Japanese Tattoos

Updated on March 7, 2018

Japanese Tattooing Evolved to Be Both Bold and Secretive

Japanese tattoos are known for their bold lines, historic patterns and imagery, and total body coverage. The techniques for tattooing that developed in Japan used hand tools, and it wasn't until the mid 20th century that machines first came to Japanese tattooing. Whereas Western tattooing often results in a varied collection of small pieces, Japanese tattooing often involves larger-scale full sleeve or leg tattoos, and entire bodysuit tattoos which cover from the neckline to the wrists and ankles.

From 1994 NTA convention
From 1994 NTA convention | Source

The First Time I Saw a Real Japanese Tattoo

This photograph is from 1994. This picture was taken during the NTA convention "meet and greet." This meant it was a huge photo op for anyone with a certain amount of convention access. I shot close to 80 pictures in the space of about two hours, running around a giant ballroom full of tattooed people.

This was the first time I got to see or photograph traditional Japanese hand tattooing. I was struck immediately by the subtlety of some of the shading. There is a quality to it that you just don't see in Western tattooing.

The young man wearing the tattoo didn't speak any English, so I wasn't able to talk to him. You could tell by looking at his face, as he turned slowly to be photographed by dozens of onlookers, that he was very proud of his tattoo, and that he wished he could ask some questions of all of us too.

Kanji with cherry petal
Kanji with cherry petal | Source
At 1994 NTA convention
At 1994 NTA convention | Source

Hand-Tattooed Kanji

Kanji, Japanese characters, make popular tattoos. The woman whose leg you see here had her tattoo done entirely by hand at the 1994 NTA convention, and was kind enough to let me watch, take pictures and chat with me about it. The lower picture shows the Japanese master working by hand on this very tattoo.

She was the partner of an American tattoo artist, and she was getting the kanji for his name on her leg, along with a single cherry-blossom petal. Knowing how long it could take to do the work by hand, she told me she purposely made it a small design so that the Japanese tattoo master could work entirely by hand and not use a tattoo machine to save time. In a convention setting, outlines are often done by machine just to help get the design done a lot faster, with shading then done using the hand techniques.

I asked her if she felt any difference between the sensation of having a tattoo done by machine versus by hand. She thought for a moment and then said she'd almost say the Japanese hand technique was "cool" whereas the Western machine method felt more "hot." She felt the work she was getting was less painful, but she could also feel the distinct punctures of the needles into her skin, which she said felt sort of weird. If it's very quiet, you can hear the hand tool puncturing the leg, and it makes a strange crunching or popping sound, almost like when you hear a rat or rabbit chewing on something.

The completed design, shown here, took just about an hour to tattoo. Now imagine how many square inches there are in a full Japanese body suit, and you understand why they can take up to a decade to complete.

Three Videos of Hand Tattooing (Tebori)

The Japanese word for the technique of tattoing by hand is tebori.

These videos show a good approximation of what I was watching that day in 1994.

The first selection here is a video made of the man that many consider the #1 Japanese tattooist alive today, Horiyoshi III. Much of this video is shot in close-up, which lets you observe the Japanese hand tattoo technique. If you listen carefully, as Horiyoshi III works, there's this slight crunching noise. That is actually the sound of the needles repeatedly breaking the man's skin, a sound you can't hear in Western tattooing due to the use of fewer needles and the overriding noise of the electric machine.

The Absolute BEST Book On Japanese Tattooing

The Japanese Tattoo
The Japanese Tattoo

This groundbreaking photography book features images made using an oversize Polaroid, which actually produced near-life-size images of the subjects. The detail captured is as if you were able to look at the person up close with your own eyes.

This was the very first book I ever bought on Japanese tattooing and it's still the very best visual reference on the subject I've ever seen. It features a lot of work by the famous Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III.

Maron 2005
Maron 2005 | Source

Maron's Horiyoshi III Bodysuit: A Stunning Example of Contemporary Japanese Tattooing

The person shown here is Maron, who I met at Bondage A Go Go in San Francisco in 2005. He was competing in their tattoo contest one night.

His body suit was done in Japan, by tattoo master Horiyoshi III. Maron lived there for a few years, having work done on a steady basis to get it all completed in such a short time. The outline includes machine work, but all the color and shading was done with the traditional hand methods.

He's covered solid from wrists to ankles. The color detail and shading you can see when standing next to him and viewing in person just can't be adequately described. The tones and blending are just amazing. There is cross-hatching and very complex shading, as in very skilled pen illustration, in the black outlines and shading of the tattoo, at a level that you just don't see being done by American tattoo artists.

More Book Recommendations

I've always had a love of the Japanese style of tattooing. In my own tattoo book collection, this has got to be one of my largest sub-sections. Each of these books has proved valuable enough to not only own but to pore over repeatedly.

These collected titles provide not only historical facts and references for Japanese tattooing, but specific images and coverage of contemporary tattooing in Japan from the 1960s right up to today. The growth and fusion of the art form over what amounts to just my own lifetime is amazing to me.

Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo
Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo

A tattooist himself, Takahiro Kitamura takes a deep look at the ties between tattooing and samurai ethics in modern Japanese tattoo culture in BUSHIDO. Having associated with tattooist Horiyoshi III both as a tattoo client and student, Kitamura uses many of this master tattoo artist's designs to illustrate his theses.

Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo
Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Motifs in the Japanese Tattoo

This book is from the same author as BUSHIDO, but this one goes back further in time and takes a look at the printmaking history that inspired the designs of Japanese tattoos. Includes dozens of great illustrations and tattoo pictures.

Japanese Tattooing Now!: Memory And Transition, Classic Horimono To The New One Point Style
Japanese Tattooing Now!: Memory And Transition, Classic Horimono To The New One Point Style

Whereas most Japanese tattoo books talk about how Asian style tattooing influenced Western tattooing, Mike McCabe's book JAPANESE TATTOOING NOW takes a look at how Western styles have had an effect on the aesthetics and practice of tattooing as it exists in modern Japan. For anyone profiling the evolution of tattooing in Japan or looking for a tattoo artist working in Japan, this book will guide you thoroughly.

Japanese Tattoo
Japanese Tattoo

Donald Richie lived in Japan for most of his adult life and, as a Westerner, has studied many facets of their culture. He is considered an expert authority on Japanese cinema. This book on Japanese tattoos, written by Richie, was produced in 1980 and contains a lot of pertinent historical information along with excellent photo documentation of Japanese tattooing from recent decades.


Japanese Kanji (Lettering) for Tattoos: Do Your Research!

The web site Hanzi Smatter is dedicated entirely to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture. The author utterly adores and thrives on pictures of tattoos that people have gotten with Chinese characters or Japanese kanji where the translation is a bit off, or even way out in left field, or the characters were placed upside down.

The best way to not wind up a subject on this site is to do your homework and legwork when it comes to having your foreign-language tattoo created. Finding a native speaker is your best bet, although it's also a good idea to consult a second opinion.

The book below is a good starting point.

"Horimono" Vs. "Irezumi"

The word "irezumi" has caught on in the US as a word meaning Japanese tattooing, but in fact, the specific meaning is "tattoos for punishment" and it refers to markings made on criminals in ancient times. The more appropriate Japanese name for tattooing is "horimono." See BME's discussion of these terms.

So, if you made it this far, I'm gonna guess that you're a fan of Japanese tattooing and Japanese-style tattoos. Let me know what you thought of this article, ask a question, or share your experience with Japanese tattoos!

Questions & Answers

    Japanese Tattoos - What's Your Take? - feedback, comments, questions, contributions

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      • profile image

        Mandy 20 months ago

        I love traditional Japanese tattoos. The way that a story can be translated onto a body in such a complex and beautiful way is the definition of tattoo art. I personally prefer traditional Japanese tattoos over American traditional. That said I do find that the sheer amount of detail in some peices can trigger my stimuli overload and vertigo symptoms. I do often wish there where more tattoo artists who specalise in Japanese art in Australia.

      • josietook profile image

        josietook 4 years ago

        Wonderful pieces of art. I think the first one you show in this lens is amazing.

      • bluelily lm profile image

        bluelily lm 5 years ago

        Japanese tattoos are fine piece of intricate design done in a very meticulous manner. Just exploring it in details makes you engrossed.

      • Elyn MacInnis profile image

        Elyn MacInnis 5 years ago from Shanghai, China

        I lived in Japan for two years, and saw quite a few tattoos. The impression I had was that gangsters liked to get these big/full body tattoos, and were known for them. I guess not everyone with a tattoo is a gangster! But that was one group who stood out. Japanese tattoo artists are real artists, that is for sure. their designs are really amazing.

      • Rangoon House profile image

        AJ 6 years ago from Australia

        I am curious about the Japanese tattooing from the perspective that I have known many Japanese people and simply cannot imagine any of them having a tattoo of any kind. I have also been to Japan several times and have never seen a tattoo!

      • Tom Maybrier profile image

        Tom Maybrier 6 years ago

        I can't wait to go to Japan and get tattooed. My dream is to collect work from Shige at Yellow Blaze! Great lens!

      • mihgasper profile image

        Miha Gasper 6 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

        I am not a fan of tattooing but I admire artistic aspect of this job and certainly enjoyed your lens. Cheers!

      • Northwestphotos profile image

        Northwestphotos 6 years ago

        Beautiful tattoos. But this technique looks painful!

      • profile image

        jimmyworldstar 6 years ago

        Incredible. The full body tattoos look really intricate and colorful. I would've loved to see your lens talk more about tattoos that a lot of the organized crime members their have.

      • profile image

        jquod254 6 years ago

        great lens! i've seen a lot of nice japanese-style tats around

      • profile image

        seosmm 6 years ago

        Great info. Very nice lens!

      • TattooBaron profile image

        TattooBaron 6 years ago

        Great job on the lens. I'm not into the Japanese tattoos myself but they are beautiful and very well done!

      • CritterLover LM profile image

        CritterLover LM 6 years ago

        Nice lens!

      • Rhidawn profile image

        Rhidawn 6 years ago


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        greenlungsofpoland 6 years ago

        I got my first tattoos this year and love it

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        aquarian_insight 6 years ago

        This is real body art! Great lens.

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        PeterStip 6 years ago

        such an ancient art. Good lens, love the pictures. I do not have tattoos but I've seen some truly beautiful made.

      • profile image

        miaponzo 6 years ago

        I think they look incredible.. they are fascinating.. but so permanent. I hate my tattoos.. but these are amazingly beautiful and so artistic..

      • andreaberrios lm profile image

        andreaberrios lm 6 years ago

        Beautiful art.. I have tattoos and I love them.

      • profile image

        Performancecars 6 years ago

        Cool the detail is amazing

      • schwarz profile image

        Rae Schwarz 6 years ago from Seattle, WA

        @ScottHolt: I've actually had people tell me that tattooing by hand, when done by an experienced practitioner, is less painful than by machine.

      • ScottHolt profile image

        ScottHolt 6 years ago

        Hand tattoos look really painful haha.

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        Geeve 6 years ago

        A blessing for a stunning lens created by an Angel. You deserve it :)

      • profile image

        neoglitch17 6 years ago

        Wow, very interesting stuff! I would love to have a kanji tattoo on my right arm, but that's about it. Having a full-fledged tattoo in my back is not something I would really like to do. Thanks for sharing! :D

      • aeknuth profile image

        aeknuth 6 years ago

        A tattoo is the mark of a criminal in japan. Beaches and Onsen houses (public hot spring baths) will have posted signs that say no tattoos allowed. Some images are associated with specific criminal gangs. If you show your ink in public regular people will be afraid of you and avoid you.

        It means something different over there than in the west. They def. do quality ink over there though, cause you don't want to mess up on the type of people who get them.

      • bensen32 lm profile image

        bensen32 lm 6 years ago

        these are awesome, good info here. I have 12 tats myself but none are like this this is crazy cool.

      • ForestBear LM profile image

        ForestBear LM 6 years ago

        Great lens, thank you for sharing!

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        Appsgalore 6 years ago

        Those are some wild tatoos

      • playercoach profile image

        playercoach 6 years ago

        Nice lens. I just love tattoos and those youhave featured are beautiful. Just a reminder to everyone, be cautious getting a tattoo with letters or characters that may not be in your own native language--double chek to make sure the letters and characters really mean what you think they do.

      • MelissaInTheSky profile image

        MelissaInTheSky 6 years ago

        Amazing tattoos! Wow! True art.

      • Cinnamonbite profile image

        Cinnamonbite 6 years ago

        I don't have THAT kind of Japanese tattoo but I have a, "Golden Dragon," for going to Japan.

      • sorana lm profile image

        sorana lm 7 years ago

        Wow ... fabulous tattoos.

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        anonymous 7 years ago

        Most excellent! Thank you.

      • MrWidemouth profile image

        MrWidemouth 7 years ago

        I must admit the Japanese tattoos are quite appealing to me. Nice job compiling this comprehensive presentation. BTW I also loved your Miso lens and wanted to leave a comment but it didn't have a section so, great job on that as well. Miso soup helps pull radiation out of the body - the Japanese discovered this after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      • profile image

        rodney528 7 years ago

        Those Japanese tattoos are hardcore, but they look awesome

      • profile image

        rodney528 7 years ago

        Those Japanese tattoos are hardcore, but they look awesome

      • WildAnimalTattoos profile image

        WildAnimalTattoos 7 years ago

        I love the Japanese designs and the meanings behind them. Thanks for a great lens

      • profile image

        JulioRancho 7 years ago

        I love the Japanese tattoo style. In my opinion the yakuza seem to have the most beautiful tattoos even though they are gang related. I have always thought it would be funny if some american trying to be trendy got something tattooed on them they didn't understand.lol. I have always been fond of the "heaven" symbol found on Akuma from street fighter.

      • profile image

        TribalTattoosGallery 7 years ago

        one of the best styles of tattoo, the japanese have truly made it a beautiful artform

      • profile image

        AmbrosiaPopsicle 7 years ago

        Yakuza tattoo art is legendary.

      • ZablonMukuba profile image

        ZablonMukuba 7 years ago

        i love body art, tattoos are awesome

      • profile image

        martialartstraining 7 years ago

        I have never been a fan of tatoos but i like these, they are definitely more art than anything else

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        scar4 7 years ago

        Japanese tattoo making really becomes an art. Thanks for sharing and for the beautiful pictures.

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        info-emedia 8 years ago

        Wow, this is a beautifully put together lens and jam packed with information too! There's so much to learn, thank you for sharing!

      • clemency lm profile image

        clemency lm 9 years ago

        Superb lens. I have tattoos on both my feet which were done by this method. Can't say it didn't hurt but they healed really quickly and look fab. This method seems much more meaningful than having a machine tattoo.

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        Floraluniverses 9 years ago

        Beautiful tattoos and a great lens!

      • profile image

        rydigga 9 years ago

        Hi Rae,

        Very interesting lens. Thanks for sharing :)


      • profile image

        inkedskin 9 years ago

        i would want to have tribal arm tattoos, but not a whole body tattoo just like what those Japs have...

      • Ashiro profile image

        Ashiro 9 years ago from Birmingham, UK

        Very educational! I'm especially glad I found out about irezumi being used mainly on criminals. I could have made a very embarrassing mistake when I start learning Japanese.

      • profile image

        logo-design-czarina 9 years ago

        i love everything about Japanese art. And this lens just make me love them more and more each day! :-)

      • profile image

        DongMei 9 years ago

        Your love of tattooing and authenticity shine through with every word. Thanks for a suburb lens. Some of the events you've been to over the years sound wonderful.

      • profile image

        anonymous 9 years ago

        Oriental and exotic designs, that's what I love about Asian art and culture especially Japan.

      • profile image

        logo-design-czarina 9 years ago

        what can i say...this lens rocks....m/ ...and those tattoos are quite scary yet too lovely to describe...

      • profile image

        Aaron-M 9 years ago

        I got inked while in Japan! I love it! Japanese style is unlike any other. The Japanese Artist are also different then American Artist. it’s a tattoo culture and country culture thing.

      • Chris1392 profile image

        Chris1392 9 years ago

        Nice lens! 5 stars

      • profile image

        anonymous 9 years ago

        Cool! 5*'s for uniqueness.

      • profile image

        Stepgree 9 years ago

        Fascinating, but weird!

      • Ajmartirano profile image

        Ajmartirano 9 years ago

        amazing lens I you have some really great designs here thanks for sharing

        I rated and faved you for sure

      • profile image

        iron1 9 years ago


      • schwarz profile image

        Rae Schwarz 9 years ago from Seattle, WA

        [in reply to susannaduffy] I've been tattooed for 20 years, and not a single one of them has "sagged" yet. What happens over time depends on where you get your tattoos on your body, what the art is like and how well you take care of yourself and your skin.

      • SusannaDuffy profile image

        Susanna Duffy 9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

        What will you do in a few years when it all sags? Or if you lose weight? I've often wondered what will happen to people (especially women) who have large tattoos. Is there a process available to "tighten a tattoo"? I know that there's surgery to remove tattoos but is there anything to repair?

      • schwarz profile image

        Rae Schwarz 9 years ago from Seattle, WA

        [in reply to FreddyBenstein] As I pointed out on this lens, there's already an entire web site that does nothing but that. No point in me reinventing the wheel, eh?

      • profile image

        FreddyBenstein 9 years ago

        You ought to make a page on all the kanji tattoos that get screwed up by ignorant tattoo artists, or ignorant customers. I read Japanese, and every once in a while someone wants to show me their new kanji tattoo, and every so often, it has been completely screwed up. How unfortunate.

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        ChristiannaGarrett-Martin 9 years ago

        Stunning artwork! A great lens and lensrolled to my tattoo lens :)


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        beachbum_gabby 9 years ago

        I like the designs but I like more the tribal and Aztec one. :)

      • papawu profile image

        papawu 9 years ago

        The artistry of Japanese tattoos are truly a wonder. I have thought about going all out with tattoos on both arms from wrist to shoulder, but have not taken that leap yet.

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        J_ben 9 years ago

        Great artwork.. nice lens...:)

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        Belindance 9 years ago

        This is true artwork, and it seems that this style is becoming more acceptable, not so secretive in many cultures. I have a few myself that I designed.

      • Kiwisoutback profile image

        Kiwisoutback 9 years ago from Massachusetts

        Wow, great lens! Amazing artwork, it must be incredibly difficult to render these on a body.

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        protattoodesigns 9 years ago

        Again, another of your excellent lens, I'm becoming a fan!

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        anonymous 9 years ago

        amazing! in making movies, we usually made a temporary tattoo as part of the costume.

      • DragonAsh profile image

        DragonAsh 9 years ago

        Just got my first japanese dragon tattoo, its quite a big one it starts on the chest and goes over my shoulder down my arm to a full sleave.

        It was very painful on my chest and i was left with bruising of a few days, I have had the outline done and some shading, so far it has cost me £200 and will probably be double that when finished, but well worth it looks fantastic!

      • profile image

        bigqin 9 years ago

        hellloo, so me and my sister want to get tattoos saying "sister/sisters" in japanese. We're actually 25% japanese and that's why we're getting them. do you have any pictures or websites that can show me how to write that in japanese?

      • profile image

        darelief 9 years ago

        Very interesting.Cool lens. I've never had any tattoos, but those look good.

      • PromptWriter profile image

        Moe Wood 9 years ago from Eastern Ontario

        It's not surprising that this lens has been in the top 100 for 600 days. Congratulations on another informative lens.