The Japanese style of tattoo is world famous — and for good reason. With a rich history, powerful images of both the mythical and the mundane, and intricate stories behind each part of the design, Japanese imagery makes for a powerful tattoo.
One particular type of Japanese tattoo — the warrior tattoo — is an especially interesting one, due in part to the stories behind the images. Let’s take a look at some warrior stories that would be great inspiration for a tattoo.
Many of these stories come from one of the seminal ukiyo-e artists of Japan, Kuniyoshi. His series, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, was incredibly popular, reviving interest in Japanese heroes and warriors, and turning him into one of the most well-known ukiyo-e artists of his time. Kabuki theatre had an impact also, with actors and artists telling the tales of these famous warriors, which then became ukiyo-e wood prints and paintings.
Others come from the great Chinese novel, Water Margin, especially the images of outlaws. In these books, the imagery had a lasting impact on Japanese tattoos — the heavily tattooed warriors were depicted in a distinct style, which became the basis for the tattoos we see today, many hundreds of years later.
If you feel inspired and would like to discuss turning one of these iconic images into a unique tattoo, get in touch with one of our experienced artists and we’d be more than happy to help.
#1 Tanmeijiro Genshogo
This dynamic image by Kuniyoshi shows the bandit Tanmeijiro Genshogo. Famous for his large tattoo and his ability to stay under water for long periods, he is shown fighting an opponent beneath the waves.
#2 Zhang Shun
The character Zhang Shun appears in the Novel, Water Margin, one of the classic novels of Chinese literature. He is described as being a tall man, with the nickname of ‘White Stripe within the Waves’ due to his excellent swimming and diving abilities. He carries a sword in his mouth as he breaks through a barrier, as arrows soar in flight towards him — a compelling and lively image.
#3 Xie Zhen
Another famous character from the Water Margin novel, Xie Zhen is described as being a 7-foot-tall highly skilled martial artist. His bravery allows him to climb dangerous mountains and face challenging conditions without faltering. Famed for his use of a bronzed forked spear (earning him the name ‘Double-Headed Serpent’) he can be seen here in a straw cape tying up his enemy.
#4 Hao Siwen
Hao Siwen’s mother dreamt that a celestial being named Wood Dog of Well was going to born into the human world shortly before becoming pregnant with him. It is believed that he is the human incarnation of the Wood Dog, and so bears that nickname. In this Kuniyoshi print of him he can be seen in the snow, wielding his sword with both hands.
#5 Ding Desun
In this image by Kuniyoshi, we see Ding Desun driving his sword through a giant snake. Serving as deputy to the general Zhang Qing he earnt the nickname ‘Arrow-hit Tiger’ as his face and neck are riddled with battle scars.
#6 Xue Yong (right) and the tattooed Mu Chun (left)
Nicknamed ‘Little Unrestrained’ this print shows the tattooed Mu Chun engaged in a fist fight with Xue Yong. The print is lively and would make for a fun tattoo-within-a-tattoo element.
#7 Sakata Kaidōmaru
Sakata Kaidōmaru was a 11th Century warrior who also went by the names Kintaro and Golden Boy. Even as a boy, he was famous for his great strength. This picture by Kuniyoshi shows a young, muscular child wrestling a giant carp under a waterfall.
#8 Actor as Minamoto Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo was the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, ruling from 1192 until 1199. This actor print, called a yakusha-e, depicts an actor as Yoritomo. These prints of actors can be identified by their distinctive facial characteristics, which makes them great reference images for tattoos.
#9 Kinhyoshi Yorin
This image shows Kinhyoshi Yorin (Chinese name Yang Lin), nicknamed the Multi-coloured leopard, depicted on a windy day. He is brandishing a ferocious looking iron spear with a hooked end.
#10 Lu Junyi (Gyokukirin Roshungi)
Lu Junyi (Gyokukirin Roshungi), from the series “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori)”
Lu Junyi was a wealthy squire from Daming Prefecture. A highly skilled martial artist, his physical prowess allowed him to serve as second-in-command of the outlaw Band at the battle of Liangshan Marsh, despite being one of the last men to join them. Here he can be seen in colourful flowing robes, with his sword raised above his head, ready to strike.
#11 Kashiwade no Omi Tatebe
This ukiye-o print taken from the series Choice of Heroes for the Twelve Signs shows the warrior Kashiwade no Omi Tatebe, clad in vibrant robes, in combat with a tiger, attacking the beast with his spear.
#12 Zhang Qing (Botu’usen Chosei)
Zhang Qing ‘Featherless Arrow’ earnt his nickname from his ability to fling stones with great accuracy, stunning his opponents, before going on to capture or kill them. He served as a military General in the Dongchang Prefecture and can be seen in this print riding his horse in full decorative armour, carrying his staff and standard.
#13 Duan Jingzhu
In this image Duan Jingzhu is watching as a group of horse thieves escape, a flaming torch burning hear his feet. Highly visible are his tattooed back which depicts Fujin, the God of Wind, and a look of anger on his face.
#14 Uesugi Kenshin
This image, originally from the book Stories of 100 Heroes of High Renown, shows the daimyo (a powerful feudal lord) Uesugi Kenshin seated in full armour. Kenshin was famed for honourable conduct and his abilities both on the battlefield and as administrator of local trade and industry.
#15 Saga Goro Mitsutoki
This image by Kuniyoshi depicts the warrior Saga Goro Mitsutoki onboard a boat, having been attacked with arrows. Energetic waves fill the background, as the warrior’s expressive face tells of his suffering.
#16 The Young Yoshitsune defeats Benkei at Gojo Bridge
Here a young Minamoto no Yoshtsune defeating the warrior monk Benkei at a bridge crossing. Benkei had led a varied life, starting as monk before later becoming a roaming warrior. Following this battle he began to serve Yoshitsune and his image became synonymous with strength and loyalty. This triptych would make a great basis for a larger tattoo, especially on one’s back.
#17 Kashiwade no Hanoshi
This image shows Hanoshi in full armour attacking a tiger who is clinging to the edge of a snowy edge. A dynamic battle between a warrior and a tiger could make a great composition for a tattoo.
#18 Li Kui
Another fictional character, Li Kui, earnt the nickname ‘Black Whirlwind’ for his berserk behaviour in battle and dark complexion. As well as being a heavy drinker and gambler, he was known for having a bad temper. It was said that a simple glance from him was enough to scare away most aggressors. This image depicts him shirtless, killing the 4 tigers that ate his mother.
#19 Sun Li
This image of Sun Li shows him about to kill a member of the Mao family. This scene depicts what happened following a prison raid to rescue the Xie brothers. The two men struggling add an element of action and life to a static print.
#20 Shoriko kaei
This print illustrates the magic warrior, Shoriko kaei, shooting a wild goose, with the falling bird shown in the background. The way in which Kaei is holding the bow is unusual, as the string of the bow sits on the outside of his left arm, making the pull with his right arm extremely difficult. Standing on a cliff’s edge, earth and sky add interesting background elements that could be introduced into a tattoo design.
#21 Li Kui
Another image of Li Kui, this time showing the ‘Black Whirlwind’ destroying the temple gate at Goshu with an axe. Kui was a particularly strong man and was also known as ‘Iron Ox’. The image shows him mid-leap, with a traditional dragon looking over his shoulder.
#22 Roshi Ensei
Roshi Ensei is shown here in a wrestling match, demonstrating his strength by lifting a huge beam. Ensei was described as a handsome man, heavily tattooed with lion and peony motifs.
#23 Ruan Xiao’er
Ruan Xiao’er, or Ruan the Second, is shown in this print caught by enemy harpoons and grapnels. His face is a grimace as he tries to untangle himself. Hooks wrapped around his body and caught in his hair have trapped him.
#24 Zhang Heng
Here Zhang Heng is about to kill the enemy general Fang Tianding with his sword. Heng’s full body tattoos are visible and he is looking over his shoulder at a supernatural flame appearing above the rushing water.
#25 Yang Zhi
This scene shows Yang Zhi about to kill man at bridge who insulted him. The man reaches out but cannot escape the sword of the mighty warrior.
#26 Wu Song
In this image Wun Song is seen resting against a tree, holding his staff as the wind blows the long grass behind him. Described as an apprentice under Zhou Tong, he specialises in Chuojiao, an ancient Chinese martial art, as well as excelling in the use of the staff and double broadswords. He is famous for slaying a tiger with his bare hands.
#27 Li Zhong
Li Zhong with by two retainers, one fastening Li Zhong’s headgear. He looks out in anticipation, towards his next adventure — is it battle, perhaps a ferocious tiger or a dragon? Is it to conquer nature, a mountain or raging river? Different elements could be added to create your own story.
#28 Lei Heng
Lei Heng was nicknamed ‘the Winged Tiger’ for his ability to jump across bodies of water several metres wide and over high walls with ease. He is described as standing up against injustice and using his exceptional martial arts abilities to help the poor. Here he brandishes his sword by a waterfall, ready to enter battle.
#29 Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei
This print by Kunisada shows a father and son, members of the Forty-Seven Ronin, dressed in firefighter’s disguises, bearing a pike and a wooden sledgehammer, ready for an attack planned for that night.
#30 The actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I in the role of Unryū Kurō
The monk Unryū Kurō, played here by the actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I, was looking to get revenge on people who had ridiculed him for his big noise. He created a rumour that a dragon would rise from the Sarusawa Pond on a particular day, hoping to trick the people of the village into going there, and laugh at their stupidity for believing such a lie. Kurō himself got caught up in the excitement on the day and forgot his own story, joining in with the chants of the crowds. In this print he is pictured with the fictitious dragon, a composition that would work great for a large scale tattoo such as a backpiece.
#31 Unknown Ronin
Taken from the Tale of the forty-seven Loyal Warriors this image shows a Ronin (a Samurai who has lost his master) seeking revenge for the death of his master, Lord Enya Hangan, who had been ordered to commit ritual suicide after attacking an official in the palace. The official who had provoked Hangan was the evil Moronao, who was killed in his house following this scene. The Ronin were themselves ordered to commit ritual suicide a year later.
These images are part of the long and intricate history of Japanese art. In books, prints, plays and tattoos, these images are part of a many centuries old artistic tradition. Each has a backstory, all of which are dynamic, some are heroic, others are villainous, but all would make an amazing tattoo.
Come on in and talk to one of our experts in Japanese tattooing. We love the history of these images, and can take any of them and tailor them to exactly what you want! From smaller pieces to large-scale multi-session installations, from traditional to avant-garde, we can create your story.