Japanese Tattoos – History, Symbols and Meaning

Known as a “rebellious” tattoo style due to being illegal in Japan, traditional Japanese tattoos hold incredible meaning for both the wearer and the artist. Dating back more than 400 years, Japanese tattoos have their roots in ukiyo-e, which were created on wooden blocks with incredibly intricate designs depicting natural scenes, ghosts, animals, war stories and erotic imagery.

Shortly after its birth in Japan, tattooing was considered a negative practice and was quickly reserved for criminals who would receive it as a punishment for their crimes. In the late 1800s, tattoos were officially banned in Japan, as the country wanted to be seen as a highly sophisticated country by its European counterparts. Despite the best efforts of the governing bodies, tattooing in Japan remains underground and has grown internationally into one of the most prolific styles to date.

Traditionally Japanese tattoos are characterized by boldness and readability, with no ambiguity about what is depicted in the tattoo. This is achieved using a professional tattoo pen through high contrast, strong line work, and a background that complements and contrasts with the foreground. There is also an emphasis on dynamic position and shape, conveying a sense of movement both in the depiction of the subject as illustration and in the overall tattoo located on the body.

Most of the time, using bold colors helps the foreground stand out from the always black and gray background. In an entirely black and gray piece, with no color on any part of the tattoo, there must be a strong contrast between the foreground and background. This is done by cleverly using negative space and leaving open skin to keep the image readable. In either case, there must be a fair amount of black in the background to create contrast, not only between the foreground, but also between elements of the background itself. This is why artists almost always finish the background first to establish the darkest part of the tattoo, and start from that base, maintaining enough contrast with the hues used for the subject of the tattoo.

The Symbols of Japanese Tattoos

The subject of a tattoo refers to the person or creature in the foreground of the tattoo. Themes in Japanese tattoos range widely, but these are the themes most often referenced in Japanese woodblock prints from the Ukiyo-e period. Many well-known woodblock print artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Kyosai, Kunisada, Kunikin, Yoshitoshi, Utamaro, etc., are honored as the originators of their images by Japanese tattoo masters. There are many iconic images in Japanese tattoos, some of which are listed below along with a short description and picture examples from our lighthouse tattoo artists.

Katana sword tattoo

Katana sword tattoo

Sword tattoos often take on elaborate and exaggerated designs, with highly decorated handles and flawless blades. While an implement of death, the sword has also found itself a symbol of virtue, righteousness and justice.

Japanese birds tattoo

Japanese Phoenix Tattoos

The phoenix (hou-ou in Japanese) is a legendary bird, a mythical creature that can regenerate again and again from the ashes. It is a symbol of transformation, triumph over obstacles, loyalty, rebirth, and renewal. A phoenix can symbolize eternal love and the hope of a rebirth after death. Usually, the bird is tattooed with brightly colored plumage and a long flowing tail and since it is associated with fire it is often used as an opposition to the dragon (fire and water). The phoenix, as well as the chrysanthemum flower, is a symbol of the Japanese emperor.

Japanese Crane Tattoo

Cranes have always enjoyed special honor and in Japan they are considered as a national treasure and a sacred bird. The Japanese crane became the hero of many legends and fairy tales. People believed that cranes are able to turn into people, and, often taking the shape of wandering monks, do good deeds. Cranes are a symbol of longevity and fortune.Japanese flower tattoos feature a variety of traditional symbols. We shall look at the meaning of the most popular ones – the cherry blossoms, peonies, chrysanthemum, lotus, maple leaves.

Japanese Dragon Tattoos

Japanese Dragon Tattoos

Dragon tattoos are among the most popular in Japanese culture. Japanese dragon tattoos are varied in form and character. In Japanese mythology, the creatures interpreted as dragons in English are diverse. They incorporate original Japanese concepts and others imported from Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean variants.

Japanese raven tattoo

Japanese raven tattoo

For centuries, ravens have been a harbinger of omens both good and bad. These highly intelligent creatures have made appearances in folklore from many different cultures.

Samurai tattoo

Samurai tattoo

The Samurai were a noble class in Japan that were known for their resistance to pain, skill with swords, and unflinching loyalty. Popular in Japanese culture today, many people from all over the world show their affinity for Japanese style through Samurai tattoos.


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