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Irezumi Explained: The Ancient Art of Japanese Tattooing

Japanese tattoos have become a popular tattoo style recognized all over the world. The eye-catching vibrant colors and bold designs perfectly depict the imagery of folklore, myths, culture, and beliefs.  

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While this traditional art style stirs up controversies in Japan, it has been widely recognized as a masterpiece that reflects passion and creativity. Various designs are used in creating this tattoo art, and different colors and symbols signify certain characteristics that make it even more meaningful.  

Let’s dig deeper into this amazing technique and find out some fascinating stories behind the designs. 

History of Traditional Japanese Tattoos 

The art of traditional Japanese tattoos is based on woodblock print dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In the mid-1700s, the classic ukiyo-e block prints were the popular art form, with designs ranging from folktales to faunas and floras. The woodblock carvers and tattoo artists are both called ‘horishi,’ which means ‘professional carver.’ 

It’s important to note that the perception of tattoos in Japan has varied over time. Historically, tattoos were also used by the Ainu people, the indigenous people of Japan, for spiritual and decorative purposes, not solely associated with criminality.

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Tattooed back
By Kusakabe Kimbei, public domain

Traditional Japanese tattoos are known as ‘Irezumi’, which literally translates to ‘insert ink’. It’s a technique in tattoo art inspired by folklore or culture and even common imageries such as dragons, flowers, koi fish, skulls, and phoenixes.  

There are different concepts and subjects in this style that have been popularized around the world but it’s also important to be aware that some designs can be deemed offensive as they may have religious or controversial historical origins. 

The association of tattoos and crimes goes back to 1720 in Japan when criminals were marked with Irezumi tattoos on their foreheads or arms as a punishment for crimes not considered violent. The markings or symbols varied on the crime and region. While this historical account happened a long time ago, the art of Irezumi still has a bad reputation in Japan. 

Furthermore, the association of tattoos with the Yakuza gang in Japan has worsened the image of this art form. As part of the criminal gang, the members covered their bodies with ink as a sign of pain, endurance, and loyalty to the group.  

The tradition of full-body tattoos among Yakuza members dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), much earlier than the 21st century. These tattoos were a symbol of courage and loyalty, and not solely for blending in.

Doing the Traditional Japanese Tattoo 

‘Horishi’, the Japanese tattoo artist, must practice Irezumi for years and even decades to master this tattoo art. Continuous practice is needed to perfectly execute the process. From the technique to perfecting the art designs is time-consuming and requires passion and a lot of patience

To do the traditional Japanese tattoo, a Horishi uses wooden handles and a needle with attached silk thread. A special ink called Nara ink, or ‘zumi’, is used to draw outlines and overall details.  

This process is painful and takes a lot of time to finish. The overall process can require hours or even some days to complete the tattoo art. This technique is indeed a masterpiece that will only be done by an expert Horishi. 

Traditional Japanese Tattoo Designs and Their Symbolisms 

A tattoo is a work of art, and art isn’t just for aesthetics, but also a reminder of a beautiful and meaningful life. The subject matter of art is probably the most important aspect of doing a tattoo. There are also a lot of designs to consider that can fit your preference and values, and here are some of them: 

1. Cat Tattoo: A Lucky Charm 

cat tattoo
Courtesy of

Often considered a symbol of good luck and wealth, a cat is an adorable lucky charm to have as a tattoo.  

Japan is also well-known for having cute animal-themed tourist spots, which shows how much the country values these lovely creatures.  

In fact, there’s a place called ‘Aoshima’, or cat island, which is overpopulated by cats that are taken care of by the local feline protection society. 

2. Cherry Blossom Tattoo: A Symbol of Impermanence of Life 

cherry blossom

Small and delicate, the cherry blossom is probably the most common flower used in Japanese designs and beautiful detail to add to tattoo art. The pink flowers bloom prettily, but not for too long.  

That’s why cherry blossoms are the perfect symbol of life that doesn’t last forever. Practicing Buddhism in Japan has imprinted the acceptance of impermanence in this life, which played a part in the appreciation of cherry blossoms as a symbol of life. 

3. Demon Tattoo: A Terrifying Devil 

demon tattoo

Depicted in Japanese folklore, ‘Oni’ is a type of demon in human form that’s definitely terrifying.  

Having this tattoo can intimidate others or serve as a warning not to mess with someone. This demon tattoo is also a reminder that evil deeds and injustices will be punished.  

A scary tattoo may not be appealing to some, but the details and colors of this art are truly exceptional. 

4. Dragon Tattoo: The Protector of Mankind 

red dragon tattoo
winged dragon tattoo

A powerful mythical creature, the dragon is not viewed as evil and greedy in Japan but rather as a protector of mankind. Choosing a dragon tattoo represents a life with blessings and wisdom, as dragons are believed to have the ability to control elements that benefit people.  

Different colors of the dragon also represent different traits—green for an association with nature, yellow for a noble social status, and black for a representation of wisdom. Red is also a striking color to choose for a bold and strong image. 

5. Foo Dog Tattoo: Protection from Evil 

foo dog tattoo
Courtesy of Deanna.

With lion features and pointed ears of a dog, foo dogs are known as the Chinese guardian lions, also called ‘shishi’ (lion) or ‘komainu’ (lion dog) in Japanese. This mythical creature can be seen in temples, palaces, tombs, and other important buildings as a guardian from evil.  

A male foo dog is depicted with one paw on a ball, which represents power over the world. On the other hand, a female foo dog is characterized by having a lion cub on her back which symbolizes the role of a mother in nurturing her child. 

Generally, foo dogs signify strength, courage, protection, and good fortune. Hence, having a foo dog as a tattoo subject inspires people. Just the idea of protection and good luck assures some people that there’s a great future ahead of them. 

6. Frog Tattoo: A Magnet of Wealth and Luck 

frog tattoo
Courtesy by Tonyduongtattoos.

Just like the cat tattoo, the frog tattoo is also a popular animal subject in traditional Japanese tattoos. Frogs aren’t just your simple amphibian. This animal is associated with wealth, good fortune, success in life, and prosperity. There are even tattoo designs that add gold coins to a frog tattoo in the hope of a brighter future and good luck. 

7. Crane Tattoo: For Peace and Hope

crane tattoo
Courtesy of Heather Cochran.

Also called ‘senbazuru’ in Japan, cranes are associated with bringing prosperity and peace. Some interesting legends also depict cranes as creatures that represent wisdom, good luck, and longevity.  

When choosing this subject as the main star of tattoo art, some details, including bold and enchanting colors, are added to improve the overall image and make it even more alluring. 

8. Snake Tattoo: For Healing and Protection 

snake tattoo

Snakes are known to be dangerous, and one can’t be helped but to have a negative first impression of these animals. However, like dragons, snakes are considered protectors and healers of the people. They’re even believed to be agents of healing and protection from illnesses.  

Such belief probably comes from the fact that snakes shed their skin, which also signifies regeneration and recovery. These ideas make snakes a perfect subject for traditional tattoo artwork. 

9. Wave Tattoo: A Representation of Life 

wave tattoo
Courtesy of

The wave design is common in making Japanese art-like tattoos. Just like a wave, this tattoo represents that life is a combination of ups and downs, and some things just come and go eventually.  

That’s why waves represent the changes you go through in life and how you become resilient while facing challenges. Waves can also be interpreted as an acceptance or a go-with-the-flow attitude, in which you accept situations that you don’t have any control over. 

10. Phoenix Tattoo: A Symbol of Rebirth 

phoenix tattoo

In Japanese culture, the phoenix is a mythical creature known as ‘Hou-ou.’ This bird represents justice and power and brings good fortune to people.  

In the mythological aspect, a phoenix is known for burning itself to ashes, but still being born once again through its ashes.  

This is mainly the reason why the phoenix is also associated with life and rebirth. With such belief, the phoenix has been one of the incredible designs chosen for a tattoo. 

Colors Used in Designing Traditional Japanese Tattoos 

The subject of art can be made even more meaningful and attractive when applied with various colors. In addition to the symbolisms of animals and other elements, colors also have some characteristics they represent. Let’s find out more about the meanings of each color used in tattoos. 

1. Bold and Mysterious Black 

Tattoos are commonly done with black or grey tones for a striking and bold impression. The intense shade of black is often associated with masculinity and other strong characteristics.  

However, depending on the design you’re going to choose; the meaning of the overall masterpiece can be more meaningful.  

If you choose a dragon in the color black, it represents wisdom and if you choose a black cat tattoo, it can offer protection from evil

2. Pure and Sacred White 

White represents purity, honesty, and peace. However, it can also signify mourning and death. Some interpretations consider the color white as a symbol of new beginnings in life.  

On the other hand, in the literal sense, white complements black and grey colors well. The contrast of colors can add more striking details to the tattoo artist and make it even more pleasing to look at. 

3. Bright and Warm Yellow 

Yellow is known for symbolizing happiness and prosperity. Like a ray of sunshine, this color makes a tattoo design brighter and more beautiful. In contrast, yellow is deemed as a color with a negative association.  

Despite that, the warmer tone of yellow, which is gold, is connected with power and gods. That’s why gold ornaments can be seen in temples and other sacred structures. 

4. Intense Crimson Red 

The color red is often associated with passion and intense emotions. It can be seen in different structures in Japan, like in the temples and even in the national flag. As red gives off a strong vibe, it’s believed to ward off evil and maintain peace. 

5. Other Bright Colors That Add More Life  

Green is associated with life, nature, and vitality. The rich blue color signifies acceptance and loyalty.  

Pink is known for being a feminine color that promotes beauty and power, while purple is mainly associated with royalties or those in power. Every color gives off different vibes and adds more meaningful symbolism to tattoo art. 

Wrapping Up 

The art of tattoos has been a worldwide trend, and the traditional Japanese technique has also garnered attention for its uniqueness.  

While the history of tattoos in Japan has been associated with crimes and other negative connotations, there’s no denying that the traditional Japanese tattoo is a masterpiece worthy of appreciation and recognition. 

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.