If you’re into body art or are considering getting your first tattoo, you’ve probably taken notice of some pretty fantastic Japanese style tattoos — these vivid images make a strong impression.

Drawn using a special ink called “Nara Black,” these tattoos turn a dark blue-green under the skin, which gives the Japanese tattoo a very distinct look — as does the cast of characters common to this genre.

The History of Japanese-style Tattoos

This style of tattooing is called “ire-zumi” in Japanese, which literally means “inserted ink,” and is an artform that dates back centuries, and is an extension of woodblock artwork.

Tattooing in Japan dates back centuries, but was outlawed during the mid-1800’s as the Meiji Dynasty began to absorb more aspects of European culture — it was felt that tattoos didn’t fit with the newly adopted Western styles.

During the time tattoos were illegal, body art was adopted by organized crime as a symbol of living outside the law. Though tattoos are no longer illegal in Japan, there’s a definite stygma connecting them to the criminal culture — part of what gives them their chic.

(For more on the history of Japanese tattoos, click here.)

The Popular Themes Found in Japanese-style Tattoos

One thing that makes Japanese style tattoos special is that they convey a lot of feeling.

Though the designs themselves are nearly unlimited, there are common themes and characters that appear constantly — they are symbolic of much deeper meanings.

The Carp — Koi

The carp, originally from Chinese mythology, swims the Yellow River upstream, exerting itself against extreme adversity.

It symbolizes overcoming serious hardship — the koi is a popular choice for those who are fighting a terminal illness or other major life challenge.

The Dragon — Ryu

Unlike Western mythology, Eastern culture sees the dragon as a force of good that embodies strength, wisdom, and ferocity on behalf of mankind.

The dragon is considered to be a force protecting humans, and the dragon tattoo shows that the wearer also possesses such noble qualities.

The Tiger — Tora

Coming mainly from the Chinese influence on Japanese culture, the tiger is a symbol of individualism and independent strength.

It’s a symbol of overcoming an enemy or a hardship in life through solitary hard work and dedication.

The Lion-dog — Karashishi

Statues of the karashishi are often seen in pairs, standing guard at shrine and temple gates — symbols of protection.

Wearing this Japanese style tattoo shows a willingness to stand up for rights, causes, or a readiness to defend his or her property.

The Snake — Hebi

Unlike Western culture, snakes have a more positive image in Japan. Though still enigmatic and suspicious in character, they lack the evil slant assigned to them across much of the world.

Snakes are considered wise. In fact, they’re thought to bring health and protection from disaster, disease, and misfortune — superstitious business owners would likely be happy when one is found on their property.

In a Japanese tattoo, the snake could be seen as a protector from bad decisions or unpredictable circumstances. The snake is also associated with healing and renewal.

The Demon — Oni

One of the most recognizable figures in Japanese style tattoos, the oni is responsible for dealing out rewards and punishments to humans for their good or evil deeds.

They’re seen as rampaging and unpredictable forces of the spirit world who are also responsible for plagues and diseases.

But, they’re not actually evil. They bring balance to the world, adding good or mischief to the mix as needed — just doing their job.

In Japanese tattoos, the demon or oni mask will often be red or blue.

The Skull — Zugaikotsu

Like the snake, the skull carries a very different message within Japanese style tattoos than someone raised in the West would expect. Instead of death, danger, or doom, the skull symbolizes the great changes we face in life (death being the greatest change of life that exists).

The zaikotsu is a celebration of a great life lived.

Waves and Water

As an island nation, the ocean appears frequently in Japanese mythology, folklore, and art.

Waves represent strength, life, and changes — the ebb and flow through the days of our existence.

Flowers and Leaves

There are a number of flowers and leaves used in Japanese tattoos, as background or even a the main image — the following are list of the more popular images:

  • Maple leaves (Momiji)
  • Cherry blossom (Sakura)
  • Chrysanthemum (Kiku)
  • Lotus (Hasu)

This list of characters and symbols has already gone on for several hundred words, but there are still many more common themes and characters from nature or the spirit world that appear in Japanese style tattoos.

Are You Considering a Japanese Tattoo?

With truly varied designs and a unique cast of characters, Japanese style tattoos are often beautiful and complex pieces of body art — one of Hannah’s specialties at HS Tattoo.

See a collection of her Japanese style tattoos by clicking here.