The Infamous Yakuza Tattoo
The Yakuza are a collection of feared Japanese mafia groups with a history dating back to at least the 19th century.
Like most gangs, they live a life of crime.
Unlike most gangs, they inspired the unique Yakuza tattoo style that persists today for members and nonmembers alike.
The Yakuza gangs most likely originated from groups of gamblers or con artists, or even a band of good samaritans who were fighting against the samurais employed by the government.
The name Yakuza came from the name of a bad hand in an old card game these groups of criminals and lower caste members would play.
Metaphorically, this referred to how they were dealt a bad hand in life with being part of the lowest part of society.
Today, they dress like regular Japanese businessmen and have expanded into the financial world in addition to their affiliations.
They cover their tattoos with their clothes because only one percent of Japanese citizens have tattoos and they are still highly stigmatized in their culture.
What is a Yakuza Tattoo?
The Yakuza’s tattoos are meaningful to the specific person and what they want to show to the world.
For example, samurai Yakuza tattoos are popular because they show that the individual is a warrior who does not let fear consume them and whose decisions are noble.
Yakuza tattoos can be colorful or complicated black outlines.
They typically cover the entire body from the shoulders down to the legs, called a Yakuza bodysuit.
Focused on Japanese mythology and the history of the Yakuza, these Japanese tattoos show the person’s identity to the world.
The Yakuza have many sources of inspiration for their tattoos.
One such source of inspiration is woodblock prints dating back hundreds of years, which were always used as the basis of inspiration for large and colorful tattoos.
Back in the day, the tattoo artist often was the woodblock artist themselves, and they used the same principles used with woodblock art: the artist would etch and gouge designs into the client’s skin using nara ink.
Nara ink changes to a blue-green color when oxidized under the skin.
In addition, the story Suikoden, a tale about heroic men and bravery, was used as a basis for dragons, tigers, and flowers to be used as Yakuza tattoos.
The Yakuza believed more pain in the tattoo and a larger tattoo meant that the member had a higher commitment to the group.
This is why you often see Yakuza tattoos covering the entire body.
The Yakuza would even have people watch as they were tattooed, as part of a ritualistic process.
However, they hide their artwork when in public with even high-necked shirts and often only show off their tattoos to other Yakuza members.
Yakuza Tattoo History
For an underground group, we know a surprising amount about the origins.
As with most underground groups their stories are considered confidential.
However, we have found a good amount of information about the tales of their origin and history up until the present day.
In Japan, there was a strict caste system enforced by the shogunite which put down those in the burakumin class the worst.
Meaning “hamlet/village people,” the burakumin were the lowest of the low.
Some were criminals, while others worked jobs that no one else wanted to work in Japanese society at the time.
They were the untouchables and had to bear extreme discrimination from the government and society.
They were forced to stick together in order to survive.
During the mid-Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868), there were two main groups of burakumin, both low ranking in society, that would most likely form the basis of the early Yakuza.
The tekiya were a group who stole or scammed goods and resold them, and the bakuto operated illegal gambling operations.
From the bakuto came the tradition of cutting off the first joint of the little finger in order to punish a group member for doing something wrong.
This was done in order to instill fear and loyalty towards the boss.
Also, if a Yakuza member decided they wanted to leave the gang for whatever reason, they would suffer losing their little finger and therefore always be branded as a former Yakuza member.
During this time, people from the lower castes of society were developing their own tattoos, called irezumi, which are the basis for today’s Japanese decorative tattoos.
This was a revolutionary idea because these groups were taking punishment tattoos (often put on people’s foreheads and limbs) meant for outlaws, and reinventing their usage into a way to express themselves.
These criminal tattoos were placed in noticeable places by the government for each criminal, completely ostracizing that person, and stopping any business from hiring them.
Around this time, the Yakuza was becoming a known group, and tattoos were outlawed in Japan and only criminals or outlaws had tattoos.
Therefore, the Yakuza were embracing their own heritage and revolutionary rebelling against society with their tattooed bodies.
Yakuza culture grew in huge proportions despite the crackdowns, and they existed in the underground, tattooing themselves and learning how to better live in a society that didn’t put them in its good favors.
The Yazuka Today
In modern-day Japan, the Yakuza extort, smuggle, blackmail, run prostitution rings, engage in drug trafficking, run restaurants and bars, and many other businesses in Japan.
They are viewed by many as Robin Hood’s, or a noble group as divine as the samurai were.
They are seen as running their gangs for protection and survival, by legal and illegal means, rather than having the exclusive purpose to go out and hurt people.
They are often glorified with dignity and, in a sense, justice.
For example, the leader of the Yamaguchi Gumi, one of the most powerful Yazuka groups today, actually spoke to a newspaper and described his sect of the Yakuza as essentially a charitable entity that exists to help Japanese citizens when they are in trouble.
Popularity and Stigma of Tattoos in Japan
Many people in the merchant class, dockworkers, construction workers, and anyone in a tough field of work started getting tattoos in Japan when the Yakuza were first being formed.
It became the mark of the underclass.
However, there was still a lot of stigma against it because it was still seen as a label for criminals and an act that was against the beliefs of Confucianism.
In the late year of 1948, the ban against tattoos was lifted in Japan, but there was still an association in Japan of tattoos with criminal activity and the Yakuza.
It is common for those who have tattoos in Japan to get them on the upper limb so it is not seen when wearing short sleeves, or on the chest, back, or upper legs.
Tattoos are still highly stigmatized in Japanese society.
Even today, many Japanese places of business still discriminate against anyone with visible tattoos and won’t give a job to someone with tattoos because they are still seen as being criminals or part of the Yakuza.
Yakuza Tattoo Aesthetics
Yakuza tattoo styles have been copied by many who want to evoke the same attitude and illicit nature of the Yakuza.
The aesthetics of the Yakuza tattoos are in color or mostly black ink depending on the tattoo.
They typically have a strong message of power.
They are fierce tattoos that aren’t for the faint-hearted.
Let’s look at some of the main themes of Yakuza tattoos:
Main Themes in Yakuza Tattoos
One main theme of Yakuza tattoos is that they often cover the entire body.
From the bottom of the neck down to the ankles (and including the rear), Yakuza tattoos are known for being both bold and large.
Another main concept of Yakuza tattoos is the horishi artist which creates irezumi tattoos.
When you walk into a horishi artist’s space, it can look more like a library than what you would expect from a tattoo shop.
Irezumi tattoos are an intricate part of Japanese culture and refined art.
Another big theme in Yakuza tattoos is the use of specific Japanese symbols with important meanings to Yakuza tattoo culture.
Here are some of these symbols with their meanings:
Yakuza Dragon Tattoo Meaning
The dragon is the most popular design element added to irezumi tattoos.
Dragons are magical creatures with great power that no one can explain.
They are also cool-looking and may make someone fear you if you have a dragon tattoo.
Since in Japanese culture, dragons are rulers of the sky, they are typically placed near the top of the body in Yakuza culture.
Japanese dragon tattoos symbolize the fight between heaven and the Earth, and this signifies great strength and patience because this battle never truly ends and never has a winner or a loser.
Yakuza Tiger Tattoo Meaning
Tigers, unlike dragons, are seen as rulers of the Earth.
Therefore, their typical Yakuza placement for a Japanese tiger tattoo is on the lower portion of the body.
Tiger tattoos also need to be facing upwards, especially if there is a dragon above them.
This is because they believe the tiger provides guidance in the afterlife as well as strength and perseverance.
They are looking to the sky from the underworld and giving support to those who need it.
Another common Yakuza tattoo is of a dragon fighting a tiger, which represents the fight between good and evil.
Yakuza Cherry Blossom Tattoo Meaning
Once the sign of kamikaze pilots, the cherry blossom represents how life is fleeting and transformative.
Its Yakuza meaning is that life is short, and you should live it right while you have time.
It is also a symbol of the samurai and represents an aptitude towards wealth and overall prosperity.
Yakuza Samurai Tattoo Meaning
The Yakuza often adopt samurai-like rituals and admire their courage and Robbin-Hood-like goals.
Therefore, they often get samurai tattoos on their bodies to represent the importance of having a code of honor (although they were enemies with the samurai early on in history).
This tattoo represents courage, loyalty to the Yakuza, and pride in your own code of conduct.
Yakuza Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning
A common Yakuza tattoo, the koi fish represents good luck and fortune in life.
In an old Japanese legend, the koi fish was able to swim over a waterfall.
Therefore, it also symbolizes great strength and perseverance in the goals you are working towards in life.
It also symbolizes motivation to get up that waterfall, whatever that symbolizes to you, and to not be afraid to pursue your dreams.
Overall, koi fish tattoo is completely Yakuza because it shows that you have overcome great obstacles and are ready for the next challenge.
Yakuza Phoenix Tattoo Meaning
The Phoenix is another Yazuka tattoo symbol, which means rebirth and triumph over struggles in life.
The story of this mythological creature is the epitome of starting fresh, which could mean starting new with the Yakuza, or for those who are Yakuza admirers, it could mean starting a new path in life and metaphorically burning the old one to ashes.
Yakuza Snake Tattoo Meaning
The Yakuza snake tattoo is often a large back or chest piece, and it symbolizes both negative aspects such as bad luck and poor health and positive characteristics such as power and wisdom.
For the Yakuza, this tattoo could very well mean that there is a power that comes from going through bouts of bad luck and illness, and the power you achieve from these struggles can make you wise and mighty.
The Yakuza, much like the Italian mafia, formed groups long ago that are still here to stay.
Their unique pride in having tattooed bodies, but not showing their tattoos in public, makes the Yakuza tattoos an interesting part of Japanese culture.
People from around the world travel to Japan to get a tattoo from a horishi, or one of the many other styles of tattoo artists with different legendary apprenticeships from their tattoo masters.
You can have a taste of the Yakuza tattoo at your local tattoo shop if you choose a Yakuza symbol and follow the guidelines of body placement, however, it’s best to get one done that is using the stick-and-poke style in a shop that practices traditional Japanese tattooing.
Although we mentioned the ancient way of carving the ink into the client’s limb, for hundreds of years now Yakuza tattoo artists have been using metal needles (or bamboo if it’s old school), and hand poking ink into the client.
This ink is often homemade, and limited in its palette because the artists use ink types that have been passed down for generations.
I find different styles and concepts of tattoos very intriguing because not only are tattoos such as Yakuza tattoos a style but they are an entire belief system and cultural relic that has lasted for hundreds of years.
If you decide to honor their tradition, however, you choose to do it, you will be following a historic path of tattoo history.
Yakuza Tattoo FAQ
During the mid-Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868), there were two main groups of burakumin, both low ranking in society, that would most likely form the basis of the early Yakuza. During this time, people from the lower castes of society were developing their own tattoos, called irezumi, which are the basis for today’s Japanese decorative tattoos. This was a revolutionary idea because these groups were taking punishment tattoos (often put on people’s foreheads and limbs) meant for outlaws, and reinventing their usage into a way to express themselves. These criminal tattoos were placed in noticeable places by the government for each criminal, completely ostracizing that person, and stopping any business from hiring them. Around this time, the Yakuza was becoming a known group, and tattoos were outlawed in Japan and only criminals or outlaws had tattoos.
Therefore, the Yakuza were embracing their own heritage and revolutionary rebelling against society with their tattooed bodies. Today, they dress like regular Japanese businessmen and have expanded into the financial world in addition to their affiliations. They cover their tattoos with their clothes because only one percent of Japanese citizens have tattoos and they are still highly stigmatized in their culture.
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Alyssa Renee McCormack is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!