125 Impressive Japanese Tattoos with History & Meaning

The Japanese tattoo style has far reaching influence up until today even if its long and glorious history dates back ages ago. Japanese tattoo artists began their craft back in the Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD). Back then, Japanese tattoos were associated with spirituality and status symbol, identifying the master from the slave. However, in the Kofun period (300 –600 AD), things changed and tattoos began to have a negative connotation since they were used as marks for criminals. An indigenous population of Japan, the Ainus, who have lived in Japan for thousands of years, also used to have tattoos on their arms, mouth and even in their foreheads occasionally, which primarily influenced Japanese tattoo activity. This is because they have integrated with and penetrated modern Japanese civilization.

The traditional tattoo images handed from this past generation are “images of the floating world” (called ukiyo-e in the Japanese language). These are wood-block prints produced by the most influential ukiyoe artists like Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi is also the creator of the masterful Suikoden illustration. The illustrated story contained 108 Chinese corrupt rulers who were marked with tattoos. Different gangs used different design motifs and applications. Even with rich tradition of tattooing, the Japanese people did not widely accept the idea of their bodies having tattoos as much as the western world because tattoos were closely associated with the yakuza (Japanese’s mafia) for several years in Japan. The social stigma of the association to criminals of tattoos prevented bearers from entering some fitness centers or hot baths.

Japanese Tattoos

Popular Japanese Tattoos

Types of Japanese Tattoos

Subjects in Japanese Tattoos are as rich and varied as the ancient culture and tradition of the country. Backgrounds are important and crucial to the design and follow a strict rule of placement. Wind bars, waves and clouds lay like textiles in the background to look full and almost 2D exclusively.  Clouds must be above the waist and the waves should be below the waist. Placing the figure of Buddha below the waist is disrespectful so you must observe proper placement. Flowers and animals in combination must follow a logical pattern. Koi fish swimming upwards go well with maples or chrysanthemums because that is the state of things during fall in real life.

Dragon Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Dragons have not only been a source of curiosity and admiration in the East in the olden times but until today even in the Western world. Hollywood movies like “Game of Thrones” are modern blockbusters where dragon characters steal the limelight and soar with popularity.  Dragons project strength and ferocity, which humans aspire to emulate. These creatures have wings for flying and can spit fire. Moreover, dragons symbolize good forces that are always ready to protect mankind. The popularity of dragons in Japanese mythology has caught on in the West and all over the world.

Tiger Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Tiger, lion or fu-dog(dog and lion combination creature) means courage and protection. Fu-dog is the more common creature in China and Japan and is a common fixture in shrine entrances. A person with this tattoo design is ready to protect his dignity, property and rights. Many cultures believe that these animals ward off evil and protect people from bad spirits. The lone tiger tattoo is specifically suited to individuals who want to showcase their individual strengths. A solitary tiger can represent fighting for a cause or other battles in life in an individual capacity.

Snake Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Snakes have long been associated with many negative things. Numerous popular English phrases depict the snake in bad light, stereotyping snakes as a negative symbol. This is despite the fact that graphical image of a snake offer strong visual impact enough to send shivers to anyone who dares to take a closer look. The snake has medicinal values in real life and some cultures consider them good luck and protector from bad fortune. Snakes also represent wisdom and the ability to change for the better. Snakes regular shed their old skin to give way to a new one.

Phoenix Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Phoenix like dragons, are mythical creatures and hold a certain intangible fascination to humans. Unlike the powerful dragon, the phoenix started out as a regular bird consumed by fire only to rise from the ashes many times powerful than before. This kind of dramatic ascension is highly inspirational and motivational to humans. A proud triumphant person will be more than glad to bear a phoenix tattoo, if only to serve as a constant reminder of his resiliency to adversities.

Water and Wave Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Water and wave is a familiar thing to the Japanese since the country is an island and the people have depended heavily on the blessings of the water for livelihood and food. The water has bright connotation being life but the wave has negativity being danger. A water and wave tattoo would generally mean in most cultures if not all, as life and death. It depicts the constant truth, that life changes like the waves of the sea and that this is everyone’s reality. Optimists on the other hand see the symbol as a reminder to remain calm in the face of danger and adversity in real life.

Japanese Tattoos

Koi Fish Inspired Japanese Tattoos

The koi fish is one of the popular Japanese tattoo icon the main reason of which is because the fish is native to Japan. The fish’s novelty shows in its effort to swim the Yellow River upstream. Stories culled from myths tell that any koi fish that is able to swim the Yellow River upstream turns in to a dragon. This serves as their reward for successfully overcoming the challenge. Mythology aside, the plight of the koi fish serves as a lesson and inspiration to persons under extreme struggle and adversity. A person who conquers a debilitating disease like cancer deserves a koi fish tattoo.

Tree and Flower Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Trees are excellent choices when projecting strength and power combined with a good heart. Design wise the tree is flexible with regards to placement of objects on intertwined branches. Colors and shapes provide many options for design considerations.

Flowers, on the other hand represent the bearer’s beliefs, aspirations and character. They usually reflect the brighter and positive side of life. It is incongruous to use the flower to denote an aggressive character.

Skull Inspired Japanese Tattoos

Skulls symbolize death and danger in most cultures, but in Japanese tattoos, they symbolize appreciation for life and life cycle or the yin and yang concept. A skull tattoo will always remind the bearer and onlooker of the value of life, full life aspiration and the acceptance of the inevitability of death. Skulls may also represent loved ones who passed away.

Meanings of the Japanese Tattoos

Recognizing traditional Japanese tattoo is unmistakable. The huge and unique design is signature to this Oriental template. The rich intricate detail and texture is impossible to fit in a small sized tattoo. Entire limbs or even bodies are the appropriate canvass of these masterpieces. Throughout its long years of existence, Japanese tattoos have preserved their dignity, authenticity and original style, which have caught the fancy of tattoo enthusiasts even in the modern world of tattoo art.

Rich, intriguing and powerful images characterize Japanese traditional tattoo designs. Dragons from mysterious mythology, exotic animals like snakes, tigers koi, fish and birds are common staples and extremely popular. Flowers that are subject to intertwining and repetitive design method include cherry blossoms, lotuses and chrysanthemums. Folklore and literature have their own share to the Japanese tattoo style by introducing characters like Buddha, Suidoken (samurai, criminals and geisha), Buddhist deities like Fudo Myo-o and Kannon, Shinto kami deities like tengu, bringing historical richness and meanings to the design.

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Ideal Placement of Japanese Tattoos

Circumstances and tattoo size normally dictate the placement of Japanese Tattoos. Individuals could not afford highly visible areas like the neck and forearms tattoos are issues in their jobs. Elaborately designed and large ones are restricted to the back area and upper body.

Japanese Tattoos are rich in subjects that placement can be solved by adapting suitable subjects to the area sizes of the body parts.


Preparation Tips for Japanese Tattoos

Make sure that you are in a healthy state, free from even slight fever or cold before visiting the tattoo shop. Take a sizeable meal in preparation for a strenuous tattoo session. Bring along your favorite things to while away the time during long tattoo sessions. Books and gadgets are ideal things to bring and convenient in size.

Average Service Cost & Standard Prices for Getting Japanese Tattoos

It can be argued that Japanese Tattoos are rightfully more expensive compared to other tattoo genres. One might also think that tattoo artists of this class have perfected the skill and discipline handed down by masters. The truth is that tattoo artist of the genre is subject to the standard pricing in the industry – $150 to $200 per hour depending on location and $50 minimum for a small and simple tattoo piece.

Maintenance Tips After Getting Japanese Tattoos

People often disregard the various harmful effects of the sun to their tattoos. However, it not only fades the color of tattoos, but can also irritate the skin as well. Protect your Japanese tattoos from the rays of the sun as much as you can.

The best solution is to avoid the sun whenever possible. Staying in shaded area or wearing protective clothes is helpful. Applying high quality sunscreen product during direct exposure to the sun is not only a healthy practice but is also good for your tattoo. You will enjoy your wonderful tattoo longer, without re-inking, if you will take good care of it.

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