No other style of tattoo combines culture and tradition better than Japanese tattoos. This style of tattoo has a history dating back to 10,000 BCE-300 CE, the Jomon Period. Archeologists found evidence of Japanese style tattoos on clay figurines, and historians also point to its reference in an ancient Chinese text. The tattoos were mostly of fish and shells, which were used as protection symbols as well as decorative designs.
Today, the skin art aficionado has more options on motif. Your Japanese tattoo doesn’t need to be limited to the common drawings of:
- Koi fish
Now, when you go into a tattoo shop, do you just say you want some Japanese tattoo or do you make like a know-it-all and say you want “irezumi”?
What is the Japanese Style of Tattooing Called?
The general term for Japanese tattoos is “irezumi,” which is Japanese for the word “tattoo.” The better term to use for a Japanese style of tattooing is “Tebori,” which means hand carved. Tebori is a traditional way of tattooing in Japan wherein the artist uses bamboo sticks with needles attached at the end. The needle is usually fixed using silk strings, but some carvers may use materials.
Tebori is done by moving the needle on the skin back and forth. This traditional method of Japanese tattooing is generally longer; how long it lasts will depend on the scale and type of tattoo you picked. If you chose to go with a massive samurai tattoo on your back, you may spend more time on the table.
Is Tebori painful?
Although this is a stick and poke method (if you’ve been poked with a stick — multiple times, you’ll know that shit’s not pleasant), Tebori is considered less painful than other similar methods that use a hammer and a needle. But one person’s pain threshold isn’t the same as another’s. If you can take some “poking” or you’re a bit of a badass, you can take this traditional Japanese tattoo method.
Japanese tattoos aren’t unique simply by their method but also for their composition. Much like neo traditional tattoo, traditional Japanese tattoo has visual impact. You’ll notice it uses high contrast coupled with strong line work. Illustrations depict movement through dynamic shapes and positions. And with the background that compliments and a foreground that contrasts, every Japanese style tattoo you’ll see will bold and striking.
But which tattoo would be a good pick?
Japanese Tattoo Subjects
Nothing wrong with picking the typical Japanese ink, like a dragon tattoo, a beautiful geisha, or some samurai who’s face got really smashed with some killer sword. But there is more to this type of tattoo than the common symbols of its tradition and culture.
In Japan, they have what’s called a “kirin” instead of a unicorn. The fabled creature has the body of a deer but the scales of a dragon. If a Japanese dragon isn’t enough to represent your ink, the magnificent beastly kirin should do it.
Other mythical creatures worthy of looking at are the Japanese phoenix tattoo; the badass samurai crab, also called heikagani, which represents honor and defiance and the foo dog, usually inked in pairs and symbolizes harmony and balance.
The Japanese Gods
Japan has several gods, one of them is a terrifying looking buddha who’s from a sect of Buddhism called Shingon. Your options include the Raijin, like Thor, this demon god controls thunder, who’s always at odds with the god of wind, Fujin, who happens to be his brother. There’s also Ebisu, who is one of the Seven Lucky Gods
Japanese Mask Tattoos
Several types of Japanese masks can work as a killer tattoo, on your arm, neck, back, calves or even your hand. Some options include the Buddist-Hindu demon called Oni mask (said to ward off evil spirits oddly enough), the playful monkey mask called saru and the weird namahage mask, an evil version of Santa Claus.
But the most famous mask has to be the Hannya mask. Its devil horns, wide mouth and sad eyes supposedly depict a jealous demon woman. So this mask symbolizes one. But it also represents wisdom and knowledge.
Another Japanese style tattoo may be controversial, but you can’t not talk about irezumi without covering the yakuza.
Could you get a yakuza tattoo?
What is a Yakuza Tattoo?
A yakuza tattoo is a full body tattoo depicting imagery and symbolism relevant to the country’s culture, history and religion.
The Yakuza are a collection of Japanese mafia, which evolved from the Edo Period. Criminals in 1603 to 1868 were tattooed by officials, usually on foreheads and arms; what were punishment tattoos then are what you’d consider prison tattoos now. But instead of the shame these markings intended to bring, the criminals worked with what they’d been branded with. They started adding to their prison tatt, using it for their traditions and telling tales with their tattoo.
When the Yakuza grew its influence and in numbers, tattoos were outlawed. Their association with the underworld made them undesirable for authorities. Although tattoos aren’t illegal in modern Japan, Yakuza members aren’t exactly announcing their membership. This partly explains the hidden aspect to a yakuza tattoo.
The elaborate body art stops at the neck and elbows because yakuza tattoos aren’t meant to be seen. They symbolize allegiance and commitment to the Yakuza, tell the story of the person and indicate the level of success a member has reached. Full body ink isn’t cheap.
So should you get one as a “law abiding” citizen and a foreigner?
It’s OK to get a yakuza tattoo if you stick to the traditions the group still follow: that your ink should never be seen, for starters. As one Tebori tattooist, Horiyoshi says, tattoos are appreciated in Japan when they’re not visible.
Yakuza tattoos are a rite of passage, and not to be taken lightly. Much like most tattoos, every ink tells a story and carries deep meaning. So don’t just turn to this style because it seems “fashionable.” If all that seems like it’s too big of a commitment, you’ve got other options for your Japanese style tattoo.