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Irezumi - The Traditional Japanese Tattoo Art

Irezumi - The Traditional Japanese Tattoo Ar

What makes the Japanese tattoo so special? How does it differ from the motifs we wear on our skin in Europe, and is there a specific approach to tattooing this art?

There are various terms for Japanese tattoos, including the term shishei 刺青, meaning "pierce with blue," as the special Nara ink used in tattooing here turns blue under the skin. Bunshin 文身 describes "patterning the body." However, the most common term for Japanese tattooing remains irezumi 入れ墨, which simply describes the introduction of ink into the skin (literally "inserting ink").

The motifs are diverse and highly symbolic. From dragons to snakes and geishas, each tattoo has its own meaning, often several, which should be thoroughly understood beforehand to avoid misunderstandings or awkward moments. After all, with this Japanese art, one should leave nothing to chance, as a tattoo is created for eternity.

History and Background of Japanese Tattoos

The so-called irezumi were first mentioned in Chinese writings, particularly in connection with the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu, who adorned their bodies with tattoo art. However, it was mostly women among the Ainu who carried this unique art, often in the form of beard-like drawings on the upper lip and patterns on the arms and between the fingers. Through facial tattoos on Ainu women, one could discern their marital status and the number of children they had borne. Thus, in ancient Japan, tattoos served more for social communication purposes.

Tattooed back of a Japanese lady

Meaning and symbolism of the motifs

These traditional tattoo designs not only have a history but each carries a unique meaning and should never be chosen arbitrarily. Nevertheless, Japanese tattoo art has something suitable for every tattoo enthusiast. A magnificent koi fish in color, a tiger as a protector on the hand, or a tattoo consisting of an ensemble of various Japanese flowers that will last a lifetime - the possibilities are nearly limitless. It's also crucial to consider the experience of the artist who will be doing the tattoo, as that also plays an important role.

Main Motifs

The Samurai:
Originally popular among the Yakuza, it symbolizes courage, honor, loyalty, hope, and proper action. Attack, distance, retreat, strength, sensitivity, pride, and humility are complementary qualities that define the Samurai.

The Geisha:
Represents grace, beauty, femininity, elegance, mystique, and inviolability, often combined with floral motifs or animals.

The Helmet (Kabuto) and Face Protection (Mempo):
Worn by Samurai and designed to be very intimidating, often adorned with large antlers. The helmet itself often featured motifs with unique meanings, indicating the wearer's clan or religion.

The Skull (Zugaikotsu):
Contrary to expectations, the skull in Japanese tattoo art is attributed with positive qualities. It symbolizes change and serves as a reminder of the impermanence of things.

A Severed Head (Namakubi):
Even this rather brutal image has a positive connotation. It is considered a good luck charm for people engaged in dangerous professions.

Irezumi tattoo motif Samurai
Irezumi tattoo motif Geisha

Animals and Mythical Creatures

The Koi (Nishikigoi):
Symbolizes determination, strength, courage, desire for success, self-improvement, and water. The colors of the carp also play a role.

The Dragon (Ryū):
Embodies power, fierceness, and bravery.

The Tiger (Tora):
Protects against demons, diseases, and misfortune.

The Snake (Hebi):
Brings luck, wisdom, and symbolizes positive transformation.

The Frog (Kaeru):
Symbolizes luck and protection for travelers.

The Goldfish (Kingyo):
Represents success.

The Phoenix or Firebird (Hou-ou):
One of the holiest birds symbolizing immortality, splendor, and victory.

The Crab (Heikegani):
Due to the resemblance of its back shell to the faces of Samurai, it is believed to be the reincarnation of fallen Japanese warriors.

The Monkey (Saru):
Originating from Noh theater, often worn as a mask. It is meant to be humorous.

The Fox (Kitsune):
A mystical creature, usually depicted as female, symbolizes fertility and luck. The more tails it has, the more powerful it is, with the nine-tailed fox being the most powerful.

The Raccoon Dog (Tanuki):
Symbolizes masculinity and fortune in terms of wealth.

The Demons (Hannya and Oni):
Hannya: A female mask from Noh theater, serves as a warning against revenge, jealousy, anger, hatred, and disappointment.
Oni: Often portrayed as a cruel figure but can also be interpreted as a protective guardian.

The Lion Dog, Guardian Lion, or Fu Lions (Shishi/Karajishi):
Often seen in pairs at temple entrances, symbolizing protection, strength, and courage.

The Dream Eater (Baku):
As the name suggests, the Baku is believed to consume bad dreams and protect against evil.

The Ominous Omen (Nue):
Also known as a Japanese chimera, often appearing in a black cloud and considered a harbinger of misfortune and illness.

The Ghost (Yurei):
A floating, female figure in funeral attire, surrounded by colored radiance.

A Bird-Like Creature (Tengu):
Protects against personal burdens and weaknesses.

A Turtle-Like Creature (Kappa):
Also known as a river spirit. Once associated with negative traits, it is now portrayed as a harmless and cute being in Japanese folklore.

Irezumi tattoo motif goldfish
Irezumi tattoo motif tiger

Flowers and Plants

The Peony (Botan):
The queen of flowers symbolizes wealth, luck, prosperity, and success.

The Chrysanthemum (Kiku):
As a symbol of the imperial family, it represents happiness and longevity.

The Lotus (Hasu):
Symbolizes wisdom and enlightenment and is a symbol of Buddhism.

The Cherry Blossom (Sakura):
Represents transience, beauty, and mortality, serving as a symbol of Japan.

The Maple Leaf (Momiji):
Represents regeneration, resurrection, and the life cycle of humans.

Who Wears Irezumi?

Japanese tattoos are often primarily associated with the Yakuza. The life of the Japanese mafia involves organized crime, making symbolic tattoos with specific meanings a fitting choice for its members. The Bodysuit, a tattoo covering the entire upper body, is particularly attributed to the Yakuza. This association has led to many Japanese individuals with extensive tattoos being prohibited from entering public baths. Nevertheless, in Japan, there are numerous talented artists who continue to spread dragon and other traditional motifs in Japanese culture. This has resulted in an increasing number of young Japanese individuals embracing body art, gradually diminishing the connection to criminality.

Creating Traditional Japanese Irezumi

There are very few traditional tattoo artists left in Japan who master this craft. The journey to the finished tattoo is long and quite painful because no modern tattoo machine is used here. Instead, they rely on traditional craftsmanship. A needle bundle attached to a bamboo handle (Tebori stick) is dipped in ink and hand-poked into the skin. The Japanese tattoos that result from this process are very precise, as the artist has more control over the depth of the stitches. The outcome can be truly impressive.

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