History of Japanese Style Tattoos

John Dietrich

Whether you know it or not, Japanese style tattoos have likely influenced the ink you have or are thinking about getting. Knowing their rich history will help you make better choices about your final design, even if you aren’t using your tattoos to make a bold statement about your love for Japanese culture.

Early Japanese Tattoos

The Japanese have used tattoos since 5,000 BC. Most Japanese males wore them as late as 297 BC, though they fell out of favor. By 720 AD they were used to mark criminals and outcasts. In later centuries, the criminal element wore them with pride, viewing them as a sign of courage and loyalty.

In the 17th century they grew popular even among law-abiding citizens thanks to that era’s version of pop culture.

“Around the middle of the 18th century the popularity of tattooing was stimulated by a popular Chinese novel, Suidokan, with many of its novels heroes extensively tattooed. The Japanese version of Suidokan was illustrated by a variety of artists, each of whom created prints with new interpretations of the tattoos described in the novel.”

Vanishing Tattoo

The traditional method was far more painful and intense than the electric tattoo machines in use today. Artists use a brush of needles to hand poke the ink into the skin. The process of completing a tattoo could take many years.

Many Japanese tattoo artists continue to use the traditional brushes today. The use of the electric machine is known as “Yoburi,” or “Western” tattooing. Artists who use Yoburi carry far less prestige than the traditional masters, who themselves studied many years before being allowed to apply ink to their first bodies.

The Art Form Spreads

There’s a reason tattoos were closely associated with sailors until more recent decades. In the 1850s, sailors who visited Japan became aware of tattoos and began seeking them out. They were exotic markers both of the sailor’s own “outsider” status as well as a way to mark their status as world travelers. By the 1890s, Samuel O’Reilly had invented the electric tattoo machine, at which point Americans began to develop their own distinctive styles.

Yet the true tattoo Renaissance happened during WWII, a time during which the Japanese and the Americans were enemies. Norman Collins, a former Naval officer, had studied under the great Japanese tattoo artists prior to the war. He developed his own style and opened his own shop in Honolulu. There, he became known as “Sailor Jerry” after becoming famous for tattooing soldiers and sailors.

While most of Sailor Jerry’s tattoos carried American motifs, he did offer dragon designs which simultaneously honored and appropriated the culture of the enemy.

“Jerry deeply admired the work of Japanese tattoo masters and was the first Westerner to enter into regular correspondence with them. Yet he was also determined to beat them at their own game. Jerry’s dragons, clearly Asian in nature, embody these conflicting attitudes. They’re more like exotic ghosts than living beings—like totems of an earlier, fascinating era.”

Sailor Jerry

Sailor Jerry threw the design doors wide open. Today’s tattoos may not always look much like the traditional ones. Nevertheless, you can trace the design of almost any tattoo back to its original roots.

Symbolism of the Most Popular Japanese Tattoos

Most traditional Japanese tattoos carry a rich sense of meaning.

Dragons are an indication that the wearer aspires to be a powerful force for good. They’re also symbols of wisdom and courage.

Koi fish are symbols of strength, determination, and bravery. In Chinese folklore, koi had the potential to become dragons someday.

Phoenix tattoos symbolize both rebirth and triumph. They are great tattoos for communicating a victory of some kind, or for making a fresh start.

Tigers served as a talisman against bad luck and evil spirits.

Snakes were associated with healing, protection, and good luck. Like the dragon, the snake often serves as a symbol of wisdom as well.

Every flower means something different to the traditional Japanese tattoo artist. Cherry blossoms, while beautiful, nevertheless share a message with skulls in Western tattoo art: they’re a symbol of someone who has become reconciled with death. Peonies are symbols of elegance and wealth. Orchids denote courage. A hibiscus would serve as a symbol of gentle compassion.

There are many other traditional symbols to choose from, though some, like the “oni,” or devil, are quite complex in their meaning and purpose. Westerners who wish to emulate the Japanese style might wish to be more cautious about using these symbols. In addition, kanji are popular but should be used with caution. Unless you work with someone who knows what he or she is doing it’s all too easy to permanently mark your body with a word you didn’t intend to use!

Have you seen some truly glorious Japanese tattoos? Be sure to share them with us!