Traditional Japanese designs, motifs and styles are quite popular in tattoos. Artists today often combine old elements with more modern ones to create pieces that are unique, playful and delicate. 

Regardless of what style you choose to go with, Japanese-inspired tattoos all have one thing in common: Irezumi, also known as traditional Japanese tattooing. So, if you plan on carrying this kind of artwork in your body forever, why not learn a bit of its history, what it means and how it has evolved through the ages. 

Irezumi History

Japanese tattooing can be traced back centuries, the earliest example being found in clay figurines from 5000 BCE that seemed to have tattoos on their faces. Another ancient mention is found in the Wei Chih, a Chinese chronicle from the 3rd century where it’s mentioned that men of all ages tattooed their faces and their bodies with designs. 

Later, in the 7th century, the art of tattooing took a different route and tattoos started being viewed as a negative. By 720 CE, tattoos were used as a form of punishment and branding for prisoners, criminals and courtesans. This would go on for a thousand years. 

In the 18th century, the concept of tattoos took yet another turn. Because in this century the colorful and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock print was so popular, tattoos in this same style became popular among people of the lower social status, including criminals. Because of its history and its negative undertones, Irezumi became outlawed in the country, but tattoo artists continued their work because it was legal to tattoo foreign people. 

This loophole allowed tattoo artists to tattoo foreign sailors in the 19th century and, as a result, their work and all the Japanese symbols that accompanied it, where exhibited all around the world. This is how Japanese tattoo became so popular around the world, and continues being popular to this day. 

Common Motifs in Japanese Tattoos

There are many common motifs that are found in Japanese tattoos. One of them are animals such as tigers and lions, which are often associated with courage, protection and strength. Koi fish are also incredibly popular because they represent success and good fortune. 

Flowers are another common motif, more specifically sakura or cherry blossoms. People prefer it not just because the flower itself is beautiful and delicate, but also because it represents the ephemeral. Other common flowers in Japanese tattoo includes lotus flowers, chrysanthemums, and peonies. 

People are also common motifs in this tattoo style, both realistic characters and mythological creatures are quite popular. Portraits often include warriors and geishas, heroic figures, and characters from literature. 

 Mythology figures are another common element in Irezumi, the most popular being Tengu or ghosts, Oni or demons, and deities from Shinto and Buddhist religions as well. Dragons are probably the most popular mythology figures used in Japanese tattoos because they symbolize a great deal of things. 

In addition to realistic people, folkloric figures are also popular tattoo choices. Prevalent mythological subjects include Tengu (ghosts), Oni (demons or troll-like creatures), and deities from both Buddhist and Shinto religions. Dragons are also traditionally found in Irezumi. Often featuring the head of a camel, the torso of a snake, fish scales, and bird talons, these creatures can symbolize a myriad of ideas.

Irezumi Today 

Today, things have changed quite a lot for Japanese tattoo. Both Japanese and non-Japanese artists practice the art of Irezumi and turn to it for inspiration. Since 1948, tattooing in Japan has been legal again, but it’s still considered quite taboo. That’s why you won’t find a tattoo shop that easily in the country. People with visible tattoos are also banned from certain public places, such as gyms, hot springs, and bathhouses, so it’s definitely not well-received. 

However, this hasn’t prevented tattoos from becoming popular for recent generations of Japanese. Many tattoo artists have embraced contemporary tools such as electric needles, but there are still some who prefer more traditional approaches such as hand-tattooing or Tebori. This technique requires using a rod made of wood or metal and for many artists it’s worth preserving such an ancient craft. 

Irezumi Legality

The legality of Japanese tattoo is important to consider because tattoo in Japan is actually affiliated with the Yakuza, a network of gangs involved with criminal activity. This is why Irezumi is something that government officials and their society continue to fight against. In fact, tattoo artists actually need a medical license to be able to legally tattoo in the country. If they don’t they risk being raided, fined, and charged by the police. 

Because of this, tattoo artists have essentially been pushed to the shadows in Japan. Tattoo studios are difficult to find, but even so, tattooing has thrived and there are many notable artists to consider. Traditional Irezumi artists that are worth taking a look are Horimasa, Horitomo, Horitada, Horikashi, and Horiyoshi III.

Non-Japanese tattoo artists are also well-versed in the art of Irezumi, such as Rion, Chris Garver, Ami James, Henning Jorgensen, Mike Rubendall, Brindi, Sergey Buslaev, Lupo Horiokami, Luca Ortis, Dansin, and Wendy Pham. These artists know traditional Irezumi and they also merge it with their own style to create something unique. 

If you’re thinking of getting a Japanese-style tattoo, I hope you can appreciate why knowing its story matters. Especially if you live in Japan, where tattoo is a taboo and discrimination against tattooed people is real. 

In spite of this, the history of Irezumi is rich and this is a truly unique tattoo style that’s beautiful and full of meaning. If Japanese culture is something you love and feel close to, Irezumi is probably a no-brainer for you. 

When you’re coming up with your next tattoo idea inspired on Japanese tattoo, make sure you include many of the motifs that make this style so unique and special for so many people. The meaning behind Japanese-style tattoos is often rich and it allows you to express yourself in a deep way

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