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Sugar Skulls in Japanese Imagery


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Tibet is part of china I believe, and china is right beside japan pretty much..... There seems to be a lot of similarities in Japanese and Chinese folklore and art. I don't recall having seen any really old Japanese tattoos with Tibetan skulls. Maybe it's just a newer thing that people getting modern Japanese style tattoos are adding just because they like the image or meaning. Not everything in modern Jap style tattoos are technically supposed to be there according to Japanese art history.

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The Tibetan skull is an indigenous part of Tibetan Buddhist imagery. Here's the real deal:



Side note- as a Mexican, I don't really get the fixation on sugar skulls. Sure they're cool looking, but they're centered on a very specific, seasonal tradition. To me, it's like people getting Christmas trees 'cause they look sweet'. End of digression.

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As far as tattooing goes, most Japanese, traditional style work is based on folk tales or religious/devotional stories or artwork.

So Japanese stuff is a mix of Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto being Japan's 'Old religion'.

Buddhism grew from a sect of Hinduism, in India. Many of the Buddhist tales involve long arduous journeys to spread the new religion to the people of the world, starting with Tibet, through China and it's surrounding countries, eventually to Japan. In India, Buddhism was mostly a small sect or cult but in China it took it's own flavour and was adapted to suit the climate, existing folk tales and myths. That version of Buddhism travelled to Japan and mixed with Shinto to evolve into it's own flavour of Japanese Buddhism. That's what we see in traditional Japanese tattoos. Many of the Japanese gods and mythical beasts have equivalent Chinese names, sometimes tattooers use the Chinese names.

There are very few people working in a strict Japanese traditional style. Most tattooers, especially outside of Japan tend to work in a more broad 'Asian' style (although they focus on the japanese style). Taking elements and stylistic touches from traditional devotional artwork from across Asia. As @Kev already mentioned most of the decorated skull tattoos are based on real decorated skulls from Tibet, like the example above. There are also smaller, more cartoon-looking skulls that could be mistaken for sugar skulls. They are often used as decoration around ritual instruments or artwork. You may have seen Filip use them as decoration on a larger skull's decorated cap.

Because other Asian countries don't have much history of decorative tattooing, it's not really possible to follow their example directly within tattooing. But the religious designs are awesome and people want large tattoos. That's why you find a mish-mash of broadly Asian influence wrapped in a mostly Japanese frame or background.

The interesting this is, the more you delve into the histories and myths of various distant and unconnected cultures, you notice many of the same elements. Swastikas, winged spirits and pyramids are good basic examples. (As a side note: it was cool to stand in a temple in Japan and notice Borneo style tribal patterns on the panel frames).

Jung called these 'Archetypes' (although this refers more to conceptual ideas and relationships, not graphic shapes) I call them 'fair game' for including in tattoos. It's my opinion that it's one of our jobs, as tattooers, to understand these elements to better apply them to tattoos and to guide the style and subject of our work more in line with historical or human tradition. Wether we admit our understanding or explain these archetypes to our clients is of no consequence.

This is one of the many reasons I'd rather tattoo a witch/crone holding a twig instead of a gent holding a pipe.

But that's another story. I don't want hippy clients asking me to channel their mystic history into their Celtic, Navaho, Saxon, Russian armband/finger tattoo. Nor do I want to stick an eye in a triangle on anything and everything.

I tried to shed light on this, but I think I just muddied the water more...

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