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The History of Traditional Japanese Tattoos

Traditional Japanese tattooing is much different from the types of work we normally see. Usually, tattoo artists will use a modern tattoo machine with a specialized and sterile needle and deep, dark colored inks. For the Japanese, this didn’t always exist, and even now, there are still some artists that work to the beat of a different drum, one which has a long and rich history of art and aesthetics.

As far back as ten thousand years ago, the Japanese had forms of permanent body art used for decorative purposes. For a long time, tattoos were seen as symbols of rugged, confident individuals who could handle the pain of the tattoo process. For the Japanese, tattooing was a rite of passage for men desiring to be seen as the epitome of power and perseverance.

Starting as an apprentice and working their way up, the novice tattoo artist will spend decades learning the traditional craft from their master, known as a horishi. From “hori” meaning “to engrave”, these masters each have their own unique design style and way of tattooing that makes each one special in their own way. Because of this and other reasons, modern traditional artists are becoming much more rare.

Understanding the Process of Tattooing

The Japanese use simple yet effective tattooing tools that have remained essentially the same for thousands of years. Nowadays, there is more of an emphasis on sterility, but any artist will have their own way of ensuring that everything goes smoothly.

Apprentices will make all the tools that are required to start the process, from the needles to the silk string they’re attached to. Practicing all the work on themselves means that apprentices usually have a myriad of designs upon their own flesh, all with the direction of their master. Showcasing dedication in this way is the most effective form of design appreciation.

traditional japanese dragon

Japanese Style and Design Aesthetics

Traditionally, a full body suit is the most well-recognized Japanese tattoo design. Though it carries connotations with the yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, body suits are an incredibly nuanced and painstaking process to complete. Some suits will take over five years to complete, with numerous visits and recolors along the way.

Japanese artists practice their art a bit differently than western ones. Most artists have been working for decades on a particular style aesthetic, and they will want to stick to it regardless of what their client says. This means that if you are looking for something that literally no one else in the world will have, a traditional Japanese artist is a good investment.

Symbols in Japanese Culture

Asiatic cultures are very popular in the tattoo world due to the sheer amount of relevant and aesthetically pleasing symbols, such as koi fish and dragons. Everyone will recognize the Japanese influence immediately, due to the shading style and color palette, often teeming with a lovely bright saturation.

irezumi japanese traditional

Sharing with the Chinese

Most people know that the Japanese have taken a lot of influence from their Chinese mainlanders. On top of the language, the symbolism and mythology is also there.

Perhaps the easiest thing to recognize regarding the language differences is the inherent blockiness of Chinese characters, versus the slightly more loopy Japanese ones. Each one can represent multiple words or phrases, leading to ideas for smaller tattoo designs.

The Chinese have a longer history from their civilization, so Japan has done well in modifying it relevant to their culture. This is a boon for tattoo artists looking to create unique designs that take from thousands of years of cultural significance.

Fu Dogs

First known as Chinese guardian lions, Fu dogs made their way into Japanese culture through cultural acceptance and finally adoption. Said to ward off evil spirits and bad luck, these lion dogs were an incredibly important part of early Chinese architecture. In order to prevent unscrupulous individuals from entering a building, a set of male and female fu dogs would be placed near the entrance. Those with nefarious intent were meant to be scared off or otherwise demoralized by these creatures.

Nowadays, we typically see these lion dogs in Chinese restaurants, though they are also present in Japanese motifs and businesses. Their job remains the same: ever vigilant guardians of the buildings they are posted on, in order to prevent those with malicious intent from entering.

foo dog sleee

Dragons

Dragons are incredibly important to Japanese mythology, with many different types and designs available for tattooing. Also known as “ryu” in the Japanese language, dragons of this part of the world are primarily water spirits and guardians, with an emphasis on seafaring and weather patterns. Japanese sailors were said to be at the mercy of the ryu who guarded trade routes and aquatic straits.

In order to appease these beings, sailors would offering prayers and solidarity to the dragons, ensuring safe passage and a return home. The aquatic elements of Japanese dragons makes them incredibly interesting tattoo designs, melding different cultural styles and symbols into one representative creature.

Finding a Traditional Tattoo Shop

If you’ve made the decision to get a traditional Japanese tattoo, you’ll probably be wondering where the best place to get one is. In modern Japan, tattoos are still seen as relatively taboo to the general public, indicative of gangsters and other criminals. In spite of this, there are still a few shops that practice the “old way” of doing things, and represent the best of Japanese permanent body art.

Most of these shops are located in tourist-heavy areas, meaning that while they are safe places to get a tattoo, they will also be much more expensive than you may be used to. Regardless, you are investing in a world-renowned art aesthetic that you will carry for the rest of your life, along with the life’s work of the artist you get the tattoo from. If you’re up for traveling and investing in traditional Japanese tattoo art, you won’t be disappointed in what you find.

Ready to Explore Your Own Traditional Japanese Tattoo?

At Chronic Ink Tattoo, our talented artists are ready to help you explore the Traditional Japanese pieces and other tattoos to make sure you find something you’ll want to show off for decades to come. If you’re in the Toronto, Markham, Mississauga, Kitsilano Vancouver area drop by our shop and check us out for yourself.

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Tattoo Studio Locations

Downtown Toronto

378 Yonge Street,
2nd Floor,
Toronto, Ontario
M5B 1S6
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Midtown Toronto

252 Eglinton Ave East,
2nd Floor,
Toronto, Ontario
M4P 1K2
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Markham

7381 Kennedy Road,
Unit #105,
Markham, Ontario
L3R 5B5
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Mississauga

100 City Centre Dr.,
Unit #2-311,
Mississauga, Ontario
L5N 2C9
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Vancouver

1804 W 4th Ave,
Vancouver, British Columbia
V6J 1M3
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