Japanese Tattoos

Japanese Tattoos Meaning

One of the most popular styles of tattoo art, Japanese tattoos have a rich history, and are steeped in meaning and purpose derived from the Japanese culture. The Japanese tattoo style began as a way to convey social status and provide symbolic protection through spiritual devotion.

Over time, they became the mark of the criminal element, as they were placed on prisoners as a form of punishment, identifying the men as criminals and making it difficult for them to get jobs or function in society. Soon, those with tattoos choose to embrace the art form and used them as way to show their wealth and importance in the criminal class.The Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, soon adopted the Japanese style of tattooing known as Irezumi, and used tattoos as a way to identify themselves as members of the gang.

Today, the Japanese style of tattooing is no longer associated with just criminals, and is proudly worn by many types of people for its beauty, flowing composition, and deep meaning. There are quite a few images and symbols in the Japanese style of tattooing used to convey specific meaning, such as personal beliefs, character attributes, or even aspirations. Called “motifs,” these design elements are meant to show the meaning of the tattoo to whomever sees it. Some of the most popular Japanese tattoo motifs and their meanings are:

  • Dragon: Used to convey wisdom, strength, and goodness. The dragon is seen as a benevolent, generous force that uses its strength for the good of mankind.
  • Koi: A fish native to China and famous in Eastern folklore, koi were to said to accomplish the impossible by swimming upstream and passing “Dragon’s Gate” and were rewarded by being turned into dragons. For this reason, koi symbolize determination, strength, courage, and a strong desire to succeed.
  • Phoenix: Taken from a story with many shared culture backgrounds, the Phoenix is a bird that was consumed by fire and then rose from its own ashes, and it is meant to convey rebirth, triumph, and a rebuilding of one’s self.
  • Tiger: Conveying strength, courage, and long life, the tiger is one of the four sacred Japanese animals, and is said to give protection against bad fortune, evil spirits, and disease.
  • Lion or Fu-Dog: Lions are meant to convey strength, courage, good luck, and protection. Appearing to be a lion with pointed ears, the Fu-Dog is said to keep evil out and is a popular statue in Japan, placed in front of buildings as a means of protection. As a tattoo, Fu-Dogs serve to represent a courageous person with heroic aspirations.
  • Snake: In Japanese culture, the snake plays many meaningful roles. It is said that they offer protection from illness, disaster, and bad fortune. Snakes can also represent wisdom and protection from bad choices, as well as regeneration and healing. The snake also represents the Divine Feminine, or the holy female attributes, as a woman can take on the positive attributes of a man, much as a snake sheds its own skin.
  • Skull: Representing great change in Japanese culture, the skull is also meant to convey life and death as a positive representation of the natural life cycle.
  • Cherry Blossom: Often depicted with its petals falling off and floating away, the cherry blossom represents mortality and the fleetingness of life and beauty.
  • Oni or Demon Mask: Meant to convey either good or evil, protectors or tricksters, the Oni are Japanese demons or spirits that carry out the role of either punishing the unjust and evil or protecting the good after they have died.
  • Water: The image of water in Japanese culture can be seen as a standalone design of waves, or combined with koi, dragons, or Oni and is meant to represent the ebb and flow of life.

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