Japanese Tattoos: A Complete Guide With 85 Images

Japanese Tattoos

Japanese tattoos are one of the most impressive forms of body art you can opt for. Often inked in bold colors and featuring mythical creatures, the tattoos are certain to gain attention wherever you go.

History and evolving cultural traditions have had huge impacts on the form and meanings associated with various Japanese tattoos. You don’t need to master the long and complex history of Japan to deserve one of these tattoos, though.
Here are some of the most popular Japanese tattoos with important details and tips to help you select a good tattoo design.

Japanese Dragon Tattoos

Japanese mythology, poetry and other forms of literature are replete with dragons. The Japanese dragon shares some form and associations found in other Oriental cultures such as the Chinese and Korean dragons. The Japanese dragon, however, tends to be considerably more feral than the latter two. 

To appreciate the meaning of Japanese dragon tattoos, you need to forget much of what Western cultures associate with dragons. While European dragons are more likely to share features with lizards and predatory birds, the Japanese dragon is more serpentine. This feature makes it possible to have Japanese dragon tattoos that coil their way around the trunk or limbs. 

Western cultures usually associate dragons with ferocity, strength and wealth. In Japanese culture, dragons have a more benevolent mythical association — seen as using their strength to help humans. Japanese dragon tattoos are often a mark of generosity, empathy and wisdom. 

History of Japanese Dragon Tattoos

Dragon tattoos are among the most popular in Japanese culture. There is evidence to suggest that the tattoos go back to the beginning of the Jomon era, some 12,000 years ago. 

Most variants in the Japanese dragon tattoo came to being at the height of the nation’s feudal history though. This is from around the mid to late 17th century. At the time, Japanese society underwent rapid social reorganization. 

Common Japanese Dragon Tattoo Variants

Japanese dragon tattoos are varied in form and character. In Japanese mythology, the creatures interpreted as dragons in English are diverse. They incorporate original Japanese concepts and others imported from Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean variants.

While there are variants of the Japanese dragon that are winged, this is usually the exception, not the rule. In most Japanese dragon tattoos, the creatures depicted are scaled, serpentine beasts with claws and fiery eyes. 

Skills and Techniques Required to Ink Dragon Tattoos

Japanese dragon tattoos are rarely in one monotonic color. Adding different shades and hues brings about realism to the images. The tattoo artist inking the images needs to have a good concept of form and perspective. 

The ink most often used in Japanese dragon tattoos is black. This is almost always complimented with dashes of red. 

There’s nothing passive about Japanese dragons. A good tattoo artist will need to bring about the sense of action and motion from all angles of the image. 

Tips for Picking a Suitable Design

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you search for a good Japanese dragon tattoo:

  • Japanese dragon tattoos are large by default so be prepared to devote a large area of your skin to the tattoo.
  • If you are looking for a minimalist Japanese tattoo, you may have to be satisfied by a depiction of the dragon’s head only.
  • The face of the dragon is usually the most expressive part of the tattoo. Go for designs that accentuate the face with glaring eyes and horned brows.

Japanese Foo Dog Tattoos

The term Foo (or Fu) Dog is misleading. The creatures depicted are not dogs but bear feline features most reminiscent of a lion. The regal bearing of these lions distinguishes them as imperial guardians. 

History of Japanese Foo Dog Tattoos

There are strong suggestions that Japanese foo dog tattoos borrow most elements of their depiction from Chinese myths and imagery. There are no native lions in China or the Japanese archipelago. The foo dog in Oriental folklore must have originated from encounters traders had on the Silk Road trade routes. 

Other than their prominent place in Asian tattoo culture, foo dogs are also very common as statues. Statues of lions with features reminiscent of foo dogs were prominent features flanking entrances to royal palaces in ancient India. 

As their legend traveled further east, foo dog statues became common as guardians to entrances of Buddhist and Shinto temples. It’s around the same time that they started gaining prominence as tattoos in the Far East, including Japanese islands. 

Common Japanese Foo Dog Tattoo Variants

As with other Japanese tattoos, the colors used to ink foo dog tattoos give different meanings to the images. The generic Japanese foo dog tattoo represents guardianship and protection. When some colors and hues become dominant in the appearance of the foo dog, this meaning can change accordingly.

Foo dog tattoos with predominantly golden overtones represent peace. As gold is also associated with wealth and power, golden foo dog tattoos are highly valued. If you want your Foo dog tattoo to bring out the Zen peace quality, you can have light shades of blue added to the image. 

Japanese tattoos depicting a pair of foo dogs serve to bring out the concept of Yin and Yang. This male-female duality is present in all forms of Japanese philosophy. It speaks of completeness and balance. When inked in pairs, you can tell the male foo dog as it usually holds a dark orb. The female Foo dog is usually depicted holding a cub. 

Skill and Techniques Required to Ink Foo Dog Tattoos

To make a foo dog tattoo realistic, the artist needs to have skills to work out intricate elements. Foo dog tattoos are usually not as extensive as, say, dragon tattoos. Owing to the complexity of the details though, a tattoo artist will have to take plenty of time to ink. 

The use of color to bring out various meanings and associations attached to foo dogs is crucial. A proficient tattoo artist needs to be well versed in Japanese mythology and Oriental perspectives in general to ink culturally relevant Japanese foo dog tattoos. 

Tips for Picking a Suitable Design

Here are some helpful tips to use when going for a Japanese Foo dog tattoo:

  • Get the tattoo inked where it can be seen — on the upper arm, inside the wrist or on the shin.
  • In Japanese mythology, a foo dog will only offer protection to those who show it respect. The tattoo should be located on an area of your body you can keep clean at all times.
  • If you go for a foo dog male-female pair tattoo, the relative placement of each is important. From the foo dog’s perspective, the male is always to the left of the female. 

Japanese Snake Tattoos

Just like with the dragon, the Japanese mindset attaches a different connotation to the snake compared to Western cultures. Most Western concepts of the snake stem from the guileful and devious serpent in the Garden of Eden saga. Other ideas borrow from the purely malevolent Medusa of Greek mythology. 

In Japanese and other Oriental cultures, the snake represents courage, wisdom and good luck. In Japan, where the snake is known as ‘hebi’, snake tattoos also represent strength and change. 

History of Japanese Snake Tattoos

For a long period throughout Japanese history, tattoos were associated with criminals. As such, serpentine tattoos only became commonplace in the mid-17th century going forward. 

Before the Edo period of Japanese history (from 1603 to 1868 AD), snake tattoos were rare. As increasingly liberal ideas infiltrated Japanese society, snake tattoos and other decorative forms of body art became acceptable. 

Common Japanese Snake Tattoo Variants

There are many variations of Japanese snake tattoos to suit different tastes and body-art sensibilities. The tattoos can be graphic, minimalist and even psychedelic in appearance. 

The Japanese pit viper inspires some of the most vivid Japanese snake tattoos. The scales on its back feature some intricate and overlapping circular patterns. The mosaic patterns of its belly offer good contrast when inked by a proficient tattoo artist. 

Japanese snake tattoos are often inked coiling around a limb or the torso. Some tattoo artists also ink them along the entire length of an arm. It’s also possible to have a minimalist “snake ring” tattoo coiled around a finger. 

Skill and Techniques Required to Ink Japanese Snake Tattoos

Before the modern era, the most evocative Japanese tattooists used gouging needles to ink tattoos on the skin. They also used black ink known as Nara in what was a tasking and painful process. The Nara ink turns bluish-green under pigmented human skin, ending up as striking snake tattoos. 

Tattoo artists who specialize in inking Japanese snake tattoos today use precision needles and don’t need Nara ink for realism. To reproduce evocative snake tattoos, however, they still need to be talented. If the snake tattoo will curl around a limb, change of gradient and body contours mustn’t distort the image. 

Tips for Picking a Suitable Japanese Snake Tattoo Design

Browsing through images of Japanese snake tattoo graphics can be disconcerting. It’s not easy to pick the right one, especially if the images appear on a white, two-dimensional surface. 

Here are a few tips to help you pick a good design:

  • Before opting for any snake tattoo, inquire if the artist can magnify or reduce the size of the image. Only a tattoo image matching exact dimensions it will take on your skin can show you its realism. 
  • Go for snake tattoo designs that give an impression of 3D form rather than plain, two-dimensional ones.
  • If you plan to expand or embellish your tattoo later, choose a central point for the initial snake graphic.

Best Japanese Tattoos