When it comes to styles of tattoos, Japanese is one of the most popular styles out there. One of the main reasons the Japanese tattoo is popular is because almost every image has meaning behind it. Japanese tattoos have additional depth to their art. This has helped this style of tattooing persist for so long and extend its popularity to Western culture.
This applies to the Japanese tiger tattoo as well as many others. The tiger, in Japanese culture, has a great deal of meaning. This keeps this image extremely relevant even it times like these. The Japanese Tiger tattoo holds a great deal of meaning and in this article, I plan to go through much of the history and meaning behind this historical image.
History of Japanese Tattooing
Traditional Japanese tattoos were used as protection and symbols of devotion similar to religious tattoos. In addition, these tattoos were used to display status in society. Over the course of time, these tattoos were used as a form of marking criminals, slaves and prisoners of war. Eventually, tattoos in Japan went back to being a status symbol throughout the merchant class who, oddly enough, weren’t supposed to parade their wealth.
Fast forward to World War II, the Emperor of Japan, in an effort to improve the image of Japan to Westerners, outlawed tattoos. This didn’t stop the underbelly of Japan from getting tattoos nor did it discourage Westerners from getting Japanese tattoos. When talking about the criminal element in Japan, the Yakuza style of tattooing became popular in Japan. Yakuza members (Japanese mafia) would be tattooed from head to toe but you would never know. This style of tattooing covered every part of the body except for those exposed. Even the button line of a dress shirt wasn’t touched with the tattoo gun. The tiger was a big part of their tattoos as well.
Japanese Tiger Symbolism
The Japanese tiger holds a lot of meaning we would assume the tiger has in nature. Strength and courage are amongst those qualities we look for when trying to represent ourselves. The tiger also has other representations such as protections against evil spirits, wind, disease, and bad luck.
The tiger is also the symbol for autumn and the North. The tiger is one of the Japanese deities that was adopted from Chinese culture. The tiger controls the wind while the phoenix controls fire, the dragon controls water and the turtle with a snake tail controls the earth.
Specifically, the Japanese tiger is named Byakko in Japanese lore. It is associated with the planet Venus and he is white in color. Byakko symbolizes the warriors that fought for Japan and therefore, many samurai donned the white tiger tattoo as they entered battle.
Samurai Tiger tattoos
As mentioned previously, there was a period when tattoos were only associated with criminals and wrong-doers. It was difficult for someone to hide or move on with their life when they had the brand of ‘THIEF’ or ‘SLAVE’ tattooed on their cheek. The use of tattoos had gone back and fourth from being associated with the positive and the negative. However, when the samurai took up tattooing, the image changed once again.
When the samurai went into battle, their armor and weapons were very valuable. Therefore, when a warrior went down in battle, he was usually stripped of his armor and weapons and might have been difficult to identify. By being tattooed, it was another way a samurai could be identified if he was killed in battle and all his belongings were taken.
In many cultures, there is a process that must be conducted for the spirit to be able to move on to the afterlife. In many dominant religions, the body was required for these rights of passage to be conducted and if the samurai body was able to be identified, the family would know where the body was and might be able to retrieve it.
But in addition to tattoos that would identify the body, tattoos held power for the person with this tattoo. The is why the Japanese tiger tattoo was prevalent for these warriors. The tiger could be embodied in battle and the strength, courage and good luck could be used while in battle. The tiger might also aid in the afterlife for protection and guidance.
Japanese Tiger Variations
There are different variations of the Japanese tiger tattoo and how they are placed on the body. Generally, a longer piece, the Japanese tiger tattoo needs to have room to be tattooed and therefore, prime places would arms, legs back and chest.
Japanese Tiger Sleeve
One popular way to get the Japanese tiger tattoo is running down the arm in a sleeve fashion. When doing so, the person wearing this tattoo is usually wearing it to symbolize inner strength and courage. In many cases you will see the Japanese tiger sleeve accompanied by other Japanese symbols like cherry blossoms or waves. The tiger is usually in an aggressive position or ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims. The person wearing this tattoo on their arm has a warrior mentality.
Japanese Tiger and Dragon Tattoo
The tiger and dragon go hand in hand in Japanese culture. One idea is that the tiger and dragon are the yin and yang symbols of ancient times and together they make up the universe. The dragon is said to reign over the sky and heavens. This mythical creature symbolizes the yang while the tiger represents the yin. The tiger stays close to the ground. Crouching and ready to pounce. It stays close to the earth which is represented by the yin.
All this being said, you can see the importance of the tiger in Japanese culture. Generally, a symbol of strength and courage, you would find many warriors donning this tattoo. Many of us feel like warriors today. Whether we literally fight for a living or have battled illness and bad luck, the Japanese tiger tattoo can be looked to as a source of strength and reminder of the courage we have.