When looking for your next tattoo, there are many styles and designs you can choose from. Most of this will depend on what you feel fits your personality. To find out what fits you best, you should know about the tattoo styles that are an option. One style that might be one of the oldest of all time is the Japanese tattoo style of Irezumi.
In this post, we are going to talk about the history of Irezumi and the many symbols within this tattooing style. This style has a long and interesting history, so we think it is important for someone considering the Irezumi tattoo to know a bit about the history behind the style and symbols. By the end of this post, we hope you feel more comfortable getting the Irezumi tattoo you have been dreaming about.
Check out some of these tattoos before we get too far into it. By looking at these, you will be better prepared for our discussions on the different designs in this style.
History of Irezumi
The history of Irezumi tattooing goes back a long way and it could be described as fascinating. Especially considering the negative connections to tattooing in ancient Japan.
During the Edo period in Japan, they started developing decorative tattoos instead of the marks done with symbolism and marks of the older times. This style has transformed into what we know today as Irezumi.
This style of tattooing is done by decorating the body with mythical beasts, leaves, flowers and more images from myths, tales and stories. The motivation for the development of Irezumi was the progression and improvement of woodblock prints. It created the want for these Irezumi tattoos because wearing Irezumi meant you were aspiring to accomplish your life goals.
The artists who created the woodblock prints were also the ones that started tattooing. They would use the same tools they used to carve these woodblocks including gouges, chisels and a specific ink called Nara black or Nara ink. This ink turns a bluish-green color under the skin which is the way the original tattoos looked.
There is still debate on who wore the decorative tattoos. Many say it was the upper class that wasn’t allowed to flaunt their money, so they would get bodies inked full of Irezumi. Others say it was the lower class who wore these tattoos. It is said that Irezumi was soon associated with firemen and they wore them for protection and spiritual aid.
In modern Japan around the Meiji period (1869), Japan was trying to clean up its image and put on a good face for the West, so they outlawed tattoos. At this point, tattooing and Irezumi were only had by criminals and gangsters.
However, this didn’t stop foreigners from coming to Japan in search of the artists that tattooed in this style. It is also said that King Edward VII of the United Kingdom had a Irezumi tattoo artist brought to him and he had dragons tattooed on his forearms. It is said that he sent this same artist to America to have some of his friends tattooed as a sign of friendship.
By 1945, tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces, but it was still associated with criminals. For many years, Irezumi was associated with the Yakuza even though it was legalized.
The art of Traditional Irezumi is a painful and time-consuming process done by specialized tattoo artists. Some of these tattoos can take as long as five years with weekly visits if the piece is big enough. It was a big deal to have a large piece finished and many would respect the person being tattooed based on his follow-through and patience.
Irezumi Tattoo Variations
In Irezumi, there are a great deal of symbols that are tattooed and each of them has its own meaning and symbolism. In the information below, we will go over many of the images that people have tattooed on their bodies in the Irezumi style.
Ryu or Dragon Tattoo
In Japanese culture, the dragon is full of wisdom and inhabits the air and water. The West portrays dragons as greedy, cave-dwelling animals that guard their riches and never leave unless it’s to burn down a city. The oriental symbol of the dragon is a much more respected animal. The dragon embodies strength, wisdom and the ability to manipulate forces in the universe for human benefit.
The look of this symbol can vary from dragon to dragon. It is said the Japanese dragon takes on the look of the living things it has come across in its life. It might have the ears of a rabbit, the eyes of a demon and the horns of a bull. Every dragon tattoo has its own personality and therefore, can fit the person wearing it perfectly.
Those who get the dragon tattoo are attempting to invoke qualities of positivity and strength.
The Hasu tattoo is the lotus flower. These beautiful flowers have big-time symbolism and strong ties to many of the Asian religions. In India, the lotus flower is a symbol of an awakening to understand the meaning of life. The meaning will differentiate depending on what myth we are talking about you can count on the lotus having religious implications.
In modern times, the lotus tends to symbolize life as a whole. The lotus sprouts from the mud to create a beautiful flower and that should represent the struggle of life. It still represents religious beliefs for many people, but it has evolved into a symbol of growth in life.
Fujin was the God of wind in Japanese lore. The Fujin tattoo is usually depicted in the form of a demon or one image with his skin a blue or green glowing color. He is believed to have magical powers and with his tapestry behind him, he can control the wind currents.
Tengu are a form of Asian ghosts or creatures of the supernatural sort. The Tengu tattoo is associated with war or destruction. Because of their history of representing birds of prey, the Tengu image takes on bird-like characteristics like long noses that look like beaks. Today, the Tengu tattoos represent more of a humanoid look. When the Tengu tattoo is inked on the body, you will tend to see looks of vengeance and wrath.
Koi Fish Tattoo
The koi fish tattoo is a form of Irezumi that has a great deal of symbolism associated with it. Their elevated status and myths that surround this fish have made it one of the more popular images to have tattooed. Contrary to the belief of many Westerners, the koi fish isn’t just a colorful fish, but it is one of the most tattooed and storied images in Japanese culture.
Even though the koi has its origins in China, the Japanese have adopted the image for the masculine qualities it represents. It is said the koi will bravely climb waterfalls and if caught, it will sit on the cutting board awaiting its fate without a flinch. This is much like the warrior facing death in battle.
In time, the koi became associated with these masculine qualities we spoke about and was even the symbol of the “Boys Day Festival” that happens annually in Japan.
According to Japanese legend, the Baku are creatures of myth who help in devouring the nightmares you are having. You will still see Baku symbols by peoples’ beds in Japan. They are the Japanese form of a dream catcher and the Baku tattoo can be used for the same reason. You will most likely see Baku with the body of a bear, the head of an elephant, the tail of an ox and the claws of a tiger.
Raijin is the other half of Fujin. Raijin is the rival brother of Fujin and is the god of thunder. You will often see this tattoo showing Raijin beating drums as he flies through the skies and lightning rolling off his body. According to Japanese lore, Raijin and Fujin are in constant battle which creates the stormy weather we see.
The boton tattoo is another way of saying the peony tattoo. The peony is considered the king of flowers. It earned this title for representing wealth and elegance. It’s also been called the “rose without thorns” because of the way the wide-spreading petals curl up on the edges. Even though you will often see the peony tattooed in red, it is grown in a variety of colors.
You might see a lot of filler in Irezumi with what looks to be a flower garden in the background but there aren’t as many different flowers as you would think. Traditionally, the peony is the overwhelming favorite for filler in Irezumi because of its connection with wealth, prosperity and good fortune.
Foo Dog Tattoo
Also known as the Lion of Buddha, the foo dog tattoo is well known in Japanese tattooing. The description of the Lion of Buddha represents this image much more closely as it is a lion and not a dog. The foo dog is used widely in Asian tattoos, sculptures and art.
The Shinto religion based in Japan has origins that pre-date Buddhism and it also had a lion with a red head as its protector. The foo dog symbolizes courage, strength and the soul of a protector. It has even been said that motherfoo dogs throw their young from cliffs to see which ones survive and which will be the strongest.
In Irezumi and other art forms, you will see the foo dog represented in pairs and placed at the entrances of buildings and homes. You will often see a male on one side and a female on the other side. The male will often have his mouth open (as to let evil leave) and one paw sitting on a sphere that represents both the totality of Buddhist law and heaven.
On the other side sits the female foo dog with her mouth closed to keep evil out and her paw resting on a little cub. The little cub will be portrayed on its back and represent the earth.
The oni or demon tattoo is another one of the more popular tattoos of Irezumi. Their imagery is almost always evil with the demon having horns and the imagery showing them being cruel and violent. This would be accurate because in Japanese lore, the oni are terrifying supernatural creatures. They are also said to be the guardians of the Buddhist hell and carry out torture on the unfortunate souls that were placed there for eternity.
In Japanese lore, both Fujin and Raijin were portrayed as oni. This tells us that the oni isn’t inherently evil, but it carries out the deeds of others that are more powerful than it. Fujin and Raijin aren’t always depicted as oni but in many cases they are.
There is one oni that is said to be the king of all and his name is Onijin. Onijin is all-powerful and described as self-absorbed and yet powerful. However, Onijin can be overpowered by righteous deities or forces if need be to keep balance in the society.
However, there are older tales that say oni can end up being protectors. This happens in cases where monks pass away and become oni to protect the temples.
Hou-ou or Phoenix Tattoo
The Irezumi phoenix tattoo represents one of the most important birds of all myths. Not only has it risen from the ashes to make it immortal, it is also a creature of great splendor and beauty.
The name is derived from the word “red” in Greek. This is the color of fire. It is said to come once every 500 years and has origins tied to Ethiopia. This symbol was stamped onto coins in ancient Rome and was used to symbolize the empire’s endurance. It was also said to be able to bring ying and yang together as a symbol of marriage in Chinese lore.
Fudo Myoo Tattoo
The Fudo Myoo tattoo means “Wise King Acala” in Japanese. However, it is a deity from the Buddhist religion that became a popular image for Irezumi. Fudo Myoo is interpreted in many ways but most of the symbolism revolves around being a protector with a wrathful side.
He conquers anything obstructing the spiritual journey of those who are believers, so they can eventually reach full enlightenment. Common depictions of Fudo Myoo include an angry facial expression with a wrinkled brow. You will also see squinted eyes and pointy fangs. It’s as if he is ready for battle. In addition, he holds many different symbolic items depending on who and where the tattoo was done.
Hebi or Snake Tattoo
It is likely that the snake is the most symbolic animal that has ever been in existence. In any culture, you are bound to find symbolism behind the snake. This goes for good traits and bad, but you can be sure it is symbolic. Snakes are said to have abilities of the supernatural sort. These would include protection against bad fortune, disaster and illness.
Just like the dragon can conjure the rain, the snake has a sense of when something is not right and knows when to leave. In many Irezumi tattoo cases, the snake has the ability to change into a human form and you might see this in the shape of a scorned or wronged woman. On the other hand, snake symbolism isn’t always attached to negative meanings. Snakes also represent prosperity and good fortune if portrayed correctly.
Over the course of time, the snake has represented mankind’s biggest hopes and fears. During ancient times in Asia, it was said that snakes would reward people with jewels. They often appear as guardians of treasure and shrines. Some say a snake’s saliva can create jewels on its own. Snakes are even an omen of good luck and protection if they are found in your home in some cultures. It just goes to show you that the snake doesn’t always represent negative meanings.
Another example of the snake having positive symbolism is in the Chinese zodiac. Those born under the Snake are usually enigmatic but also seem to be wise beyond their years. It makes sense that snakes are mysterious as their symbolism has connections to both positive and negative traits.
Kitsune or Fox Tattoo
Kitsune (or foxes) are known as really intelligent animals. They are said to hold the key to immortality. Legend has it that Kitsune grow old through life until they are old enough to be celestial foxes (Tenko) and rise into heaven. The folklore behind the fox is tremendous. It is said the fox is magical and can fly, shoot fire and lightning from their mouth and are able to enter the dreams of others. These magical animals are said to be able to transform into human form and either take the life force from people or find love.
The fox tattoo is a popular one in Irezumi tattooing and all the symbolism means the people with this tattoo will try to inherit some of those powers.
In Irezumi tattooing, the Heikegani represent the spirits of warriors who have fallen in battle. They are also said to be reincarnations of the warriors that won the Battle of Dan-no-ura. In fact, this creature really does exist. This crab is native to Japan and is also called the Samurai Crab because their shells look like an angry samurai.
Even though most Irezumi symbols are magical and creatures from folklore, the Heikegani is used in many cases as the main theme of a tattoo or filler.
The Tora is also known as the tiger. This is a major theme in Irezumi tattooing and you will see this in many people. The Chinese consider the tiger to be the king of all land animals. They represent long life, courage and strength and those who have the Tora tattooed on their body, they are looking to take on some of these traits.
Tigers are also able to ward off demons, bad luck and disease. In old imagery, you might see tigers fighting oni (demons) while at the side of the demon queller, Shoki. In addition, tigers are a sacred animal and one of four. Each sacred animal represents a direction and the tiger is the symbol of the North. It also represents control of the winds and autumn.
Zugaikotsu or Skull Tattoo
The skull tattoo represents more than what you think it does. Most of us associate it with death, decay and danger. However, the skull was never associated with these meanings originally. Originally, the skull was meant to represent the celebration of a great life or a great change. After all, death is the greatest change that any of us will ever experience.
When really digging into the meaning of the skull, it was meant for us to understand our mortality and not take life for granted. We should take every opportunity to live like we know there is an end to it. In addition, the symbol of the skull is used to show respect to our ancestors who have passed.
The hannya mask is one that is well known in Japanese culture and Irezumi tattooing. Actors of the Noh theatre would use this mask, as well as others, in their performances of well-known traditional stories. These masks are used to tell you the mood or identity of the character they are portraying. The hannya mask is specifically used to represent a jealous or vengeful woman. The anger and jealousy have transformed this woman into a demon with bits of humanity left in her. The eyes of the hannya mask tell a story of sadness and suffering.
Namakubi or Severed Head Tattoo
The severed head tattoo is another one that you will likely see when checking out Irezumi tattoos. It is used in many ways and can have different meanings. One of the messages this symbol portrays is the willingness to accept your fate. It also holds relevance to the circle of life.
Now we know this is a lot of information to take in about Irezumi and we barely scratched the surface on a lot of these topics, however, you should have a better idea of what these symbols mean.