Mykola Romanovsky/

The Art of Irezumi – 20+ Iconic Japanese Tattoos

The blend of Japanese tradition and modern era tattooing


21 Slides

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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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