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Japanese tattoos have long been associated with the Yakuza, but Japanese tattoo traditions go way beyond criminality. Like many other world cultures the Japanese had a traditional and distinctive version of tattoo art.
The History of Japanese Tattoos
The history of Japanese tattoos goes back to 10,000 BCE. The woman of the Ainu people used tattoos to make themselves look like their goddess, so that demons (who caused diseases) would mistake them for the goddess and get scared. These tribal tattoos started at an early age with a small tattoo on the upper lip. When growing older this small tattoo was expanded.
From 300 BC to 300 AD tattoos were used for spiritual and social purposes. Just like in other tattoo cultures, they were an indicator of your social status.
From 300 AD on, tattoos were used in Japan to mark criminals. This practice is called bokukeior bokkei. Japan was the last country to stop marking criminals with tattoos (in 1870). People started covering up these marks of shame with more decorative tattoos and that's how the art started.
Tattooing in Japan reached its zenith in the 1800s, during the Edo period, a time when the power and influence of the common people was very much on the rise. One way in which people chose to use their new-found wealth was to celebrate their art and culture with tattoos. The beauty of the images created was considered a reward for enduring what was, at the time, a long and painful process.
Around 1870 the Japanese government outlawed tattoos in order to make a good impression on the Western world. As a result, Japanese tattoos went underground and became affiliated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
Tattooing in Japan was legalized again in 1945 by the occupying forces, but never really lost its association with crime. Even today people with tattoos are still banned from businesses like fitness centres, in an attempt to restrict the yakuza from entering their place.
Tattoos in Modern Japan
Nowadays tattoos are gaining popularity amongst the Japanese youth. They are not primarily interested in traditional irezumi though, they prefer the American style of tattooing and tribals. They are more interested in one-point tattoos, smaller tattoos on one part of the body that are usually done in one sitting.
The Western style of tattoos (which they call yobori, as opposed to wabori) is popular in Japan, especially the old school style like heart, skull and rose tattoos. Tattooing in Japan is also getting more attention among females than among males, something that used to be the opposite. They have become a fashion object.
Although tattoos are getting more popular in Japan, they still face resistance by the Japanese cultural code. That's why temporary tattoos enjoy a wider popularity than permanent tattoos over there.Read more about Japanese tattoo designs here.
Horimono or Irezumi
- Horimono: the Japanese word for "carving".
- Irezumi: means "insert ink".
Both words refer to the art of tattooing.
Japanese tattoo art was an offshoot of the distinctive woodblock prints, called ukiyo-e. Some of the wood carvers turned to tattooing as an adjunct to their artistic careers, others exchanged their carving-blades for tattoo needles full time as tattooing grew more popular in the 19th century. One of the most famous Japanese tattoo artists of that time, was Horiuno.
Irezumi has got its share of supporters in the West. Some travel to Japan to be tattooed by a Horishi in the Tebori way (by hand), a time-intensive, painful and very expensive undertaking. The traditional Japanese tattoo style is very detailed, what makes getting a Japanese tattoo time-consuming and expensive.
Tebori is the art of traditional Japanese hand tattooing (as opposed to Yobori, tattooing with a tattoo machine). Tattoo needles (larger than those in the West) are tied in a row to a bamboo stick. This tool rests on the thumb of the left hand, while it is pushed into the skin with the right hand.
The advantage of tebori is that it is possible to create gradations of tone that are hard to accomplish with a tattoo machine.
The Japanese word for traditional tattoo artist is Horishi.
- Hori: means trained artist.
- shi: means master.
Symbolism in Japanese Tattoos
Here are some images that are frequently used in Japanese style tattoos:
- The Phoenix: the Japanese phoenix is called Ho-Oo and resembles the Chinese phoenix. This mythical bird is a symbol of justice and fidelity. The phoenix represents the element fire and the female force.
- Dragons: the dragon is a recurring image in Japanese tattoo designs. Dragons represent the element wood and the male forces. The dragon and the phoenix are enemies and are often depicted together in Japanese art and tattoos. Read more about Japanese Dragons here.
- Animals: tigers, snakes, octopus, bird, butterfly, rabbit, frog, wolf
- Birds: crane bird, owl
- Plants: tree, flower, cherry blossom, lotus, bamboo, maple leaves, peonies
- Religious images: Buddhas and Buddhistic deities
- For backgrounds: clouds, water and waves are recurring
- Geisha, samurai
- The Japanese sun
- Anime tattoos
Kanji Tattoos - Japanese Tattoo Symbols
Not done in Japan, but a trend in the West: kanji tattoos, it's what Pink, Britney Spears and Mel C have in common.
Japanese tattoo symbols are popular in America and Europe and It’s easy to see why: kanji are understated, yet impactful – both compact and elegant, a kanji tattoo is the perfect way to make an artistic statement that is both modern and meaningful.
The Japanese writing system has 3 sorts of script:
- Kanji: Japanese kanji are characters with a Chinese origin. Kanji characters are used for nouns (words like "peace" or "perseverance"). Here's an example of kanji characters, meaning "morning":
- Katakana: are used to write loan words (foreign words) and names. Here's the name "Emily" translated into Japanese, written in katakana script:
- Hiragana: are used for adjectives and grammatical stuff.
For tattoos the kanji script is used the most often, followed by Katakana for name translations.
If you are interested in having a kanji tattoo, then make sure you get the correct kanji characters. Don't rely on a website that offers you an online English to Japanese kanji dictionary for your translation, you might end up with a tattoo that means something totally different than you think it means. [COMING SOON: Use our professional tattoo translation instead, so you are sure you get the correct kanji. And it will also be rendered in a beautiful script rather than just computer generated.]
Here's a list of the most popular kanji symbols and their meanings:
Japanese Dragon Tattoos
The Japanese dragon is the god of thunder and lightning. In Japan, the dragon is considered a benevolent creature and a bringer of good luck and wealth.
The dragon represents the element wood and male powers, as opposed to the phoenix, who represents the element fire and female powers.Read more about Japanese Dragons here.
Japanese Water Tattoos
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a famous painter and print artist from Japan. His most famous work is Beneath the Wave of Kanagawa, and has become the standard Japanese style tattoo water.
Japanese water tattoos are often combined with a koi fish. Koi can swim against the current, that's why Japanese koi tattoos are associated with perseverance.
Hannya Mask TattooThe hannya mask is just one example of the many different types of masks used by the traditional Japanese actors of Noh theatre. Noh performances are very stylized representations of traditional and well known stories, developed in Japan during the 14th century. The masks are used to convey the identity and mood of the various characters, who number nearly eighty in the different tales. The hannya mask is specifically used to represent a vengeful and jealous woman. Her anger and envy have so consumed her that she has turned into a demon, but with some important traces of humanity left. The pointed horns, gleaming eyes, fang-like teeth, combined with a look of pure resentment and hate are tempered by the expression of suffering around the eyes and the artfully disarrayed strands of hair, which indicate passionate emotion thrown into disorder. The deeper and more extreme the colouring of the face, the deeper and more violent run the emotions of the character. Tattooing takes full advantage of these fanciful and engaging images, often using them in larger pieces of Japanese work or sometimes juxtaposing masks of good and evil characters. Often a Noh mask will also appear in isolation, as a work of art by itself, not unlike the actual masks which are highly prized and very collectible. Many Japanese collect and display them in their house believing it wards off evil spirits. It is hard to make a full sleeve of one mask but it can easily be combined with other Japanese designs and symbols.
The Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, are known for their tattoos. Around 70% of the Yakuza members are tattooed. Tattoos are their way of showing courage, masculinity and devotion towards the organization.
Lately however the tattoo habits of the yakuza are changing. Yakuza members want to keep a low profile and a full body suit tattoo isn't exactly low profile. Smaller tattoos in the Western style are getting more popular and some go as far as tattoo removal.Read more about The Yakusa here.
Celebrities With Japanese Tattoos
- Melanie C: has the kanji characters for "Girl Power" on her right shoulder.
- Britney Spears: has a kanji character that was supposed to mean "Mysterious", but actually means "Strange".
- Kelis: this singer has a kanji tattoo on her right leg, meaning "God".
- Alyson Hannigan (Buffy): has a kanji meaning "Happiness" on her lower back.
- Pink: also has a Happiness kanji.
- Janet Jackson: has a kanji tattoo on the back of her neck.
- Missy Elliot: rap star, has a band of kanji around her right ankle.
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