Traditionally, Japanese tattoos were once widely accepted as symbols of both social and spiritual status. Though, by the time World War II has passed, the Emperor of Japan quickly outlawed them in order to improve the country’s appearance.
And like anything that gets outlawed, people start envying what they couldn’t have.
Most notably, those in criminal organizations like the Japanese mafia, Yakuza. Of course, the Yakuza weren’t the only ones to adopt traditional tattooing, so did foreigners from a far.
There’s no denying the appeal of the artistic Japanese style with its beautiful floral designs, deep meanings, and motifs. In reality, the decision to outlaw ink only took the coolness factor up a few notches. Fast forward to today and the style is more popular than ever, especially when it comes to sleeves.
History aside, the designs you’ll find when it comes to Japanese themed tattoos widely greatly from man to man. For instance, here’s a few options you can choose to go with, each with their own unique meaning:
Skulls (Zugaikotsu), Chrysanthemum (Kiku), Demon (Oni), Dragon (Ryu), Foo Dog (Karashishi), Cherry Blossoms (Sakura), Phoenix (Hou-ou), Severed Head (Namakubi), Snake (Hebi), Peony (Botan), Koi fish, Tiger, and Water wave among others.
Needless to say, any man can make his sleeve piece just about as unique as he is. Just keep in mind the meanings for most symbols are quite universal and easily recognizable. However, you can always opt for a hybrid and mix designs from other cultures and traditions to make your purpose for getting inked more complex.
With that said, go ahead and explore these top 120 best Japanese sleeve tattoos for men below. You’ll be get a better idea of what all the designs look like plus gain some cool inspiration along the way.
1. Serpent Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
This artist incorporates a number of different elements, including a coiled snake, peonies and chrysanthemums and uses a color palette that heavily features blue tones to complete this stunning Japanese full sleeve.
In this full sleeve, black and reds are favored—although a blue chrysanthemum adds chromatic contrast— while a more realistic approach is taken in the face of the serpent completing this stylized Japanese tattoo.
Snakes have been key elements in artistic and creative traditions around the world; one of the oldest stories of man’s origins involves a tree, an apple and a snake. Japanese tattoos are no different and snakes hold a number of different meanings within this ancient tradition. Of the various roles that snakes play, one of the most important is that of a protector. Serpents are seen as guardians against bad luck, disaster and illness and because of this are common elements found in tattoos.
They are also strongly associated with medicine and healing thanks to the role serpents played in many traditional Japanese medicinal rites and ceremonies. Snakes are also perfectly suited for full sleeve tattoos thanks to their long, curving bodies and the ability for an artist to apply a snake coiling and wrapping around the entire length of the wearer’s arm.
2. Flower Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
Flowers are another powerful symbolic element that is found in cultures and artistic traditions around the world. The symbolic power of flowers can be seen in the roles they play in the various ceremonies and rituals that make up culture: funerals, weddings and graduations all include flowers in the celebration.
Japan has a highly developed symbolic structure built around different flowers and their specific meanings within a tattoo. The cherry blossom, or sakura, is a common element in tattoos and is most commonly associated with reflection and meditation in the Japanese Buddhist tradition as well as spring and renewal.
Another common flower is the chrysanthemum which contrasts with the cherry blossom in its representation of autumn. These flowers also symbolize longevity and perfection, which is why they are used as the symbol of the Japanese Imperial Throne, often referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne. The lotus, with its deep Buddhist significance and peonies as symbols of wealth and beauty are also common flowers in Japanese tattoos.
There is a flower for every attitude and style making them great additions to Japanese sleeves.
3. Unique Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
The beauty of tattoos is the opportunity they provide for self-expression, and while different styles and schools have rules and decorum that dictate what is and is not “traditional”, rules are meant to be broken. This is not to say that more traditional Japanese pieces aren’t appealing, but only that every tattoo should be unique to the wearer, and some people just aren’t suited for traditional.
These Japanese tattoos take an approach that is less concerned with the rules that dictate the tradition and are more focused creating one of a kind, Japanese-inspired pieces. The open composition and incorporation of larger elements help these pieces stand out while maintaining a distinctly Japanese aesthetic. The full sleeve designs are great examples of the style and are sure to turn heads for years to come.
4.New Wave Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
This is an incredible piece that draws inspiration from traditional Japanese irezumi as well as Western tattooing, perfectly blending the two styles through the use of cherry blossoms and swirling smoke and a realistic approach to the skull that serves as the focal point of this one of a kind tattoo.
Here, once again, we see a number of full sleeve tattoos that draw inspiration from the Japanese tattoo tradition but still manage to incorporate different Western tattoo elements. These pieces are undoubtedly inspired by Japanese tattooing: the cherry blossoms, dragons and swirling smoke typical of the style are all present.
However, these artists also incorporate several approaches and designs that are more common in Western tattooing. The stylized skulls in several of these pieces in particular look like they came off the flash wall of tattoo shop in East L.A., while others take an approach that is a bit more realistic than traditional Japanese designs.
The successful incorporation of these different styles and approaches is a testament to the artist’s skill and understanding of Japanese tattooing. A lesser artist may have ended up with a design that feels forced and hodge-podge, but the seamless application and excellent composition perfectly suit these stunning tattoos.
5. Foo Dog Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
Foo dogs are common elements in Japanese tattoos, although their origins actually lie in China; in fact foo dogs aren’t even dogs. These “guardian lions” are protectors that are often placed in front of homes and temples, although they have more significance than warding off evil spirits. Foo dogs always come in pairs, one male and one female, and are said to represent the yin and yang: the yin (female) is said to protect the people within the house while the yang (male) watches over the structure itself.
Their gender can be discerned by examining the details: under the paw of the male is a ball, representing the world, while the female rests her paw on a puppy symbolizing a nurturing nature. The combination of one having an open mouth and one having a closed mouth is said to represent the Buddhist concept “om”. Their striking image makes these fierce protectors the perfect addition to any Japanese full sleeve tattoo.
6. Hannya Mask Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
Japan has a long history of dramatic and humorous stage craft, and a common element in Japanese tattooing draws from this theatrical tradition. In Noh theater the hannya is a mask worn by a performer that depicts a jealous female demon. Through the use of sharp horns on the head, metallic eyes and a gaping mouth this grotesque visage is completed. Hannya masks are said to portray the ghosts of women who have become demons due to obsession and jealousy absorbing their existence.
The different significance associated with hannya is varied depending on the color and ranges from representing passion and good luck, to pure evil. This variety of meaning makes these striking visages perfect for any different number of Japanese tattoo concepts.
7. Koi Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
Like the foo dog koi fish are another element common in Japanese art and culture that originated in China. Originally wild carp, koi were domesticated and selectively bred until the modern fish, with its bright and varied colors, was achieved. These beautiful fish have retained cultural significance based on an ancient legend telling the story of a koi that conquered a waterfall and turned into a dragon. This legend informs much of the symbolism of koi in tattoos and dictates the significance of a piece depending on the color and direction the fish is swimming.
A koi swimming upstream symbolizes rugged determination to overcome obstacles while a fish swimming downstream most often represents an individual having already achieved their goals and choosing to swim with the current. The different colored fish are assigned to different family members as well as having other, more specific significance.
The variety of meanings that are possible through the endless combinations of color and direction, as well as their stunning beauty mean that koi fish are some of the best design choices for Japanese sleeve tattoos.
8. Dragon Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
Dragons are mythical creatures that have a history in just about every culture on the planet: from the fire breathing beasts of European traditions to the coiling serpents of Chinese art, each of these cultures attribute dragons with different significance.
In Western stories and myths dragons are agents of chaos, amassing fortunes of gold and wreaking havoc, while in Asian cultures dragons are seen as beneficiaries that have the best interests of man in mind. In Japan, dragons are seen as wise as well as holding deep connections to the natural forces of wind and water.
Visually speaking, dragons are the perfect choice for full sleeve tattoos. The amount of detail that can be incorporated into these tattoos is impressive: a large dragon sleeve may have thousands of individual scales applied to the skin. The length and supple shape of Japanese dragons allow them to coil and wrap around the arm, drawing the eye up and down the entire tattoo. All of these different factors have helped to make dragons one of the most popular subjects for Japanese inspired tattoos.
9. Black and Gray Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
While full color pieces commonly fill the Japanese sections of tattoo magazines, there is actually a long history of black and gray designs in irezumi. There is no doubt that the vibrant colors of some of these Japanese tattoos are appealing, but for some people there is something about black and gray designs that better speak to their sensibilities.
Tigers, koi fish and dragons can all be successfully applied using black and gray ink, although several of these pieces utilize a limited color palette to create more interesting designs. These small additions of color—seen here in the cherry and lotus blossoms—are a clever idea that takes these black and gray pieces to the next level.
A subtle elegance is achieved with black and gray ink that is difficult to match using full color, and these full sleeves perfectly demonstrate the appeal of this subdued approach.
10. Tiger Japanese Sleeve Tattoos
The tiger is another common element in Japanese tattoos that has a wide variety of meaning and significance associated with it. Unsurprisingly, in the Japanese tattoo tradition tigers are symbols of power, physical strength and courage; however tigers are also considered good luck and are used as charms to ward off evil spirits.
Much like the koi fish we examined earlier, a tiger’s significance in a tattoo can change depending on which direction it is moving. When a tiger is ascending it is often considered more docile, having completed its goals only to retire to the mountain top, while a descending tiger is on the hunt, heading down the mountain to face challenges head on.
This deep significance and the unmistakable ferocity of a tiger, make these powerful cats excellent additions to any Japanese full sleeve tattoo.
Japanese Sleeve Tattoo FAQs
What is traditional Japanese tattooing?
Japan has a long and complex relationship with tattooing that dates back at least two thousand years. In fact, clay figurines called dogu from the Jomon Period (10,000 BC-300BC) have been found that display tattoo like marking and the earliest recorded mention of Japan from a third century Chinese history text mentions men with permanent decorations on their faces and hands. Japan has the longest continuous tattoo tradition in the world.
The modern Japanese tattoos that we are familiar with arose in the Edo period (1600-1867) although the government outlawed the practice not long after. Despite the prohibition many people continued to get ink and the outlaw status that tattoos carried made them popular with the organized criminal elements known as yakuza.
This rise in the popularity of decorative tattoos also led to authorities replacing the common act of tattooing criminals with different punishments.
Throughout the centuries the attitudes and social stigma revolving around tattoos has continued to change in Japan: there have been several periods where tattoos were outright banned. Currently tattoos are not specifically illegal in Japan, however they remain a complex social tradition. Still associated with yakuza, most swimming pools and bathhouses in Japan require those with tattoos to cover their ink out of respect for the community.
Despite its complex history, the Japanese tattoo tradition is one of the most developed and visually stimulating of all tattoo schools and people continue to choose to get these stunning motifs permanently inked on their bodies.
How much does a color Japanese sleeve cost?
Tattoos are powerful expressions of personal style and taste that can hold deep meanings for the wearer; they are also expensive. It is absolutely necessary to take prices and budgets into account when considering new ink, especially for these large and intricate sleeves.
While there are a number of different factors that go into calculating the cost of a potential tattoo, a good starting point is the United States national average cost of $100 per hour. With a full sleeve taking a minimum of 10 to 15 hours a full color sleeve will cost about $1500 USD.
Remember, this is an average. Other, more experienced artists will charge more, and a sleeve from a Japanese master like Horiyoshi III could cost upwards of ten thousand dollars.
Despite the price tag, the completed designs are breath taking and these unique tattoos truly are priceless.
Did you enjoy this amazing array of Japanese Sleeve Tattoos? Click on the links below for more Japanese themed ink inspiration for your next tattoo: