Traditional Japanese Tattoos (Irezumi)

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.


Japanese dragon tattoos are often chosen to symbolise strength, power and wisdom. Dragons have featured prominently in Japanese culture since the 8th century AD. Monks, travelling by boat, intent on spreading the Buddha’s teachings to the Island nation of Japan introduced Buddhist and Hindu dragon mythology from India by way of China. They are found throughout Chinese Folklore and are shown as symbols of auspicious power in Chinese art.

Today, dragons feature prominently on both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. Unlike western ideas of vicious creatures to be slain, Japanese dragons are often shown as benevolent deities, helping mankind with his endeavours.

Deities (& Gods)

Images used time and time again are that of God/Deities, two of the most popular being Fuijin and Raijin – fearsome but respected brothers. Both are commonly depicted looking more like demons than gods. Fuijin is known as the Japanese deity of wind and is often shown with green or blue skin holding an ornate bag which he uses to control air currents.

Raijin is the Shinto (religion) deity of lightning and thunder and creates the latter by beating on drums. According to legend, the two brothers are rivals in nature and stormy weather is a result of their endless fighting.

Another powerful character important to mention is the buddhist deity Fudo Myoo, which means “Wise King Acala” in Japanese. He is a wrathful protector with the ability to scare any soul. He is generally depicted as having a menacing face with a squinted eye and pointy fangs. Generally he is shown surrounded by flames holding a vajra sword or a noose.


Ever since Japan opened its doors to the West in the 19th century the image of the Geisha has become heavily used within tattoo iconography. Popular amongst sailors and other travellers alike, the exclusive nature of a Geisha experience has created an air of intrigue around them and led their use within tattooing to symbolise exotic and mysterious beauty.

Geisha’s or Geiko are professional entertainers, used in traditional Japanese ceremonies to delight and charm clients, engage in conversation, and keep the drinks flowing. Often mistaken in the West for being sex workers, Geiko undergo extensive training over many years before becoming fully qualified. One of their most important duties is to entertain clients with reading of poetry and traditional seasonal dancing.


One of the most prevalent symbols in Japanese culture, the Hannya mask represents a female so overcome with jealousy and vengeance that she takes on the form of a demon. Although these masks are most commonly used in Japanese traditional theatre plays and ritual dances, it’s popularity has spread outside of Japan making it notable to the rest of the world.

In tattooing, the Hannya has a variety of differing connotations depending on how it is designed and viewed. If the mask is coloured entirely in red, it indicates that the female has turned into a demon completely and is therefore pure evil. However, a lighter complexion shows the female is still human but going through turmoil. For others it can also be seen as a talisman to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. The Hannya can be unique to you visually and in its meaning.


The mythical Phoenix, adapted from Chinese mythology, features heavily in Japanese folklore as a symbol of transformation, rebirth, renewal or triumph over adversity. The phoenix, also know as the Hō-ō bird is said to appear rarely, to mark the dawning of a new era, at which it descends from its heavenly home to do good deeds on earth, before returning to await the next epoch.

Phoenix’s are often paired with dragons, with the two as either mortal enemies or lovers (phoenix female and dragon male). The opposing elements of the two also allow for brightly coloured compositions. Phoenix’s are associated with fire and are often shown with long, colourful, flowing tails.


Samurai have become synonymous in the West with loyalty, self-discipline and respect. Bushido (the Warrior Code of Honour), heavily based on the ideas of Confuicius, by which samurai lived their lives instilled these qualities, while Zen Buddhism also played a strong role in their day-to-day lives. Samurai tattoos have therefore come to represent these traits, as well as honour, nobility, strength and courage.

Their elaborate armour and numerous weapons, particularly the iconic samurai sword, make them great choices for large areas of the body, such as backpieces, where their full detail can be fully portrayed.

Tracing their origins to the private armies of powerful Japanese landowners that grew independent of the central government. The battles between these warring feudal Lords was ultimately won by the Minamoto Clan who established the first Shogun led Government in 1192. Despite the chaotic 15th and 16th centuries, during which Japan splintered into many smaller states who constantly fought with each other, the Samurai class would ultimately rule over Japan for almost 700 years, through the reunification in late 16th century, up until the late 19th century and the end of Japans feudal era.

Japanese Tattoo Specialists

All of the tattoos on this page are by artists in our London based parlour.

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34 Cheshire Street
London, E2 6EH

020 7175 0133