Monkeys or “Saru” in Japanese, have a rich (and sometimes confusing!) lineage in Japan’s folklore.
The traditions and mythologies of Japan are endlessly fascinating to people around the world, especially artists.
This is likely why many of the most popular tattoo designs have roots in Japan.
A lot of people tend to gravitate toward tattoos that are either menacing or beautiful – but Saru tattoos are neither.
Saru tattoos typically have a cheerful and even silly quality to them, which makes them a fun choice.
You’ll often see lighthearted ink on a tattoo collector because it is less about the meaning of the design and more about the experience of getting it.
That said, there’s no shortage of meaning behind the Saru tattoo, so it may be a good idea to research these prankster deities before inviting their monkey business into your life.
Where Does the Saru Character Come From?
As with many of the characters who pop up in Japanese folklore, the Saru we know and love today is a culmination of a few ancient elements.
The Japanese absorbed some of the Chinese characters for “monkey” for their own spelling of the word.
The Chinese Shinto belief in the monkey god or monkey king named Sun Wukong was also incorporated into Monkey worship in Japan, which had already been blended with Buddhist principles by that point.
In Japan, Saru were most popular as deities in the Edo period.
Though they have lost some popularity in Japan since then, you will still see monkey statues in temples, sometimes even between pillars to suggest the monkey is holding them up!
It was common in Eastern religions for one to have an influence on the other.
Though it is sometimes debated, even China’s Sun Wukong appears to be influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
Why are there Saru Masks?
Most Saru tattoos are of Saru masks.
In Japanese tattoo art, masks are a recurrent theme.
People may wear them to celebrate a festival, perform a ritual, or perform in a theatrical production.
The most commonly referenced form of Japanese theatre is Noh theatre, but Saru is part of its companion genre: Kyogen.
In its original incarnation, Noh theatre could go on for quite some time.
Due to the dramatic nature of the plays, acts would be broken up by short comedic pieces called Kyogen.
This is where our friend Saru came about.
The wooden Saru mask was worn in Kyogen theatre, which was often a satirical piece making light of art itself.
Collectively, Noh and Kyogen were known as Sarugaku, and the actors were called by the same name.
Have you ever heard someone say something to the effect of “I’m not going to perform for you like a monkey?”
This may come from the fact that, at one point, all actors were referred to as monkeys!
As the years went on, a night at the theatre became a more noble outing.
With royals and diplomats coming to the theater, the term Sarugaku felt inappropriate.
The term was then changed to Nohgaku for an air of class and sophistication.
Nevertheless, the Saru mask itself stuck around as a comedic character.
What do Saru Represent?
Monkey gods in any culture are a bit tricky to understand, but they would like it that way!
One universal trait of the monkey is their mischievousness.
One one hand, the monkey is a cheeky prankster and at times arrogant.
They can be competitive and hungry for recognition.
They have all the tools to achieve their dreams, but are easily distracted.
On the other hand, they are considered to be deeply spiritual.
The Chinese figure Sun Wukong translates to “The Great Sage Equalling Heaven.”
He would often act as something of a bodyguard to the Buddha, and was a devout student of his teachings.
He also has shape-shifting abilities and can ward off demons.
Also, because there are many monkeys who dwell in the mountains in Japan, they are often thought of as earthly messengers for the gods who reside there.
The curious mix of human ego and divine devotion make monkeys perfect metaphors for the humans they are already similar to.
One phrase you may be familiar with is “tame your monkey mind,” or the more western version: “There’s a monkey on my back!”
In Buddhism, one of the keys to enlightenment is to tame your monkey mind, but what does that really mean?
The purpose of meditation is not to block out your thoughts, but to observe them.
On any given day you have thousands of thoughts, all usually revolving around one or two subjects.
Buddha likened this to a monkey swinging from vine to vine.
Sounds like a fun time, but it can be exhausting for your mind to swing from thought to thought, especially when those thoughts are anxiety based.
The concept is to pay attention to your inner monkey so that it will feel listened to and quiet down.
In this teaching, the divinity of the monkey starts to make sense.
To overcome your human basic qualities in order to quiet the mind is an enlightened feat!
What Do Saru Mask Tattoos Mean?
Saru mask tattoos can be done in different styles, but are usually done in an Old School tattoo style or traditional way.
They may represent your devotion to the monkey god, your desire to overcome the monkey mind, or your trickster spirit!
Saru Tattoo Ideas
It seems there are many cultural beliefs around monkeys or Saru.
What are yours?
Take a look at our Saru tattoo gallery to see if any designs jump out at you!