’s face, a Tanuki body, the legs of a tiger, and a tail of a snake.
It is believed that the Nue emerged from a black cloud and caused the emperor to become sick.
Two samurais were ordered to kill whatever was in the cloud that was harming the emperor.
One might wonder why someone would get such a terrifying tattoo, but it can be a symbol of mental health and slaying their demons.
No matter the symbolic meaning behind a Nue tattoo, it is as original as it gets!
Tattoos of Japanese Gods
- Daikijin Tattoos
The name translation says it all, “Great Demon God.”
The Daikijin has been said to come back as an abused spirit.
He would seek vengeance against any wrong-doings against them in their past life.
The Daikijin tale narrated in a way that he was the demon of all demons.
He is described to have long white facial hair with two long horns protruding from his forehead.
A Daikijin tattoo has angry golden eyes that would intimidate any lesser demons to keep their distance.
- Raijin Tattoos
The god Raijin dates back to the Japanese Shinto religion as a demon god.
His mischievous nature frightens children when a dangerous storm comes Japan’s way.
He is the god of thunder, and children are told to hide their belly buttons because the tale goes that Raijin likes to snack on them during a storm!
These fierce storms result from the fight for power between Raijin, “god of thunder,” and his brother Fujin, “god of wind.”
They grapple to win the top spot of who is the main god of the sky.
A Raijin tattoo would represent a powerful addition to your ink.
Despite being a well-known Japanese god, Fujin’s origin goes back to Greek Mythology.
Japan suffers from extreme storms, and the legend describes a massive disagreement between Fujin and his brother Raijin.
Despite being brothers, these two gods always fight for the top spot of the “god of the sky.”
Most people get tattoos of both brothers, showcasing their fierce fights battling it out; causing chaos down below.
- Fudo Myoo Tattoos
The god, Fudo Myoo originates from a branch of Buddhism called Shingon, which translates to “True Word.”
He is part of a group of powerful deities called the Five Bright Kings.
Despite his features being frightening, he is quite the opposite.
Fudo Myoo is commonly known as “The Immovable One,” and he has a protective nature. His powers include prosperity and bringing good fortune to those who devote him.
He will also subdue evil forces, so you can’t go wrong with a Fudo Myoo tattoo!
- Ebisu Tattoos
Ebisu is one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Each god represents a different virtue.
Ebisu originates from the Shinto religion and is the only god that is 100% indigenous to Japan, which is important to Japanese tradition.
This makes Ebisu quite popular throughout Japan, and his figure is often found throughout restaurants, religious shrines, and shops.
Ebisu represents wealth and good fortune, which could explain why you will always find his depiction smiling.
If you are looking to manifest good luck into your life, an Ebisu tattoo might be an excellent addition!
Tattoos of Japanese Mythical Creatures
- Kirin Tattoos
A Kirin is the Japanese version of a mystical creature similar to a Unicorn.
The Kirin is known in Japan and has origins in Vietnam, Taiwan, China, and Korea.
The Kirin has a single horn on top of its head, making it similar to a Unicorn.
It is uniquely different from the body of a deer and dragon-like scales.
Legends have been told that the Kirin appears in times of peace, and people might choose to receive a Kirin tattoo to encourage a positive lifestyle change.
- Heikegani Tattoos
Most Japanese creatures are of folklore or religious figures that are only passed down stories through generations.
The Heikegani is unique because it is an earthly creature.
The Heikegani is also known as a Samurai crab.
They have distinctive markings on their backs that look similar to angry Samurai faces.
Fishermen will cast their nets, and if any crab caught with angry Samurai face markings, they would immediately throw them back.
One might choose a Heikegani tattoo because they symbolize honor and defiance.
- Japanese Dragon Tattoos
One of the most important symbols in Japanese culture is the dragon.
The Japanese dragon tattoo is one of the most sought-after designs in the tattoo parlor.
It could be because of the vibrant designs or what a dragon symbolizes.
Common meanings would be wisdom, power, strength, good luck, prosperity, longevity, and even more.
There is not only one style of dragon tattoos, so make sure you do your proper research when choosing one of these fierce, majestic creatures.
- Foo Dog Tattoos
The Foo Dog is traced back to India.
A Foo Dog tattoo design could be colorful and playful, or it can be a mean and intimidating creature.
There are many names that the Foo Dog goes by, A Komainu, a Fu Dog, A Guardian Lion, or Imperial Lions.
The Foo Dog symbolizes protection, peace and calmness, and harmony and balance.
Foo dogs traveled in pairs, so it would only be right to get two tattoos.
Each can represent one of the many symbols that Foo Dogs emulate.
- Japanese Phoenix Tattoos
Most people have heard the phrase, “A phoenix rising from the ashes,” indicating someone triumphed over difficult situations.
A Phoenix is typically depicted as a large bird with large wings and a large tail, with orange and red colors.
People usually resonate with the phoenix’s story because they have gone through tough times and ultimately made a new start.
If you are trying to make a statement that you are taking back control of your life, a Japanese phoenix tattoo might be the perfect addition to your ink!
Other Japanese Tattoo Subjects
- Koi Fish Tattoos
One of the most recognizable Japanese tattoos would be the bold and beautiful Koi fish.
Koi fish generally represent bravery, hope, and fulfilling one’s destiny.
It is no wonder why Koi fish are popular among tattoos.
You can own a Koi fish, and they are known to last about 25 years.
This can also represent prosperity, as you will have this pet for a while.
There is a variety of Koi fish you can choose from.
Each color can mean something different, as discussed previously.
So make sure you put some real thought into the placement and color of your Koi fish tattoo.
- Geisha Tattoos
Along with the Koi fish, Geisha tattoos are widely popular Japanese tattoos.
Geisha tattoos stand out among most tattoos because they are known for their striking makeup, extravagant hair, and complex and colorful kimonos.
There are many different roles of a Geisha.
One might find them to be a hostess, court jester, political advisor, performance artist, and even more.
They make the people around them feel special and exemplary.
A Geisha is the token of feminine nature and often symbolizes artistry and perfectionism.
If this is something you want to bring into your own life, a Geisha tattoo might be the right fit.
- Namakubi Tattoos
Namakubi translates to a bold and morbid scene in Japan as a freshly severed head.
Despite its gruesome appearance, the Namakubi is a widely popular tattoo.
It is no surprise that it is connected with ancient Japanese battlefields.
It represents the acceptance of fate and respecting one’s enemies.
Many see the Namakubi as a way to portray enjoying life and living it to the fullest because death is inevitable.
This rang true with Japanese warriors that they dared to push through the war zone even though they knew it was likely that they would face death.
If you were looking to ink some courage on yourself, a Namakubi tattoo might do the trick!
- Kabuto Tattoos
A Kabuto is a Japanese helmet that was worn in battle by Samurais.
Its popularity holds with men as well as women.
A Kabuto tattoo might be a good choice for those who want to honor their culture or have an innate fascination for the Samurai.
The Samurai were part of the noble class in Japan, worked for the government for no fee, were honored to serve, and would only fight face to face.
A Kabuto has many different styles to choose from, and each has its own meaning.
The Kabuto is significant in Japanese culture, so make sure you do your proper research before heading off to your tattoo parlor.
- Japanese Snake Tattoos
Japanese snake tattoos are one of the more popular tattoos in Japanese cultures.
The word snake in Japanese is hebi, and their typical depiction is frightening, but in Japanese culture, they are seen as beautiful.
Specifically, if one comes across a white snake, it is a sign of good luck which would be a great tattoo idea if that was what you were looking for.
Snakes are not seen as a menace; people like snakes around, especially their garden, because they will eat intruding creatures that would destroy their garden.
Snakes are well respected in Japanese culture.
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.
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.
Japanese Tattoo Designs
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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!
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.
Japanese Tattoo Ideas
Black & Grey Japanese Tattoos
Small Japanese Tattoos
Japanese Tattoo Sleeves
Japanese Tattoo Half Sleeves
Japanese Tattoo Leg Sleeves
Full Body Japanese Tattoos
Simple Japanese Tattoos
Japanese Tattoos for Women
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 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.
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.
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.