Nue Tattoo

30 Nue Tattoos: History, Meanings & Main Themes

Nue tattoos are incredibly striking and, though the design is recognizable, it can be a more rare choice than some other Irezumi staples.

Nue Tattoos

Nue tattoos are incredibly striking and, though the design is recognizable, it can be a more rare choice than some other Irezumi staples.

Japanese imagery is such a popular point of inspiration for so many tattoo artists.

It’s not hard to see why people are fascinated with Japanese culture.

Nue Tattoo

Many of the mystical beasts we see represented in Japanese tattoo art, or “Irezumi” are depicted all over Japan as statues, festival masks, even jewelry and trinkets in some cases.

Japan has been known throughout history for its legendary monsters and beautiful art, so the two together make for some bad-ass designs.

Let’s take a look at a lesser-known (but ultimately very terrifying) monster, the Nue.

What is the Nue?

The monsters, creatures, and spirits in Japan are all from different origins.

Some may be the stuff of myth and legend, others are essential to the Shinto religion- second only to Buddhism in terms of practitioners in Japan.

As for the Nue- these monsters belong to a folk legend.

Nue is a rare figure compared to other mystical creatures but is depicted on wood blocks during Japan’s Edo period.

Nue Tattoo

Though Nue pops up sporadically in different texts, it is best known for its appearance in The Tale of Heike.

The Tale of Heike is an epic story, similar to Homer’s Iliad, that deals with the major players in the Genpai War at the end of the 12th century.

The text was written before the year 1330, and cannot be traced to a single author.

The book is a compilation of anecdotal accounts, passed down orally until that point.

This is not unusual in the world of epic story telling.

Nue Tattoo

Nue comes in during a tale of two samurai who are called to help the Emperor.

The Emperor in this story has been having some strange nights.

A dark cloud appears over his palace, and horrible monstrous sounds come from inside it.

Naturally, this mysterious cloud has a negative effect on the Emperor’s sleep.

He becomes sick, and is plagued with terrifying nightmares.

After consulting spiritual advisors and doctors, all to no avail, the palace asks the two samurai to slay whatever is in the cloud.

Nue Tattoo

They sling an arrow into the cloud, and a ghastly monster emerges from the smoke.

This is our friend Nue.

The Nue have the face of a monkey, the legs of a tiger, the tail of a snake, and the body of a Tanuki.

The Tanuki is a “raccoon dog” native to Japan. What a terrifying combination!

Luckily, the Samurai are able to slay the beast with a final blow from a sword, and the Emperor makes a recovery.

Common Themes in Nue Tattoos

Naturally, due to its epic backstory and crazy combination of features, Nue is a natural for those who want a striking, original tattoo design.

You may see Nue portrayed in many creative ways.

Most people choose Japanese style art for this tattoo, but there are those artists who have taken it into a realistic or New School tattoo style.

Nue is often chosen for a back-piece, as many designs depict elements from The Tale of Heike to contextualize the beast.

Nue Tattoo

This can make for a lot of details, which means you’ll need a lot of skin real estate to fit everything in!

You may see Nue depicted in a black cloud of smoke, sometimes with lightning bolts all around.

Others choose to portray the moment Nue was slain by the Samurai.

Nue Tattoo

There are those who choose to let Nue take center stage, and tattoo the monster on its own in all its glory.

Even then, the monster is typically surrounded by some black smoke or colorful accents.

Symbolism in Nue Tattoos

Because Nue is a creature that brings misfortune and sadness, it may seem confusing that people would want a tattoo of this figure.

But then, think of the story.

The Emperor is experiencing poor health and nightmares, and he needs someone to slay this demonic creature so he can get better.

Nue Tattoo

Nue tattoos could be a great symbol of mental health struggles- slaying one’s personal demons.

It can be a great reminder that depression or illness is not your fault, they are a force that exists outside of you, and it is possible to overcome them.

Others may want to signal to anyone seeing the tattoo that they are not one to be messed with.

If someone personally identifies with this unpleasant creature, you’d better hope not to get on their bad side.

How to Choose Your Nue Tattoo

Why did you choose this image and what does it mean to you?

Think about where you’re at in life and how you’d like to represent that.

Are you going through a tough time, but know you’ll persevere in the end, or are you doing so well that you’ve become a nightmare for your competition?

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