Some Japanese tattoo designs are gentle, peaceful, friendly, and downright tranquil to take in. Others — like the kappa tattoo — are bold, powerful, often mythical and sometimes even scary.
After all, Kappas are water demons, and demons can come in many forms, some alluring and beautiful, others, vicious and frightening. According to Japanese mythology and lore, the bottoms of murky rivers aren’t simply home to slimy and mysterious fish; they’re also home to misshapen, bloodthirsty creatures like Kappas.
Unlike peaceful cherry blossoms and lucky koi fish, a Kappa tattoo signifies mischief. It’s one of the traditional Japanese tattoos that depicts the threatening side of Japanese mythology.
What is a Kappa?
Well, to be honest, we’re not 100% sure, and neither is anyone else. See, the Kappa is a fictional creature and thus is open to a certain level of personal interpretation.
Here’s what you might see on a woodblock print, or ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period of Japanese history:
Imagine a lizard-child. We know; it’s already a frightening image. Now, imagine the lizard-child has webbed hands and feet, like a frog. These are used for increased speed and agility in the water. Picture a turtle’s shell on its back, and a hollowed-out space on top of its head filled with water (like a bowl).
That’s a Kappa.
So, what does a Kappa tattoo look like?
A Kappa tattoo looks like a water demon. A terrifying, beautiful, agile, mischievous water demon. Within that context, the Kappa can take on many forms but is generally described as a reptilian humanoid that inhabits the rivers and streams of Japan.
For context, they are thought to be no larger than a human child in size. Covered in scaly skin, fluctuating in colors ranging from bright reds, to deep greens, earthy tones and even blues.
Their bodies are built for swimming, and thus exhibit thumbless hands and webbed feet and hands, sporting a turtle-like neck, beak and shell.
What is the story behind the Kappas in Japanese mythology?
Kappas were known to make their homes anywhere there was water: ponds, rivers, and lakes were their favorite hideouts. As Japan has over 100 lakes and countless rivers, the islands offered a perfect habitat for Kappas to live.
In Japanese folklore from the Edo period, Kappas would mercilessly drag unsuspecting swimmers to the terrifying depths of rivers and lakes. Then, they’d drink their blood and eat their liver.
It’s enough to make you want to quit swimming altogether, right?
Parents told their children stories of kappas to prevent reckless swimming. In a way, the kappas became an anti-lifeguard of ancient Japan.
Kappas were rumored to love cucumbers. As a result, many families would write their names on cucumbers, then float them in the river as a peace offering to the kappas. They hoped the river demons would remember their offering and leave them untouched during river crossings.
There were a few methods to escape kappas if you encountered them, including forcing them to spill the water from their head-bowl (devastating for a kappa). Overall, however, river-crossers simply travelled with caution and trepidation.
What do Kappas Symbolize?
The kappas are, to this day, still known for their aggressive (albeit fictional) nature, attacking any who enter their territory.
However, they’re unique among Japanese creatures for their strange weaknesses: the bowl of water atop their head, and their desire to remain polite.
(Why would a deadly liver-eating demon want to be polite? We’re not sure. There may be a reason buried somewhere in traditional Japanese mythology, however.)
If the bowl of water spills, a kappa loses all power until the bowl is refilled from the kappa’s home river or lake. And if you bowed politely to a kappa, it would bow back in politeness—spilling the water. Politeness was the kappa’s weakness.
Occasionally, the generally-ruthless kappas showed kindness to humans. One legend even says a kappa taught the Japanese how to heal broken bones.
Because of these unexpected quirks, Kappas symbolize more than simple aggression. They’re a complex character in Japanese mythology, with weaknesses, strengths, and—rarely—compassion.
Should I get a Kappa tattoo?
Whether or not a Kappa tattoo is for you depends on your personality. If you’re intrigued by the Kappas’ bent toward politeness, you may want to investigate the idea of a Kappa tattoo.
There are many ways to incorporate a Kappa tattoo into your body art. Our tattoo shop can create tattoo designs based on your favorite Kappa woodblock print, or model your tattoo style off traditional irezumi. If you’d like a full Japanese-themed sleeve, we can add your Kappa tattoo to other tattoo designs incorporating koi fish, cherry blossoms, and other traditional Japanese symbols.
Ultimately, whether or not you decide to add a Kappa tattoo to your current tattoo art shouldn’t depend on the aesthetics. Aesthetics can be tweaked and customized to your style.
If you connect to the story of the Kappa in some way, it may be the next traditional Japanese tattoo for your evolving ink.
Ready to get your new tattoo?
At Chronic Ink, we have some of the best traditional and neo-traditional Asian tattoo artists in Toronto. We welcome walk-ins for consultations at our Downtown Toronto, Midtown Toronto, Markham and Newmarket locations. No appoinment necessary or contact us and let us know your idea today.
378 Yonge Street,
252 Eglinton Ave East,
7381 Kennedy Road,
Upper Canada Mall
17600 Yonge Street,