Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas

Hannyas are undisputedly one of the more popular subjects used in Japanese themed tattoos. They look terrifying, formidable and full of character — and quite rightfully so. Veiled behind that sneer is a fascinating backstory and perhaps a couple of interesting tidbits you might not have known of.

The Hannya Mask

The oldest Hannya mask dates back to the 1550s.
The oldest Hannya mask dates back to the 1550s.
Hannya mask on Noh performer
Hannya mask on Noh performer

Stemming from Japanese Noh theatrics (classical musical performances based on Japanese folklore and the supernatural), the Hannya mask is a popular feature used to represent women filled with contempt. Its name was thought to have come from the artist who carved this wooden mask, named “Hannyabô”; the design, believed to have been adapted from earlier serpent masks.

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Another theory is that “Hannya” came from the word “Paññā/Prajñā” which, in Buddhism, meant insight/wisdom or a higher consciousness.

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A compelling sight of disheveled hair, two sharp horns piercing through its temples, huge bulbous eyes and fangs showing from a gaping mouth split ear to ear, it is the perfect imagery of evil. Although forming a seemingly perpetual scowl, the Hannya, when viewed at different angles show varied expressions.

  • From the front, it looks menacing and filled with hatred.
  • Tilted at an angle from the top, it appears forlorn, anguished — almost crying.

These emotions reflect much of the complexities of the human psyche.

The Story of Hannya and Unrequited Love

 Hannya on top of a Samurai Helmet
Hannya on top of a Samurai Helmet

Legend has it that the Hannya was once a woman, morphing into a grotesque demon due to jealousy, hatred and vengeance. As they say, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

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The most common story is that of a beautiful lady who fell deeply in love with a monk; unable to receive love in return, her heartbreak and negative emotions transformed and contorted her expressions into scary and exaggerated forms. (Hence, the pained expression of both rage and misery.) Frightened, the monk ran towards a shrine and hid under a large prayer bell, further infuriating the Hannya.

When he was found, she blew fire at the bell, effectively melting it and burning her love alive — sealing her own fate as a demon. Gives new meaning to "Too Much Love Will Kill You".

 In Asian cultures, many tattooist don't fill in the eyes until the piece is near done. They believe that once you 'dot' the eye, the tattoo comes alive.
In Asian cultures, many tattooist don't fill in the eyes until the piece is near done. They believe that once you 'dot' the eye, the tattoo comes alive.

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You might have seen the Hannya mask in different colors. One belief is that the “deeper” the color of a Hannya mask, the angrier or more malicious it’s supposed to be — another explanation points to the social hierarchy of the woman.

✦ Bet You Didn't Know:

Pale or flesh-tone
Forehead white; rest of face red
Lower class/commoner
Completely red
True demons/never humans

Symbolism of the Hannya Tattoo


The Hannya is introspective, both negative and positive (yes, positive!) It may represent the less favorable aspects of the human condition, such as being resentful and unforgiving. As well as the positive side, such as passion and love.

Its face evokes fear and for this same reason, to the Japanese, they are seen as a talisman to scare and ward off evil. Some people would bring along a miniature Hannya mask (like a keychain) for protection.

Design Ideas for Hannya Tattoos


Regardless of where your preferred placement is, be it a Hannya sleeve tattoo, a Hannya back piece, or a Hannya calf tattoo, figuring out the complexity of your tattoo will determine the size you should allocate for your ink. To have a very elaborate Hannya tattoo on a small area might cramp the overall design with too many things.

Plan for the components you want and your artist should do the layout for you. The predominant backgrounds for Hannya tattoos are tidal waves and flowers — top favorites being:

❀ Chrysanthemums
❀ Sakuras/Cherry Blossom
❀ Peonies
❀ Maple leaves

One reptile often seen included in a Hannya tattoo is the snake, for it’s association with the serpent. Another element is the skull, symbolizing the underworld and the demonic realms.


Hannya Tattoo Styles

Besides traditional Hannya tattoos which follows the irezumi style, many tattooists are injecting their personal twist. An example shown below preserves many of the Hannya masks' characteristic, in an illustrative style like something out of the Brothers Grimm's Fairy Tales:


Another way tattoo artists are getting creative is to merge the skull or a woman's face to the Hannya mask, both imagery connects to the Hannya.


Hannya Tattoo Colors

As far as colors go, personally, I do not feel that there should be a restriction to Hannya masks. They could range from the original white and red to blue, purple, green, yellow, black or any other hue. So long as it conveys the intended mood and fits with the general colors used in the whole tattoo.

The new age Hannya above uses colors like turquoise, lime green, purple and pinks coupled with its modern interpretation of a Hannya (looks kind of Dracula-meets-Hellboy if you ask me).

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❗️As much as I can, I give credit where credit is due. Please comment with the missing artist info behind the photos if you do know, thanks!

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© 2015 Peony

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Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 12 months ago from Oklahoma

Wonderful and comprehensive overview of this art form.

P FOR PEONY profile image

P FOR PEONY 12 months ago Author

@ Larry Rankin — Thank you! Glad you felt so.

BaelRathLian 2 months ago

Loved the article. I am wondering also if it has any meaning with the location you put it? I mean other than the details put into it.

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