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I've done a search on the net and on here but can't find what I'm looking for. Does anyone know a source to explain the symbolism behind Japanese tattoos? I'm not talking about high level Koi means this, Dragon means this; I'm talking about a really detailed explanation such as an explanation of what the symbolism behind a Samurai holding a scroll in his mouth is, or what it means for a Samurai to be shown killing a Koi fish.

I'm thinking about ideas for my next big piece and don't just want to put some random symbols on myself, or if I do, I want to do it by choice, not by ignorance.


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@Hogrider I'm by no means an authority on this stuff, but I'm travelling along the same road you've just started...

Part of the reason you can't find what you're looking for is because you're looking for literal or binary meanings.

Most of the images you've seen tattooed are taken from Japanese and Chinese folk tales or religious stories.

Imagine of you asked someone regarding western cultural art or tattoos:

1) "What does it mean when there's a guy hanging on cross with his arms outstretched?"

2) "What does it mean when there's a woman in blue holding a naked baby"

3) "What does it mean when the muscle-bound guy in the black mask overpowers the brightly dressed skinny man in the clown makeup.

The answers depend on your level of interest/sympathy and how abstract or literal you want to be:

1a) It's Jesus. His father, God, sacrificed him to atone for the sins of the world.

1b) The wearer has faith in a religious power higher than himself and possibly feel kinship with or sympathy for the figure and character of Jesus Christ.

1c) The wearer wants to be forgiven for past wrongdoings.

2a) It's Mary, Jesus' mother. The baby is Jesus.

2b) She's a figure of worship because some people believe she should be revered because God chose her as the vessel for his earthly offspring. Her cloak is blue because traditionally goddesses were associated with the moon and night sky. Sometimes it has stars on it. Christianity adopted this symbol to make it easier for people who held older religious beliefs to adopt the new faith.

2c) The wearer may have sympathy or empathy with the concept of being the vessel for divine power or lineage. Also this symbol can have an added element of sadness because we know the eventual sadness and loss of a mother witnessing her only son be sacrificed for the good of mankind - possibly a greater sacrifice than Jesus, some might say.

3a) It's Batman, he's fighting the Joker.

3b) Batman is a symbol of vigilante justice. He works outside of recognised laws to bring justice to a world crippled by wrongdoing.

3c) This scene is a metaphor for the darkness of repressed homosexuality and it's power to overcome the sinister flamboyance of non-hetro feelings.

etc, etc.

In short, think about what you want your tattoo to 'mean' or 'say' - tell that to a tattooer who knows his stuff and let them find a story or theme that fits your idea.

Or just pick one you like from a woodblock print.

I try to tell people all the time that western traditional tattooing has just as much symbolism and poetry but nobody will listen. It's all sex, death and the struggles of humankind.

Good luck.

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Broad strokes..you can search each item for the symbolism attached to it...

Meanings of tattoo designs & Irezumi – Clark North Tattoo

Popular Japanese Tattoo Meanings, Symbolism and Designs

Tattoos are beautiful: Yakuza Tattoos

Horimyo - Traditional Japanese Tebori Tattoo Artist Interview

Realize that everyone involved will have a different version of what a certain symbol used a certain way will mean. As a Westerner, you aren't bound by any cultural edicts on what you can or can't get, just float your boat and that's all she wrote!

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Stewart, what a great explanation! As usual I'm over thinking it. I've purchased some books and I guess I'll go with what I like and let my tattooer guide me. It's not so much that I'm trying to build a narrative using images, I just want to know what I'm putting on my skin.

Dan - thanks for the links.

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I'm trying to learn about this stuff myself so I am the farthest thing from an expert here but I think it's really worth reading non-tattoo sources like Japanese folk tales, myths, and legends. They might not be able to give you the specific answers you're looking for here, but they will give you a lot of insights and understanding into where a lot of tattoo imagery comes from.

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A lot of the warrior prints are based on the story of the 108 Heroes of The Suikoden or Water Margin , sort of a Chinese / Japanese Robin Hood and an extremely long novel . Here's some notes I took from material written by Horiyoshi III which may be of use -

Suikoden 108 fellow ruffians in possession of 108 stars of destiny, tenko stars and chisatu stars , who were guided by strange coincidence and fate .

1120- A gang of anti-authority thieves led by 36 great leaders with Soko as the head robbed around the valley of the Yellow River by use of waterways . Based on this fact the story of the Suikoden has been told .

The author is said to be either " Shitaian" or "Rakanchu" when the story was finally written down in book form .

In late Northern Sung Dynasty , under the reign of the elegant Emperor Kiso , people were immersed in unprecedented period of peace . As a result of indulging themselves in luxury , the signs of decadent and excessive maturity were finally showing . People have been deluded and uncertainties gradually prevailed .

A young man with a chivalrous spirit " shisin" burnt down his house were he was born and left home . Having tattoo of 9 Dragons all over his body 9 ( Kumonryu ) and Tenbi star of destiny in his hand . People called him Kumonryu Shishin

Later on the strange destiny sailed like a whirlpool and summoned up fellow ruffians . The great Yellow River bore it's fangs and the mainland started wavering .

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@Brock Varty wrote:

I really like the piece you have from Kim. I think you got exactly what you wanted. As far as my understanding goes, you can only mix flowers in the same season...even then it is probably taboo in a strictly traditional sense.

Anyways, this isn't the place for traditional Japanese arguments. I really really like your arm...CONGRATS!

This is an interesting subject IMO -- i.e., "what constitutes traditional Japanese?" -- and I figured it belongs here instead of the contest thread. I don't claim to be an expert; all I know is what I've found dicking around on the internet for the last few months and checking out a few books from the library.

If I can back up for a second... There are plenty of artists out there (some on this very board!) who are pushing the limits of what we call "traditional American style." I don't think anyone would say, for example, that a Scott Sylvia rose isn't a "traditional" tattoo because he didn't draw it exactly like Sailor Jerry or whomever. But when it comes to Japanese, the "rules" are far more rigid, it seems to me, for a variety of reasons I won't get into right now.

Yet a lot of people -- myself included – can get hung up on what's traditional Japanese and what isn't. In my own case, it probably would have been more traditional or "authentic" (whatever that means) if I had put the koi on my leg instead of my arm -- you know, the "clouds and waves" rule. But I wanted it on my arm so there it is. Judging from the bazillions of other koi tattoos I've seen, it seems like this is a rule that's "okay" to be broken. But maybe not.

When it comes to flowers and what-goes-with-what, I think the "rules" are essentially based on what can be observed in nature, which is why you're not supposed to mix up the seasons in one tattoo. That's just common sense, but in the end it really comes down to what's pleasing to the eye (and the wearer), right?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of awesome tattoo artists out there who are pushing the boundaries of traditional Japanese style -- Shige comes to mind -- and doing things a bit differently in terms of technique and subject matter -- e.g. color blending, sick giant skull back-pieces, etc. Hell, some people might think that using a machine instead of stick-and-poke isn't truly authentic. But then it's not as if there's an actual body of judges out there saying yea or nay on what's traditional and what isn't -- just a bunch of tattoo nerds on the internet (again, myself included).

Then there's the idea that a traditional Japanese tattoo should look exactly the same as one from fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago -- and it's not about the artist's individual style as much as staying committed to various rules, techniques, and philosophies. An idea, I think, that is very cool and certainly valid, and one of the things that appeals to me about Japanese-style tattoos in the first place.

Anyway, the point I kind of want to make is that what is called "Japanese traditional" is, in a way, quintessentially American (or Western, if you'd like) in that Japanese images (and styles and techniques) can be found in the roots of early modern American tattooing. By which I mean: a lot of dudes have been drawing dragons for a f*ck of a long time. The art of tattooing has evolved over time, and everything is a bastardization of what's come before and blah-blah-blah.

And even then Japanese tattoos are based on interpretations of all these ancient Chinese folktales. Which is why some Japanese tigers don't look like real tigers but the way they were imagined by certain woodcut artists who had never actually seen one, etc.

I also think it's interesting how so many white guys and gals (i.e. not Japanese) are super into Japanese tattooing when there's all these Japanese rockabilly guys and gals in Japan who are getting traditional American one-shot tattoos and wearing three-hundred-dollar selvedge denim that's an exact replica of a pair of Levi's from 1950-whatever. But that's a whole 'nother can o' worms.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Not trying to make an argument or disagree with anything else that's been said already. Just writing down some thoughts I've had recently. I'd love to hear what other people (ahem, @Stewart Robson) have to say on the subject.

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This is only tangentially related, but it may provide you some food for thought if you're spiritually inclined. The hand gestures of the Buddha (called mudras) in sculptures and paintings have very specific meanings, and it might be something that fertilizes your imagination:

I don't pretend to know anything about Japanese tattoos, and obviously Buddhist symbolism is not only relegated to the Japanese, but religion definitely shapes a culture. Shinto (one of the earliest Japanese religions) is also is something you might be interested to read up on since its less of a religion in our western understanding of the term and more of a conglomerate of the mythologies, legends, and history of Japan. It might be a good place to look for some of the insights Stewart mentioned.

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@DJDeepFried Everybody enjoys aspects of 'exotic' cultures. One man's mundane is another's exotic, and vice-versa.

'Traditional' Japanese tattooing has regional and time-specific styles too. Yokohama style isn't necessarily the same as Hiroshima style. 1930's style isn't the same as 1990's style etc.

I haven't heard of a 'rule' that states you can't get a koi on your arm, unless of course if you have a koi with waves on your upper arm and an eagle with clouds on your forearm.

This is only tangentially related, but it may provide you some food for thought if you're spiritually inclined. The hand gestures of the Buddha (called mudras) in sculptures and paintings have very specific meanings,

Positions of figure's legs (especially in relation to lotus flowers) often tell us things about their spiritual state in Buddhist art too.

Jesus spells out his (latin) name, gang-style, in many paintings from the middle-ages onward.


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@Petri Aspvik it doesn't spell 'Jesus' s such. It spells 2 initials of the Roman/Latin title of Jesus.

I think it's the same symbol as the reverse of this coin:


I can't find the exact source online but it was explained in detail in a recent BBC documentary on the history of christian art.

Maybe it was the full version of this show: BBC Four - The Dark Ages: An Age of Light, The Clash of the Gods

Sorry to derail this thread but anyone interested in history, art or symbolism should check out the BBC Four documentaries on BBC iPlayer.

To keep this on-topic, in the apple itunes store there are many lectures and short docs on Japanese art in the iTunesU section - For FREE!

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Thanks, @Stewart Robson. That didn't occur to me about the different regions and time periods, but of course that makes sense. I wonder if there's a book or some other resource that lays this all out. I've found a handful of interviews from some well-known Japanese tattooers online but nothing too in-depth or definitive on the subject. Unless this is the type of thing that only tattoo artists know and mostly share among themselves (kinda like an oral tradition). For instance, when I was reading up about koi fish tattoos -- up or down, meanings of both, what flowers pair with what, etc. -- there were some conflicting opinions and debates on different forums.

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  • 3 months later...
@Stewart Robson thank you again for your awesome input. I'm going to have to find those BBC documentaries online somewhere (us non-UK folks can't get to iPlayer). I always found this stuff seriously interesting and love new sources!

The Presenter's name is Waldemar Januszczak

There's a bunch of stuff on Youtube if you search for his name.

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@Stewart Robson I was ogling your blog the other day and I noticed that you don't sign your back pieces, is there any reason in particular?

- - - Updated - - -

Some interesting stuff on signatures in Japan



and a cool article on Shunga (erotica): http://eroticadujour.com/women-of-pleasure-the-floating-world-of-desire/

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@Stewart Robson I was ogling your blog the other day and I noticed that you don't sign your back pieces, is there any reason in particular?

A timely question...

There are a few reasons: I never had a 'pen name' and I wouldn't sign Japanese style tattoos with my own name. I wouldn't make a Japanese sounding name or Japanese style name for myself. I never wanted to ask anyone to give me a title.

Also I'm not part of any traditional tattoo family structure.

While I'm still not part of any traditional tattoo family (The Frith Street 'elite' doesn't count) this year Alex Reinke gave me a tattoo name and senjafuda as a birthday present.

So this year I will 'sign' some backs and suits. Particularly the ones that are based on traditional themes or designs, on select customers, by request.

Tattoos are usually 'signed' with a senjafuda (more like a sticker) rather than a seal.

Recently (the Paris and Edinburgh conventions) I used a banner with my senjafuda.

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