Style Focus: Japanese Tattoos

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The act of tattooing, or Irezumi, can be traced back almost 5000 years ago in Japanese culture. It’s an artform steeped in history, meaning and strength, and is one of the most eye-catching styles of tattooing. Detailed in the ancient texts called Wei Chih which date back to around 297 AD, it’s said that men of all ages would have designs on their skin, particularly on their face. Later on, instead of putting criminals to death or punishing them with long sentences, the individuals would be branded with tattoos as a way to make their status known to all. Tattoos were also used as a way to distinguish an individual’s social status in an ancient tribe called the Ainu, where women used the markings to signify their class. 

Toyda, there are two forms of Japanese tattooing that exist: traditional and modern. Traditional work is applied without the use of an electric tool, whereas modern works are applied using an electrical tattoo machine. These pieces often feature either black or grey linework, with an array of bold colours throughout. Sometimes, works can be done completely in black or grey, but the common theme of Japanese culture remains the same in both forms. 

Common Japanese Tattoo Designs

Arguably one of the most distinguishing elements of Japanese tattoos is the array of vivid colours. It’s thought that a colour such as white symbolises purity and truth, new beginnings and hope. In Japan, the colour can sometimes also be seen as a comforting attitude towards death. Red is particularly important in Japan as it can symbolise happiness and joy, and is often used in celebratory settings. It’s also meant to offer protection for the wearer against evil, something which makes it a popular hue to use in pieces. 

With regards to symbolism, one of the most common motifs in Japanese tattooing is the image of the dragon. Seen as a wise creature that possesses the ability to transform the universe to work in its favour, the dragon is also seen as a way to bring blessings to the bearer. The koi fish is also a signature image seen in Japanese style tattooing, representing a considerable amount of courage, the ability to flow like water, and a strong work ethic. Majestic-looking Foo Dogs, which are actually lions, are thought to bring happiness and positive energy into your home, and are often used with Feng Shui to harmonize an individual’s environment. Those who choose to have Foo Dogs tattooed on them are also said to be granted calmness and peace, making them a popular choice for those looking to reflect positivity in their collection.

Are tattoos illegal in Japan?

Even though tattooing is very much a part of Japanese culture, and being tattooed isn’t illegal in itself, the country’s attitude towards tattooing is still tumultuous. The government crackdown on tattooing was covered by the Economist in 2012 and detailed how the mayor of the time, Toru Hashimoto, was “on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere”. Artists in the country have had their studios raided by police, and any tattoo paraphernalia confiscated. Based in Osaka, tattoo artist Taiki Masuda was fined $3,000 in 2015 for tattooing without a medical license, and is still fighting against the charges made against him today.

The nation’s modern day stigma towards tattoos is also fed by the association with tattoos and yakuza, also known as gokudō, who are members of transnational organised crime syndicates. Similarly to how tattoos would have identified criminals centuries ago, being heavily tattooed leads others to believe a person leads a certain lifestyle. However, as society progresses, so do the archaic views of the government and the judicial system. After three long years of deliberation, the highest court in Japan ruled that tattooing no longer requires a medical license. This will open up many doors for tattoo artists practising in the country, and help to lessen the stigma surrounding them. 

Notable modern Japanese tattoo artists

One of the hardest parts to creating authentic Japanese style tattoos is coherence. Oftentimes, pieces are done on a large scale, incorporating multiple elements within the one design. However, this can lead to overcrowding the artwork if the tattoo doesn’t take into consideration its flow and unity. One of the UK’s most highly praised artists for Japanese work is Claudia De Sabe. Currently based in London, Sabe has been tattooing in the city for 14 years and has described her style as ‘western traditional meets Japanese’. Caio Piñeiro, also based in London, has acquired legendary status amongst the tattoo community, and uses the beautiful contrasts between, red, black and grey tones in his work. 

Caring for Japanese style tattoos

Similarly to traditional tattoos, making sure that the colour and linework stays as fresh as possible is key. For larger-scale pieces and those featuring colour, keeping the piece moisturised and protected from sunlight will aid the healing process. It’s especially important to emphasise the rule of not picking at any scabs as this - even though extremely tempting - can lift linework and colour from the skin, resulting in a patchy and uneven end result.

Once fully healed, using a product such as our Overnight Vibrancy Serum will allow the rich tones to stand out and highlight the beautiful detailing. In the long-term, exfoliating your tattoo and applying a rich moisturiser will also help to maintain the piece’s vibrancy and aid in its longevity.