Japanese tattoos have become a uniquely masculine tradition for guys of all backgrounds. Eastern imagery is poignantly profound, and austere Asian body art is bound to stay in style forever!
When it comes to indelible perfection, Japan’s approach to inking is unrivaled.
Their tirelessly innovative tattoo revolution stems from triumphant old-school tribalism. In fact, this kind of decoration dates back to 10,000 B.C.!
Irezumi is the official term for ancient pigment modifications from the island nation. In Japan, full-body ink jobs were originally associated with the samurai. In the modern era, this connotation evolved to indicate kinship with the Yakuza, but ink isn’t reserved for underground sub-cultures anymore. Fortunately, tattoos have become integrated into mainstream Tokyo styles, and the advanced form of expression is taking the country by storm.
While extremely complex Yakuza-style sleeves are popular, they are only one way to showcase flair from the Far East. Kanji is also commonly requested in parlors around the globe! This is because the Japanese language has a striking pictorial arrangement that makes everything seem more meaningful. Furthermore, entire sentiments and phrases can be condensed into a singular elusive symbol. As such, a lot can be said with only a little space.
Another way to experience the thrills of Japanese society is by inking traditional shogun paintings. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints translate onto the skin very well, and there are endless bold icons to select. Imagery in this realm includes dueling swordsmen, raging tsunamis, mysterious Shinto spirits and gorgeous geishas.
Overall, the possibilities are absolutely endless with this debonair oriental niche. Just peruse this collection of 50 Japanese tattoos for men to see the infinite variety that Japan’s ink has in store for you!
This full-body tattoo—a bodysuit without the chest opening is known as a Donburi Soshinbori—is an incredible example of the style while incorporating some elements not strictly limited to traditional Japanese tattoos. Snakes often represent rebirth and eternal life in Japanese tradition thanks to the way the regularly shed their skin and given the juxtaposition of the snake above the black and gray skull this interpretation seems likely. The line work in this piece is bold and precise, perfectly capturing the details in the scales of the snake, and light the gray wash used in the skull—while not strictly traditional Japanese—is expertly applied and adds an interesting depth and contrast to this stunning tattoo. The clouds and waves are excellent and form the background that completes this tattoo.
Here is another piece that incorporates elements of traditional Japanese designs to create a unique tattoo. This half-sleeve—known as a Gobu –incorporates distinctly Japanese elements, like the darker gray wash shading used to create the waves, smoke and sand as well as the cherry blossoms falling in the wind, however, the realism used to capture the hourglass, as well as the incorporation of sacred geometry, are good examples of styles and techniques more popular in modern, Western tattooing. The shading in this piece is expertly applied and works well to create a cohesive backdrop for the different design elements, while the limited use of color in the cherry blossoms adds a vibrant kick that helps to draw the eye up and down the entire piece.
This striking sleeve and chest tattoo takes the classic dragon and creates a brightly colored, traditional Japanese piece. The line work in this tattoo is clean and precise, creating even and consistent scales for this mythical beast, while the expert use of colors allow the different elements to contrast and pop. The incorporation of cherry blossoms perfectly suits this piece and adds a touch of femininity to this fierce design. The use of black shading to create the wind and smoke that form the backdrop for this tattoo is smooth and is a classic element in Japanese tattooing.
This half-sleeve eschews the bright colors used in some Japanese designs in favor of a black and gray color scheme to create a striking tattoo. The demon face—known as an oni—is a classic motif in Japanese designs and is a fierce deity that punished people for their transgressions with pestilence and disease. Here, the artist creates a backdrop of crashing water and cherry blossoms that perfectly frame the face and help to create a unique and interesting composition. The level of detail in this piece is also impressive: notice the consistency in the flowing hair and the intricate lines in the face around the eyes. This is a great example of a black and gray piece that stays true to the classic Japanese tattoo tradition.
This large, full-color piece—this style of chest tattoo is called hikae—is a great example of traditional Japanese tattooing. One immediately noticeable aspect of this tattoo are the large koi fish. While these fish are classic elements in Japanese tattoo work they are not often are large and prominent as they are here, however, they are beautiful and expertly applied. The saturated black that is used in the background of clouds and water allows the color portions, especially the flowers on the chest, to pop, enhancing the contrast and increasing the dramatic effect of these vibrant colors. The flawless line work and exceptional application of color are a testament to the mastery of the artist and make this an absolutely stunning example of a Japanese tattoo.
In this piece a limited color palette is applied to help create a unique and bold full-back tattoo. Here is another dragon, symbol of wisdom and mythical power, this time making use of black and gray shading to create this fierce creature. The expert variation of tones captures small details and provides this intricate piece with a sense of depth that gives the impression you could reach in and touch the coils of the dragon. Precise line work is used to add definition to this piece while the incorporation of cherry blossoms adds a burst of color that stands out against the gray wash in the rest of the tattoo. This is a great example of how a limited use of color can help to achieve a striking tattoo while maintaining a restrained feel.
This nagasode, or full-sleeve, uses bright colors as well as black and gray ink to create a lovely flower motif. The artist uses vibrant colors to capture the lush blooms of peonies—known as botan in Japanese. Considered to be the “king of flowers” thanks to their history of cultivation in the imperial palaces of China, peonies made their way into Japanese culture in the 17th century and have since come to represent nobility, wealth and good fortune. Here, they are put on full display with black and gray shading used to create the wind and clouds that form the backdrop for these stunning flowers. This is a great example of how these flowers are incorporated into traditional Japanese tattooing.
This piece incorporates several elements from Japanese designs to create a stunning half-suit. On the ribs is a black and gray samurai, often used to represent the pinnacle of masculine traits like strength, nobility, and honor. The use of black and gray to create the wind and clouds that form the background is excellent, creating contrast and allowing the vibrant colors in the cherry blossoms to standout. Finally, there is a snake on the arm representing wisdom and eternal life surrounded by crashing waves and golden peonies. This tattoo utilizes a variety of common themes to create a great example of Japanese tattoo work.
Japanese Tattoo FAQ’s
Are you allowed to have tattoos in Japan?
While attitudes are slowly changing, there remains a strong stigma surrounding tattoos in Japan, and for good reason. Starting in the Edo period (1603-1868) when criminals were given tattoos as punishment and continuing through the Meiji period (1868-1912) when they were officially outlawed by the Japanese government, official policy has cemented their place in the criminal underworld.
Organized crime syndicates in Japan, known as Yakuza, have flaunted these laws and adorned themselves with elaborate, full-body tattoos of exceptional detail and quality, a style that has become popular in Western tattoo culture.
Even today, in a world of cross-cultural respect and sensitivity, there are still many establishments in Japan that will turn away individuals with visible ink, most notably onsen (hot springs) and sento (public baths), although sometimes this applies only to Japanese locals with foreigners given a pass.
As tattoos become more and more common in the West and their historical association with undesirables and criminal elements fades, Japan’s attitudes regarding ink seem to be relaxing; however, the traditional Japanese tattoo styles linked to Yakuza are still considered taboo.
What is a yakuza tattoo?
The full-body tattoos worn by members of Japanese organized crime syndicates known as Yakuza are intricately tied to this interesting subset of Japanese culture.
Originally applied by authorities as a means to identify criminals, tattoos were later incorporated into Yakuza tradition, with large, elaborate body suits depicting Japanese mythology. Koi fish, dragons and samurai are all common themes in these stunning designs, with each element holding specific cultural significance.
Traditionally these tattoos were applied by hand with a chisel-like tool and are known as tebori. While this technique still exists and some people prefer the process, modern tattoo machines are becoming more common with pieces applied this way called yobori.
What is the meaning of a Japanese tiger tattoo?
In Japanese tattoo culture, similar to most Asia traditions, tigers represent strength and virility. These powerful creatures are solitary hunters and are usually depicted with teeth bared in aggressive postures often surrounded by bamboo and clouds. Few animals make for such dramatic subjects as the tigers depicted in full-color Japanese tattoos.