Traditional Japanese motifs, patterns, and stylistic sensibilities continue to be common sources of inspiration for many modern tattoos today. Many ink artists like to mix old and modern to produce works that range from playful prints and patterns to delicate works of art. Regardless of specific style, these Japanese-inspired tattoos have one thing in common: roots in Irezumi, or traditional Japanese tattooing.

To appreciate and understand this ancient art form, one must first learn about its rich and colourful history, as well as how the Japanese tattoo has developed over time. For more details click here.

Irezumi’s history

The earliest evidence of the body art phenomena can be found on the tattooed faces of clay figurines dating back to 5000 BCE. Another reference to these marks can be found in Wei Chih, a 3rd-century Chinese chronicle. According to the text, “men young and old, both tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs” at the time.

The art form, however, took a turn in the seventh century. People started to look down on tattoos at this stage. They were even used as a method of branding and punishment for prisoners, courtesans, and criminals by the year 720 CE. This custom will continue for over a thousand years.

Japanese tattoos underwent yet another transition in the 18th century. Because of the popularity of the vibrant and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock print, tattoos in this style became common among lower-status individuals such as farmers, peasants, and even gangs. Irezumi was finally banned in Japan due to its links to the lower class and its long and shady past, though tattoo artists based in the country could still legally tattoo foreigners. For more details about tattoo art click here.

When tattoo artists started tattooing nonnative sailors in the 19th century, this loophole became especially significant. As a result, their work—along with all of the associated cultural motifs, symbols, and styles—was finally “exhibited” all over the world. Despite the fact that tattooing is still illegal in Japan, the Japanese tattoo has achieved unexpected global acclaim.

Major Themes

Japanese tattoos often depict the culture’s reverence for nature, especially animals and flowers, in terms of subject matter. Figures and portraits are often commonly used in traditional tattoos, much like the Ukiyo-e prints that influenced Japanese tattoos. Many tattoos depict animals such as lions and tigers, which are symbols of bravery, courage, and security. Koi fish have long been common as subjects because they symbolise luck, prosperity, and good fortune.

Sakura (cherry blossoms) are, unsurprisingly, the most common floral motif in Japanese tattoos. On top of its beautiful pale pink petals, this flower is chosen for its symbolic meaning, as these short-lived flowers also symbolise ephemerality. Lotus flowers, peonies, and Chrysanthemums are also common in Japan due to their alluring aesthetic and widespread distribution. Japanese tattoos often include both realistic and mythological characters. Warriors and geishas, whose likenesses were favoured for their expressive expressions and bright colours, respectively, are often depicted in realism portraits. Other heroic figures, as well as literary characters, often feature in Irezumi’s designs.

Folkloric figures, in addition to realistic people, are common tattoo choices. Tengu (ghosts), Oni (demons or troll-like creatures), and deities from both Buddhist and Shinto religions are popular mythological subjects. Irezumi is also known for having dragons. These animals, which sometimes have a camel’s head, a snake’s torso, fish scales, and bird talons, can represent a wide range of concepts.

Today’s Tattoos

Traditional Irezumi serves as a source of inspiration for both Japanese and non-Japanese tattoo artists today. Despite the fact that it has been legal in Japan since 1948, the practise is still considered taboo. As a result, locating a tattoo shop in the country can be difficult at times. Additionally, tattooed people are often denied access to public places such as bathhouses, hot springs, and gyms (though some of these spaces allow entry if the tattoos are concealed).

Tattoos, on the other hand, have become common among Japan’s younger generations. Although many people use modern tools like electric needles, some prefer to use traditional methods like Tebori, or hand-tattooing. These parts are constructed with a metal or wood rod and can take a long time to render compared to those made with more modern techniques. Many tattoo fans and musicians, on the other hand, believe that preserving the ancient art is well worth the extra effort.