Japanese tattoos; art or stigma?

Japanese tattoos are not only one of the most popular styles in this art, but they also carry a rich and diverse set of meanings. The Japanese tattooing tradition has thrived for so long because it appeals to so people outside of the Japanese culture as well. Tattoo shops exist in every major city in Japan and are very welcoming to their patrons.

Even though the current Japanese culture does not encourage the idea of getting tattoos, you could get it done from any of the major cities should you choose to do so.

(Fabi Dorighello | Flickr)

History and culture of Japanese tattoos

Traditionally, tattoos in Japan were used to convey societal status as well as spiritual symbols that were used as a charm for protection. With time, the Japanese culture transpired and made tattoos as a form of punishment, similar to what was meted out to Roman prisoners of war, slaves, and criminals.

The tattoos given to the vilified section of the society served the purpose of making them instantly recognizable. Even this culture faded away with time, and Japanese tattoos regained their original status. However, the Emperor of Japan outlawed tattoos after World War II in an effort to improve the country’s image in the West.

Since then, the negative connotation associated with tattoos has more or less persisted. The Yakuza, which is a notorious mafia group in Japan added more fuel to the proverbial fire by getting themselves inked as a mark of being lethal. This connection drove the ancient tradition tattooing even underground.

But none of these had any impact on how foreigners viewed tattoos but made them more intrigued. Today, even though the elderly do not condone wearing ink, the youth don’t have a so strong resistance as the elderly, which is perhaps due to the Western influence brought by tourists.

The meaning behind Japanese tattoos

There are a number of symbols and images used in Japanese tattoo art that convey special meanings. These images are used to tell about a person’s aspirations, beliefs, or character traits. Even though every tattoo has different significance to different users, some of the meanings behind common tattoos are the following:

• Dragon tattoos: strength, wisdom, when/water, a beneficial force

• Carp tattoos: strength, determination, courage, water, a desire to exceed

• Phoenix tattoos: triumph, fire, rebirth of the body and soul

• Tiger tattoos: strength, courage, wind, protector against all the evils

• Lion tattoos: courageous, strong, protective, heroism, a symbol for good luck

• Snake tattoos: good luck, wisdom, protection, strength, and change

• Wave tattoos: fluidity, movement, strength, life

What makes the Japanese tattoos so fascinating?

The thing that makes the Japanese tattoos so fascinating is their diversity, which makes the designs open to many types of interpretations. In the early days, tattooing was done by hand, and each design carried forward the history, culture, and allusions that were behind the images.

Machine needles arrived very late in the tattoo scene in Japan, starting off from the main cities like Kyoto. However, tattooing is not encouraged in the existing Japanese culture and may even deprive you of certain opportunities in some cases. So think twice before you go under the needle.

Whether you want to get yourself inked or want to admire from afar, Japanese tattoos are pieces of art that are bound to captivate your mind.


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