Despite still being controversial in Japan, tattoos play an important role in the country’s culture and history.
We’ve talked about Japanese tattoos before and how they were used to permanently mark criminals, a practice that lasted for centuries. As a result, tattoos gained a dark reputation, adorned only by bad guys.
Even today tattoos in Japan are still associated with criminality, particularly connected to organized crime, but they are becoming more popular.
In Japanese tattoos, the natural world plays a vital role with spirituality still influencing the beliefs and practices of the nation.
Shinto is the main religion of Japan, and consists of the belief that the natural world is full of spirits, from plants to animals to rocks and bodies of water; each of these is accompanied by kami, an inherent essence.
Animals and mythical creatures are therefore important themes both in Japanese culture overall and Irezumi specifically. Like many other cultures, different animals and mythical creatures are revered for different reasons.
Dragons for example, frequently combine the characteristics of various animals. Scales, talons, and fangs are among the characteristics lifted from other animals to create the fictional creature.
Dragons are viewed as powerful, almost omnipotent beings, able to manipulate the elements and therefore alter our fate. Their great powers make them one of the most popular subjects in Japanese tattoos.
As well as dragons, other common creatures include demons, gods, and trickster spirits.
On the other hand, real-world motifs like the koi fish represent health and longevity because they’re revered for their long lifespans. These images each portray different messages. Whether they communicate strength, health, prosperity, they have in common their importance in Japanese culture overall.
Many of these themes, particularly symbols like the koi, dragons, and cherry blossoms, have become staples of tattoo culture as a whole beyond tattooing.
These symbols are found all throughout Japanese culture, going beyond tattoos. They can be found in historic art, contemporary tattoos, Japanese anime, and the art of Western tattooists due largely to the unique influence Japanese tattooing has had on the world.