Welcome to a World of Rich Tattoo Tradition and History
“Art is the illusion of spontaneity.”
(Old Japanese Proverb)
There is something about the Japanese culture that has both inspired and mystified
the Western world at large. The rich history of daimyos, samurai warriors, life
under shoguns and the vivid culture of the everyday citizens is so far away
from our own that it easily binds us up and takes us into a tiny fraction of
their world. A world where your nose is greeted with the enticing scent of brewing
tea, and your senses are eagerly awaiting the majestic wonder of the cha ceremony.
It is a world that has intoxicated our minds with intense philosophies and art.
The Japanese landscapes, watercolors, and woodcut art forms have been admired
for their beauty and tranquility. And they have been imitated by the amazingly
beautiful art of traditional Japanese tattoo designs known as horimono.
The History of Horimono
The art of Japanese tattoo has been traced back as far as 5,000 B.C. It is
very possible that it existed well before this date, but this is as far back
as claims can be backed up with physical proof. Clay figurines that date back
to the 5th millennia B.C. have been found with their faces painted or engraved
to represent tattoo markings. As far as historians and archeologists can tell,
these tattoos are believed to have held a special religious or magical meaning
to their bearers.
The first written record of Japanese tattoos appeared much later, in a Chinese
dynastic history that dates to the year 297 A.D. In it, the Chinese reflected
that the Japanese “men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate
their bodies with designs.” This was indeed odd to their Chinese neighbors
who considered the art to be a sign of barbarity, and was only used by them
as a form of punishment.
But, years passed, and the Chinese cultural influence definitely swayed popular
Japanese thought. By the year 700 A.D., the art of tattoo had become increasingly
unpopular, and it didn’t take long to become a common form of punishment
for criminals and a way to easily identify outcasts. People with these tattoos
were faced with permanent ostracism by their families and communities. While
sought out as a way to identify and control outcasts and criminals, this practice
soon led to problems for the Japanese government. Many of the outcasts with
tattoos were known as ronin (or samurais without masters). In order to survive,
these highly skilled warriors joined together into organized gangs. These gangs
are what formed the roots of the yakuza, the centralized organized crime leader
in twentieth century Japan.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that traditional Japanese tattoos
again had the chance to flourish. It was during the later half of the Edo period,
and the feudal system had begun to deteriorate, leaving the people in search
of heroes and leading them back to the wonders and hope of their folklore. Soon,
the art of tattoo began turning up again and again, usually depicting designs
from Japanese folklore and religion. Popular artwork included dragons, giant
snakes, Chinese lions, the Buddha, Fudomyo (the Japanese god of fire), Fujin
& Raijin (the gods of wind and lightening) and Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
Other common subjects for Japanese tattoo designs included the traditional watercolors,
wood-cuts and picture books of the era.
Tattoo artists tended to be artists who had before created wood-cut designs,
but had instead exchanged their blades and blocks for needles and pressed charcoal
ink. As the art gained popularity, Edo began a tradition of what we would call
tattoo conventions that have been taking place there now for over 150 years!
However, while all of this was going on, it was still not “legal”
per se. The art of horimono continued to be forbidden (or at least highly frowned
upon) by the government up until the mid 20th century. The prohibition was finally
lifted in the year 1948. But, even today, Japanese tattoo still has a certain
amount of stigma attached to it, and for those natives who do opt for horimono,
their beautiful designs and creations are usually inked in a place that it won’t
be easily noticed by others, like a sleeve the upper arm area, and, more generally,
any area commonly covered by clothing.
But regardless of its popularity in its native land of Japan, the traditional
art of Japanese tattoo is free to make leaps and bounds of popularity in the
US and other western countries and cultures.
Widely Popular Japanese Tattoo Designs
It’s not only the style of tattoo that differs so much from many other
cultural examples, but the subjects of those designs that makes Japanese tattoo
so sought after around the world. Images that continually show up in Japanese
designs are explained in more detail below.
Kanji is the calligraphy style letter writing method used by the Japanese. It’s
a wildly popular choice among those seeking Japanese style tattoo designs. By
using Kanji, you can easily create and display nearly any message you want.
Some popular Kanji characters translate into words like: Happiness, Wealth,
Love, Lovers, Laughter, Sadness, Beautiful, Duty and Loyalty.
However, it should go without saying that anytime you decide upon a tattoo
that is based on a foreign language, you should be sure to spend ample time
researching the authenticity of each symbols’ meaning. It could be rather
embarrassing to learn that the Kanji tattoo you thought meant “mother”
in fact meant something far worse, like rat or prostitute!
Inspired by Life
The Japanese culture as a whole has a deep respect and reverence for nature
and life. Taking time for tasks such as meditation, calm walks, and admiring
the cherry blossoms as they fall is expected, if not exactly required. Therefore,
much of their art and creativity has been inspired by their local flora and
Popular animal subjects in Japanese tattoo designs come from all sorts of categories.
They often portray the animals in the Chinese horoscope: the dog, the rat, the
rooster, the dragon, the tiger, the goat, the horse, the pig, the ox, the monkey
and the snake. In addition to these creatures, Chinese dragons, gibbons, spiders,
fish (like the very popular koi fish); birds and foxes are commonly featured
Japanese pictures. If you’re looking to make a truly breathtaking design,
consider the octopus, a bonsai tree, or cherry blossoms.
And don’t disregard the supreme animals, humans. More than in most other
cultures, human subjects abound in the Japanese art. Masked people, warriors,
ladies, young girls, geisha, samurai, and the ancient gods and goddesses make
popular appearances in Japanese designs.
Architecture and Landscape
The incredibly unique architecture of Japan makes it a likely candidate for
an art inspired tattoo. Whether featuring the houses, temples, retreats, statues
of the Japanese people, the result is still breathtaking. Others gain more inspiration
from the gentle rolling hills, dotted with cherry trees in full bloom, with
mountains towering in the background. These larger scale pictures may need a
larger canvas, and work well for full back (or even full body) ink. But whatever
inspires you, it abounds in Japan.
Small flowers, or large intricate samurai warriors, Japanese style tattoos
work for anyone, almost anywhere. A koi lazily swimming across a hip, an emerald
serpent slithering up a calf, a ring of cherry blossoms joined together in an
ankle- or armband or a lady and samurai embracing on your back, as wonderful
as the art of horimono is, you may find yourself enticed into wearing them all
as part of your personal tattoo gallery!
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a
(Ancient Japanese Proverb)
Show me more Japanese Tattoo Designs