Mykola Romanovsky/

The Art of Irezumi – 20+ Iconic Japanese Tattoos

The blend of Japanese tradition and modern era tattooing


21 Slides

What is Irezumi?
Irezumi, word for word means “inserting ink” for applying permanent designs, patterns, shapes, and symbols. Japanese tattoos as we know today were not the way they started, previously, it was used as punishment for criminals but then it grew into an art that was going to influence the population for decades.

The Meiji period saw the rise of hate towards tattoos as the government banned them as they symbolized criminality. However, the fire of “Irezumi” had already spread across the globe as people from all around the world would flock to Japan in the search of Irezumi artists and be impressed by their traditional skills.

Nonetheless, the ban on tattoos was lifted in 1948 but they still are perceived as a social stigma. Many businesses still don’t entertain customers with tattoos or even they wouldn’t employ a potential employee if they see tattoos. This stigma was established as tattoos were linked to a mafia group, the Yakuza.

Elements of Japanese Tattoos:

Irezumi is highly influenced by Japanese mythology that has an intensive storyline with the involvement of many characters. Let’s discuss a few of them

Ryu: One of the most common figures that one will come across, the dragon. Dragons are also very important in Chinese mythology but the perceptions of these are quite different. In Japanese mythology, the dragon is symbolized as strength, blessings, and wisdom. One who can manipulate anything that encounters for their own benefit. They are usually quite flexible as they grow into figures of what they encounter. For example; sometimes a body of a snake with the head of a dragon or a body of fish with an aggressive dragon head.

Tengu: Just like the previous one, this one is also rooted in ancient Chinese mythology. Tengu is known as a mischievous figure. Tengu can almost never be trusted as they are almost up to no good. Interestingly enough the look of this figure is still a slight mystery. Some say it looks like a dog, whereas some say it is a crow with a long beak. But one thing that makes Tengu quite noticeable is the long beak or long nose.

Kappa: One of the ruthless and notorious figures out there is Kappa, a water demon who is destined to do evil. Kappa’s always lurked around the coast to pull anything that is found by the coasts. Their strong jaws are too strong to defeat but they show mercy to people who bow before them. Hence it is said that kappa tattoos are usually on the people who think they deserve more respect.

Tattoos nowadays are steadily getting popular in Japan and the gap between traditional ones and modern tattoos has certainly been cut thin. Artists now design fusion tattoos that are inspired by traditional designs but look very modern and the demand for the same has also been increasing.

These were just three of the figures but later in the article, we will dive into more figures and how their tattoos symbolize something more than the fancy design and colorful nature.

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Valery Sidelnykov/

Cheeky Snake Dragon on the Back

The classic dragon tattoo on the back with a slight twist to it. This Ryu although is a dragon but has the body of a snake that is vined on a tree. This tattoo signifies a personality that believes to be strategic when needed as a snake and fierce as a dragon when needed. Quite deep, isn’t it?

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@ tiga_tattoo_studio/ Instagram

Irezumi Classic Tattoo

What is a more classic look than a geisha woman with her Japanese fan and those flowers on top of her head? Irezumi is all about that traditional Japanese influence and this is the epitome of the same. The colors here are dark and the ones that pop quite well on lighter skin complexion.

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Cutesy Cat with Eyes and Koi Sleeve

The sleeve here has so many elements in it and that’s what Irezumi is all about. The most obvious elements are the cat with a beanie and flowers splattered all around. The flowers signify blossom and progress whereas the cat is symbolic of vigilance and a sharp eye. Can you see a small Koi Fish near the wrist?

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@ alexgallotattoo/ Instagram

Majestic Ryu in Tiger Persona

Ryu has many different shapes and forms. This one here is for the person who sees himself/herself as a leader. This tattoo is a Ryu in the face of a tiger. The color scheme is quite contrasty with red popping out every now and then to signify the anger hidden within.

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@ japanese.bodysuits/ Instagram

Sakura, Samurai and Sleeve

If there has to one look with all the Japanese tattoos elements then I would say this is it. It has a variety of colors with some influential Japanese elements like Sakura blossom pops, a Samurai, and a frog on top of it. This one is definitely on the cooler side of the spectrum with less intense use of traditional figures.

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@ teddy_ferrer/ Instagram

Japanese Dragon Sleeve

The sleeve here is so intense, especially with its color scheme. The background is all shaded in different forms of black with shades of grey and white. All of it makes a solid background and then the dragon is purple which is such a finesse move because that is utterly unique. The red pops here and there creating a very consistent yet intense look.

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FXQuadro /

Body Covered Dragon Tattoo

Tattoos like these are what Irezumi is, the whole body (Or most of it) is covered in tattoos and this one is an epitome of it. The one we have here is a dragon on the neck with extended paws that are looking to grab anything that comes near. That also falls under the category of “Kappa”.

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@ yushitattoo/ Instagram

Koi Fish On Shoulder

Koi fish on the shoulder is looking over because it is symbolic of perseverance and being on the shoulder solves two purposes. One, being a tad sneaky as it is unseen under shirt but also to signify that success is almost here, just keep working hard. The sakura blossoms show that success is already blooming and almost here.

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@ gable_rtattoo/ Instagram

Hannya is Hot in Anger

Irezumi can never be complete without figures like Ryu, Koi fish, Hannya, and many more. Hannya is a significant character that symbolizes an angry face of a jealous female demon. However, it is also used to ward off evil and bad spirits away. The red and golden color here pops quite well with blue eyes looking straight.

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@ she306w/ Instagram

Happy Okame for Happy Life

The doll in the tattoo here goes by the name “Okame”. She is a religious figure in the Shinto religion. She is the goddess of good fortune and happiness. The tattoo here only uses black shades but that in itself is quite impressive. Also, Okame means someone who has a glad spirit.

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@ namakubitattoo/ Instagram

Sakura Colored Blossoms with Waves

The sleeve of happiness is how I like to call it. The blossoms are sakura colored with waves in the background show quite a few things. First, the blossom signifies the process with tides showing that things might not always be happy as happiness comes in waves.

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@ Instagram

Colorful and Angry Hannya

Hannya is a Japanese drama character who is a jealous female demon. No wonder the tattoo and mask might feel demonish but it in reality is a symbol of wisdom and good luck. To date, people use this mask to ward off the devil in Japanese culture. Being behind the neck might mean that no devil is to be attracted and the mask protects the person.

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@ yushitattoo/ Instagram

Cute but Sneaky Daruma Tattoo

Daruma dolls are cute little dolls that are a sign of perseverance but also used as objects of good luck and fortune. Hence they are gifted to friends and families for good luck. The tattoo here invites good luck and the face facing upwards shows grit and perseverance.

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@ mrspopsicle/ Instagram

Cute Japanese Dog with Fish

Everything about this tattoo is quite Japanese especially with the figures in the tattoo. The dog is quite jolly with fish on the stick that seems very confused with flowers in the background symbolize the sakura blossoms which are very famous in the region.

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Valery nakaridore/

Sakura Sleeve with Blossom

A very pleasant and positive outlook tattoo with that sakura blossom sleeve all over. Other flowers are also blooming which signifies the process of progressing through life. The colors chosen here are very contrasty and pop quite nicely on the skin complexion.

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@ tradart_az/ Instagram

Koi Fish with Fighter

Koi fish is a tattoo that goes on a person who wants to show the significance of perseverance. The person who tattoos this cares about overcoming the struggles of life and the presence of a fighter makes it even stronger where a fighter signifies putting up a strong fight.

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@ balancetattoo/ Instagram

Miyazaki Devil on Wrist

Miyazaki is an animation director from Japan who has gotten a lot of acclamation for his work in animation. This one is an inspiration from “Spirited Away” and the face here is a devil with the face of humans but horns and teeth of a devil. The position of this tattoo is the wrist which also gives an impression of a wristband.

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@bozdeniro/ Instagram

Three Eyed Ryu

This Ryu is majestic and shows immense leadership with aggression. The third eye on top symbolizes enlightenment or seeing things more than they really are. The shading here is top-notch and the color combination is just minimally intuitive.

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@ dizzikat/ Instagram

Upwards Facing Koi Fish Tattoo

The koi fish here is trying to swim upwards which signifies progress and constant hard work. On the other hand, koi fish tattoos on their own symbolize perseverance. Usually, the person who is imprinting this overcoming or has overcome the struggles of life.

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@ kseah/ Instagram

Geisha Tattoo with Japanese Fan

We can see traditional Geisha women tattooed in black color with different tones of shades. The tattoo is imprinted on an ankle to keep it a tad low-key. However, the size of the tattoo is very obvious and everything about the tattoo speaks Japan.

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@ heartandhandtattoo/ Instagram

Semi Filled Golden Koi Fish

The koi fish tattoo here is quite artistic especially due to its color scheme. The placement of this tattoo is towards the inner elbow where the fish can enjoy this long size with its position that isn’t too obvious. That being said, koi fish is a symbol of perseverance.

Related topics Tattoos

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