The Japanese Traditional Tattoo
The Japanese Dragon
Dragons are mythical creatures which have appeared across cultures worldwide, but the Japanese look at this beast in a different manner than most western civilizations. Where other nations saw the dragon to be a sign of strength and ferocity, the Japanese viewed these creatures to be generous, caring beings. They were thought of as water gods, able to control rainfall and other bodies of water. These powerful and intelligent deities were said to protect people from unknown dangers. A Japanese dragon tattoo is often representative of wisdom and is one of the most popular elements of the Traditional Japanese Tattoo.
The Japanese Koi Fish
In Japanese lore, the Koi fish would strive to swim upstream in the Yellow River. It was believed that, if they achieved the journey, they would reach the dragon’s gate—becoming a dragon themselves. This level of determination led the Japanese to begin using the Koi fish as a symbol of perseverance and self-improvement. In tattooing, the Koi was often thought to protect the wearer against hardships in life. Colors also add to the meaning of the Koi. A black Koi signifies having overcome a severe hardship in life whereas a red Koi displays power, bravery, and love.
Floral designs are extremely popular in Japanese Tattoo designs. Picked to signify key moments in a person’s life, each flower embodies its own unique meaning. Cherry Blossoms, a favored floral motif, represent the beauty and fragility of life. A lotus depicts purity— personifying truth, harmony, and spiritual awakening. On the other hand, a peony symbolizes good fortune, prosperity, and wealth and a chrysanthemum stand for perfection and happiness. In Traditional Japanese Tattoo, the floral element is often featured with another component. For example, a tiger and bamboo are often paired together whereas a Hannya mask and cherry blossoms seem to frequently appear in pairs.
The Japanese Fu (Foo) Dog
A popular feature in Traditional Japanese Tattoos, the Fu Dog is a mythical lion-like being believed to watch over the sacred temples. These guardians appear as a mix between a dog and a lion and are generally seen in pairs across historical references. In tattoo form, these bold creatures are believed to bring good fortune and protect one from evil. Typically seen on men, these images are best featured on the upper arm. When considering this element for your own tattoos, keep in mind that these are often elaborate, colorful, detailed and require a large amount of space to maintain accurate detailing.
The Japanese Snake
If you’ve ever watched a few episodes of Ink Master, you’re bound to have seen a Traditional Japanese Tattoo of a snake. This element is featured often in this specific style of tattooing, although its meanings are a little more fluid than some other Japanese concepts. In some cases, the snake represents protection from illness, disaster, and bad fortune. Other times the snake is demonstrative of wisdom and protection, protecting its wearer from bad decisions. Some even believed it personified regeneration and healing, as it was frequently used in Japanese medicinal practices. Despite all themes, the snake is a constant reminder of shedding one’s skin.
The Traditional Japanese Tattoo is ripe with history. This impressive style of body art has been around since 5,000 BC. Once a revered style of body decoration, this beautiful style of tattooing was stamped out by harsh governmental rule and driven underground into the cold world of outcasts, criminals, and gangs. While this should have been the end of the Japanese Tattoo, it actually began to flourish. The arts became a focus for the Japanese culture in the eighteenth century and tattoo artists began to replicate the designs featured in the Japanese woodblock prints of the era.
During this time period, the Japanese culture was one of religious traditions and sacred rituals. Naturally, these themes intertwined and played a part in their illustrative tattoo layouts. Japanese tattoo designs generally featured one design or theme stretching across a large space of the body, creating a single scene. These designs were carefully picked out and planned well in advance, as each element held a specific, sacred meaning. For example, a Fu Dog (the Japanese guardian lion) represented stability in health and finance whereas Koi fish represented the ability to flow through the hardships of life as they swim in water. These were not images that were to be taken lightly.
As the Japanese ports began to open to trading companies worldwide, this historic tattoo style became highly coveted by sailors, soldiers, and tradesmen. In fact, the Traditional Japanese Tattoo heavily influenced the American Traditional Tattoo style made famous by Sailor Jerry—one of the most recognized styles of the tattoo industry today. Sailor Jerry actually became the first Western tattoo artist to regularly communicate with the Japanese tattoo masters, learning their techniques firsthand. He developed his own distinctive style, blending Japanese and American cultures into one beautiful tattoo style that is still prevalent to this very day.
If you’ve ever seen a tattoo of a koi fish or a fierce samurai warrior wielding a katana, then you’re familiar with Traditional Japanese Tattoos. These incredible designs have been prevalent in the Japanese culture for eons. In fact, we know that Japanese Tattoo has been around since the early days of the country’s lineage due in part to primitive clay figurines which were uncovered in archaic tombs by archeologists. These neat little statuettes depicted people of Japanese heredity decorated with early forms of Japanese tattoo designs and represented the living loved ones of the deceased accompanying them on their journey to the darkness of death.
The first written report of Japanese tattooing actually appears in China in 297 AD. Men of all ages were documented as having ornately tattooed faces and bodies. The Chinese invaders, however, frowned upon the practice—believing it barbaric. As the Chinese continued to visit Japan, the governmental system of the time began to adopt their negative attitudes toward body art, transitioning it to a method of punishment in the seventh century. This disapproving attitude toward tattooing continued up to the seventeenth century, when suddenly decorative tattooing began to rise in popularity. Pledges of love, religious vows, and incantations became all the rage across the classes.
In the eighteenth century, pictorial tattooing gained favor again—thanks to the artisan culture of the Edo (Tokyo) society. A flourishing society of artistic heights, the Edo culture encased everything from Kabuki Theater to Sumo Wrestling and was brimming with writers, artists, and publishers. Publishers, of course, turned to the artists to create illustrations for their playbills, novels, and advertisements and Japanese wood block prints were born. These wood block prints, created by many tattoo artists, became a common theme in decorative tattooing of the era… and thus, Traditional Japanese Tattooing as we know it was born.
It was around this time that the Yakuza began to rise to power. These individuals, recruited from the criminals and outcasts flocking to Edo at the time, looked upon themselves to be the strongest in their community—and thus, their ability to withstand pain was a sign of their courage and strength. They began to tattoo large areas of their bodies with bold, illustrative designs representative of their culture. In many cases, Yakuza members wore entire tattooed body suits.
In the 1850s, Japan’s ports were opened to trade with America and other countries, forever altering their isolated culture of the time. While tattooing was still heavily reserved for outlaws, new regulations of the era allowed Japanese tattoo artists to tattoo the foreign sailors coming to port. These new edicts allowed the Japanese style tattoos to spread their way across the world—creating a universal obsession with this distinctive form of body art.
Japanese tattoo images are beautifully illustrative. They feature bold outlines, unique use of negative space, and a simple, flattened perspective. While generally colorful in design, some Japanese Tattoo designs are completed in a black and grey format. When comparing Traditional Japanese Tattoo styles to the traditional work of the Western world, there is a large concept difference in the layout. These intricate designs often feature one design or theme which stretches across a large space of the body—such as a piece wrapping up one arm, across the entire back, and down onto the other arm. They create full scenes, rather than individual images. While the bodysuits of the Yakuza are still a preferred (and highly respected) style of this form of tattooing, today it can be mostly seen in Japanese Sleeve tattoos.