Peony is a tattooed tattoo enthusiast who loves studying and discussing tattoo history and meanings. Japanese themes are her favorite.
The serpent is a charming yet spine-chilling reptile, often seen as a cold-blooded symbol, both literally and figuratively. In Japan, the Hebi (snake) is also a popular tattoo subject. Find out why, what it means symbolically, and draw inspiration from the gallery of beautiful snake tattoo designs.
Hebi Irezumi - Japanese Snake Tattoos
In Japanese, Hebi means snake. In most cases, the cunning snake in the western world would typically carry along with it negative associations - such as the snake in the book of Genesis, who’d tricked Eve into eating the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; or Medusa, the entrancing beauty with a head full of venomous vipers for hair.
Here, we talk exclusively about the oriental snake, as seen in many beautiful and fearsome Japanese tattoo art and what they mean to the people of Japan and Asia.
Snakes as Good Luck Tattoo Symbols
In olden day Japan, it is often said that if you were to encounter a snake — especially a white one — you’ll be blessed with good luck, however, coming across a dead snake is a very bad omen.
Till this very day, many people living in the outskirts or countryside of Japan will not chase away or kill a snake if they find one in their yard (notably the Aodaisho, a non-poisonous, Japanese rat snake), believing it to be both a sacred being and an ally, killing rats and mice which would otherwise ruin their crops and means of survival.
Snakes are religiously regarded as an auspicious animal in Japan. You will see straw “snakes” (straw woven to look like one) tied around torii gates at the entrance of shrines.
Japanese Snake Tattoo Meanings: Rebirth and Change
Back in ancient Japan, where the knowledge of Biology aren't as deep as it is today, people were amazed how a hebi could molt and shed off its skin, it shed everything — including its eye-caps! Snakes are therefore deemed as the ultimate embodiment of rebirth, renewal and total transformation. Some also saw this constant regenerative cycle of as a representation of eternal life.
Serpents and the Hannya Tattoo
The snake is very closely linked to another wildly popular Japanese tattoo icon, the Hannya. Hannya is said to be an anguished women, whose intense emotions took over, contorted her face into a ghastly serpentine form and pushed her over to the demonic realm.
To delve deeper into the meaning of Hannya tattoos and get some design inspiration, read this article: Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas
Year of the Snake Tattoos - Japanese Zodiac
In the Japanese zodiac system (Juunishi), every year is headed by an animal with 12 different animals representing a cycle. It repeats itself after every cycle, starting with the first animal once again (Rat: Nezumi).
Juunishi was adapted from the Chinese zodiac system (Shēng xiào) with the exception that the Japanese New Year is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar (1st January) while the Chinese follow the Lunar calendar (usually around late January to mid February).
It’s said that people inherit some of the qualities and traits of the zodiac they were born under. The Hebi comes in sixth position in Juunishi, further, different years of the snake fall under different “elements” — if you were born under the year of the snake, this might be something you could incorporate into your snake tattoo design.
“Snake people” are said to be very mysterious, intuitive, wise and possess good money luck. However, they can take defeats and failures strongly and very personally. They are often easy-going, to the point that they're so chill to everything it could be misunderstood as "laziness"!
If your birth year falls on any of the below, you were born in the year of the snake.
• 火 Fire = Mars: Thoughtful, active, enjoys attention
• 水 Water = Mercury: Orderly, has refined taste
• 木 Wood = Jupiter: Creative, lively, sentimental
• 金 Gold = Venus: Determined, courageous, confident
• 土 Earth = Saturn: Calm, strong self-control
10 Feb 1929 - 29 Jan 1930
Earth Snake (土)
27 Jan 1941 - 14 Feb 1942
Gold Snake (金)
14 Feb 1953 - 02 Feb 1954
Water Snake (水)
02 Feb 1965 - 20 Jan 1966
Wood Snake (木)
18 Feb 1977 - 06 Feb 1978
Fire Snake (火)
06 Feb 1989 - 26 Jan 1990
Earth Snake (土)
24 Jan 2001 - 11 Feb 2002
Gold Snake (金)
10 Feb 2013 - 30 Jan 2014
Water snake (水)
29 Jan 2025 - 16 Feb 2026
Wood Snake (木)
Goddess Benzaiten and Her Lucky Snakes
Much like how Inari Okami has Kitsune (fox) messengers; Benzaiten had snakes, dragons and serpentine nagas (demi-gods). In Japanese Buddhism, Benzaiten — also known as Benten — is a water goddess, her divine domain encompasses anything that flows or is fluid, which includes: wealth, the Arts (music, poetry, speech), wisdom, femininity and of course, water (rivers, lakes, seas).
Her control over water also meant that she was a deity often prayed over to end natural disasters such as droughts and floods. It’s also said that her authority over water extends her control over dragons (which resides underwater) and snakes (which were historically found near lakes and rivers in Japan).
She is one of the Seven Lucky Gods (shichifukujin; 七福神) and her Hindu counterpart is Goddess Sarasvatī. Benten is often seen riding a dragon with a biwa (instrument: a Japanese short-necked lute) and having white snakes as her messengers. With white snakes or dragons are her avatar, she can therefore be seen manifesting as either. In certain sculptures, Benten has a snake headdress and her association with snakes makes her a deity people pray to for prosperity and abundance.
Some Japanese keep a snakeskin (or fragment of) in their wallets as a prosperity charm, believing that it’ll attract money.
Snake Tattoo Colors and Their Meanings
Certain colors in Japan have their roots steeped in tradition; you could pick a color to include in your hebi irezumi to express certain associated meanings or find out the corresponding symbolism in your established snake tattoo.
Black (kuro, 黒): Formality, dignity and wisdom. It is a color worn on the robes of Buddhist monks and kimonos that bear the family crest.
Another example is the black belt in Karate (Japanese martial arts) where it signifies experience (as well as endurance and discipline amongst other things) whereas the white belt is the first belt you’ll get which could tie it back to the meaning of "firstness", inexperienced or untainted purity.
- White (shiro, 白): Purity and holiness. Closely linked to religion (pilgrimages, rituals) and sacred ceremonies (weddings, funerals). They can be seen in religious items such as the Shinto blessing paper-streamer called Shide (紙垂) that is attached at the end of a wand and passed over people, things or even properties to be consecrated.
Red (aka, 赤): Red represents strength, vitality and power, as the red disc in the Japanese flag implies. Samurais back in the civil war period also liked wearing red, or more notably, having red samurai sword sheaths.
In religion, red was seen as a color of protection from evil and disasters. Many torii gates outside of Shinto shrines are clad in red.
Indigo or Japan Blue (ao, 青): A protective color. Real indigo, made naturally without chemicals and straight from the Japanese Indigo plant is called Japan Blue. They were used by noblemen and samurais but later became widely worn.
Indigo dyed fabric were favored by the samurais as the treated cloth held many beneficial qualities; they included being antibacterial hence keeping wounds clean, they were stiffer, odor resistant, dirt resistant and bonus points for being fire retardant (up to 1500°F or 815°C) — they were also worn by firefighters back in the day.
Purple (murasaki, 紫): The color of royalty. Tracing back to ancient Japan, where social hierarchy divided people into class or rank systems, purple was the color exclusive to the highest ranking officials and the imperial family. Anyone else were forbidden to wear anything in this color. In noh theater, only costumes of emperors and gods were depicted in purple.
The dye required to color fabrics purple were historically expensive as the plants used in the dye extraction were hard to grow. Further solidifying it as a color unique to the upper class.
- Green (midori, 緑): Youth, energy and vitality. It symbolizes spring (season) and the formation of new beginnings and the flourishing of plant life.
- Yellow (ki, 黄): Courage, affluence and longevity. During medieval Japan, warriors would wear yellow chrysanthemums as a pledge of loyalty to the emperor and the royal family, as such, it was also seen as a color depicting bravery.
Japanese Serpent Tattoo Design Ideas
Japanese Serpent Tattoo Design Elements and What They Mean
Japanese snake tattoos are hardly ever just the Hebi alone, they are usually adorned with other elements to create a mini visual story. Some ideas to add to your Hebi irezumi are:
- Tidal Waves: Snakes in Japan are historically found near lakes and rivers, and closely related to the Goddess of Water, Bentaizen. Waves represent flow, movement, strength and most importantly — life. Just like the tide, life is a continuous cycle of push and pull, rise and fall. It's a reminder that nothing is constant, bad situations will eventually turn for the better. And that good things can be lost in an instant if you fail to treasure the moment.
- Namakubi (Severed Heads): As a sign of intimidation and memento mori (“remember that you too, shall die”). Beheading and headhunting was a tradition steeped in Japanese ritual suicide and warfare. During the shogunistic era, the heads of defeated enemy warriors or leaders were often brought back as a trophy and sign of victory. They were also a powerful symbol that even the greatest can fall and nobody can escape death.
- Skull: The skull is a representation of the underworld and/or a demonic life. However, it’s also positive symbolism of the life cycle, and ties in nicely with the fact that snakes are seen as a constant reminder of life, death and revival on repeat.
© 2019 Peony
Peony (author) on February 13, 2020:
@ Mary Braddy - Thank you, glad you felt so!
Mary Braddy from Orangeburg on February 11, 2020:
nice article with great information
Peony (author) on November 09, 2019:
@ Firesnake - I'm so glad my article helped you make that decision, happy inking!
Firesnake on November 06, 2019:
Was stuck with what color to get from my snake tattoo, thanks for the super helpful color association list!! And now I know I'm a fire snake, very nice.