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What is the meaning behind a Hannya mask tattoo?

Asian art has always held an esteemed place within the tattoo industry in Downtown Toronto and Vancouver. Imagery linked to ancient Japanese mythology is one of the most popular subjects for tattoos at Chronic Ink Studios in Toronto.

Not only are Japanese style tattoos beautiful, they are also often filled with rich symbolism and history. Today we’d like to dive deeper into the history and meaning behind one of the staples of Japanese style tattoo art, the Hannya mask (sometimes confused with the Oni mask and Kabuki theatre face painting).

Tristen Hannya Mask Back Tattoo

The history of the Hannya mask

This imposing and formidable looking mask most closely resembles a demon on first glance, however, its actual origins and story goes much deeper. To fully understand the Hannya mask, we need to travel back to the 14th century. The Hannya mask first appeared in a well-known variety of traditional Japanese musical theatre known as “Noh Theatre” which was popular around this time. The actors in Noh plays would tell stories through gestures while adorned in intricate masks.

The Hannya mask was used in Noh plays to depict a woman who has become so overwhelmed with sorrow, envy, or rage that she takes on the form of a demon, dragon or serpent. Its prominent features are a leering mouth, sombre metallic eyes, sharp fang-like teeth, and two devil style horns.

Hannya Mask Tattoo

One of the most popular plays to feature the Hannya mask tells the story of Prince Genji, who is married to Lady Aoi but has a mistress named Lady Rokujo. When Prince Genji’s wife becomes pregnant, he ignores Lady Rokujo. Lady Rojuko becomes overwhelmed with jealousy and violent anger after losing the affections of her lover and transforms into a demon who possesses the wife, eventually leading to her death.

Hannya mask meanings and symbolism

The mask itself represents female rage and pain and is demonic, angry, frightening, and dangerous while at the same time tormented, heartbroken, melancholic, and sorrowful. Depending on the angle the physical mask is being held, the expression will seem either angry or sad. Overall, the idea behind the Hannya mask is to represent the intense emotions that can be brought to the surface when an otherwise calm and wise woman is betrayed or scorned.

Though the overall story and appearance of the mask may seem dark, the word Hannya in Japanese actually means “wisdom” and the masks themselves are considered a symbol of good luck. In Japan today, the masks are often used as a means of warding off evil.

The Hannya mask in tattoo form

The base meaning behind the Hannya mask is open to many individual and personal interpretations, this is likely one of the reasons the Hannya mask has been such a popular subject for Japanese style tattoos throughout the years.

The myriad of meanings behind the original Hannya masks can take on a variety of forms when portrayed in a tattoo. Extreme vibrant colours can be used to emphasize specific emotions that you want to highlight or black and grey tones may be chosen to invoke the feelings of melancholy which are also present.

Choosing the positioning and angle of the mask in your tattoo will also determine the overall emotion that is displayed, in much the same way that holding the original masks at different angles drastically changes the expression.

In addition to playing around with the colours and angles of the mask itself, working with your tattoo artist to come up with the ideal design to surround your Hannya mask tattoo can further deepen the meaning you wish to portray. Combining the Hannya mask with other Japanese imagery is a popular choice, as most Japanese imagery holds deeper meanings and pairs well stylistically with the mask making for really striking large-format tattoo pieces such as sleeves and back pieces.

Inner Bicep Hannya Mask Tattoo

What style of Hannya mask would you get in tattoo form? Would yours represent jealousy and rage or sorrow? Perhaps yours would play more on the aspects of wisdom and good luck, warding off these more negative emotions.

No matter what you envision when picturing a Hannya mask tattoo, our experienced artists at Chronic Ink Tattoo would love to collaborate with you to bring your vision to life!

Excited to Get your Hannya Mask Tattoo??

What style of Hannya mask would you get in tattoo form? Would yours represent jealousy and rage or sorrow? Perhaps yours would play more on the aspects of wisdom and good luck, warding off these more negative emotions.

No matter what you envision when picturing a Hannya mask tattoo, our experienced artists at Chronic Ink Tattoo would love to collaborate with you to bring your vision to life!

Tell us Your Idea

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