Tengu Mask Tattoos
Of all the spirits, gods, creatures and demons a Japanese tattoo (Irezumi) can be inspired by, the Tengu mask has the most faces.
Typically, popular Irezumi images can be linked back to a single legend, piece of folk lore, or part of either Buddhist or Shinto practice.
Tengu however, are a trickier character to follow.
This may be fitting as it does seem the Tengu is something of a shapeshifting trickster, no matter how you look at it.
So, why would someone get a Tengu mask tattoo?
Are Tengu mask tattoos popular?
Let’s take a short trip through Tengu’s origins, and how we all came to know this part dog, part god, part bird, part star, part emoji character of Japanese origins.
Tengu Mask Tattoo Meaning
Tengu has roots in China and Japan, religion and folklore, Buddhism and Shintoism, theatre and festivals.
Tengu was described in a Chinese text as far back as 1791.
In literature, it is described as a shooting star or comet with dog like features and a beak.
It was said that, wherever the Tengu lands, it makes a noise like thunder and brings war to the area.
It is also mentioned in the Japanese Nihon Shoki, a collection of myths and origin stories.
The book begins with a creation myth, and in chapter 23 a Buddhist priest spots a shooting star in the sky.
The star is so large, he refers to it as a “heavenly dog.”
Not long after the Tengu sighting, a military uprising takes place.
Because of its flight abilities, Tengu has also been seen as a bird of prey.
In some early depictions, Tengu has a crow’s beak rather than the long red nose it appears with today.
In a typical Tengu mask tattoo, the image will be a red face with black facial hair and a slightly menacing grin.
Where does Tengu’s Long Red Nose Come From?
One of Tengu’s main characteristics is his abilities as a shape-shifter.
In some legends, he is an impish character.
In these stories he is a harmless trickster just out for some mischievous fun.
In both Shinto and Buddhist origin stories, Tengu lives in the mountains.
His favorite form to take on for a bit of cheeky fun is that of an old mountain hermit or monk known as Yamabushi.
Eventually, Tengu shapeshifted into this man so many times he began to take on more human features.
Which is why we see the familiar red faced man in Tengu mask tattoos today.
Trickster Tengu: Friend or Foe?
Tengu is seen as a trickster in every tale, it is said that “everything strange and mysterious is owned to Tengu.”
In some stories he is known for causing fires and possessing illiterate people, confusing everyone when they began to write Kanji.
Tengu’s power over people tends to change with each story.
Sometimes he is known as a harmless trickster just out for a giggle.
In these stories even if his intent is malicious, he is easily defeated.
In this context he is a bit of a dopey character and easily confused by humans.
In one such story, Tengu appears in a tree as a Buddha surrounded by beautiful light and cascading flowers.
Though the site was dazzling, a clever minister caught on to Tengu’s trickier and simply sat staring at the tree for an hour.
Eventually, the Tengu cannot hold onto the illusion and falls out of the tree.
Other times, he is a little less goofy and a lot more destructive.
In these tales, Tengu is hell bent on distracting Buddhist monks from enlightenment.
To try and knock someone off their path, he may try any number of things.
Tengu may tempt a Buddhist monk with promises of money, fame or fortune.
Other times he may possess a beautiful woman and try to seduce a chaste holy man.
Though Tengu is sometimes known as an enemy to Buddhism, he is widely regarded today as a protector and friend to the faith.
Over time, Tengu became known as someone who disliked arrogance and fakery of any sort.
His tricks then were less about meddling with holy people for no reason, and more about trying to expose those with dishonest or dishonorable intentions.
Tengu Mask in Noh Theater
The Tengu mask most common in Tengu tattoos has its roots in dramatic Noh theatre productions and more lighthearted Kyogen performances.
Here, Tengu is portrayed as his usual trickster self with supernatural powers, but he is also known as a patron of martial arts and skilled warrior.
Tengu Mask at Festivals
A person might wear a Tengu mask at a Shinto festival as a way to scare off bad spirits and bring good luck to the wearer.
Tengu Mask as an Emoji
The Tengu mask with its distinct long red nose and black facial hair, made its way into modern pop culture as an emoji.
Originally the emoji was largely looked over, sometimes used as a symbol of trickery.
However, the internet was suddenly very interested in our goblin-like friend in 2018- when Tengu became a queer sex symbol.
There is a Japanese art form known as a “Shunga Woodblock Print” wherein erotic and sensual scenes are portrayed, some more innocent than others.
These prints are hundreds of years old, but can be very explicit in nature.
One cool thing about these prints is that same sex couples appear just as often as heterosexual pairings.
In one Shunga print, a woman is seen pleasuring her female partner with Tengu’s long red nose!
There goes Tengu, shape shifting once again.
This endeared many Millennials to the image of Tengu.
Common Themes in Tengu Mask Tattoos
Tengu is not a particularly feminine or beautiful image, he is meant to be more striking and a touch aggressive in some cases.
You will often see a Tengu mask stand alone as an image in a tattoo without much embellishment.
Usually it is a red face with a long nose and black facial hair, but it can also have white facial hair or other colour accents in some cases.
How to choose your Tengu Mask Tattoo
Because Tengu is a figure with so many interpretations and so much history- do your research!
You may decide from there that you want a Tengu mask, or Tengu himself involved in one of his tricks.
Just be sure you know the backstory before making that commitment.
Tengu Mask Tattoo Ideas
Tengu is a fun, if a little confusing, figure with many stories and interpretations behind him.
Can you relate to this beguiling trickster?
Take a look at our gallery for some inspiration.
For more Yōkai tattoos go to: