Japanese tattoos are one of the most popular styles in tattoo art, but were you aware that every image used in Japanese tattoos has a meaning and purpose? This is one of the reasons that the Japanese tattooing tradition has persisted for so long and has appealed to so many outside of Japanese culture. If you’re thinking about getting a Japanese tattoo, then we recommend reading this guide to get acquainted with the meaning of traditional Japanese tattoos and their meaning. There’s a lot to learn and if you’re going to put something on your body that lasts forever, you should at least understand its meaning.
Tattoo Meaning: wisdom, strength, force for good, wind/water
Dragons in the West traditionally symbolize strength, ferocity, and wealth. They are a destructive force, but are also considered guardians. The Japanese, and the East in general, see dragons differently. In Japanese traditional tattoo art, dragons are generous, benevolent forces that use their strength to do good for mankind. Wisdom is another trait attributed to dragons. These positive connotations have made dragon tattoos among the most popular of Japanese style tattoos.
Tattoo Meaning: determination, strength, courage, desire for success, water
Japanese tattoos of koi fish are another of the most popular tattoo designs in traditional Japanese tattoo art. Koi are a specially bred type of carp, a fish native to China, where the Koi actually originates. Koi are given masculine qualities in traditional Eastern folklore such as strength and bravery. The Koi in China were known to attempt to swim upstream in the Yellow River, but very few could swim past a point known as “Dragon’s Gate”. Koi who did were said to be rewarded by turning into dragons. For this reason, Koi also symbolize determination and a strong desire to succeed and become “something more”.
Tattoo Meaning: rebirth, triumph, fire
This tattoo, like many other Japanese tattoos, has a shared background with other cultures. Most of us are familiar with the story of the Phoenix, a bird that is consumed by fire and then rises from its own ashes. Many are not aware that the story exists in many cultures and at many times throughout history including Greek and Roman mythology, Middle Eastern folklore, and even the Americas. The Japanese phoenix story draws its source from the story that’s indigenous to mainland China. Regardless of origin, phoenix tattoos are meant to symbolize rebirth and triumph, as well a renewal and rebuilding of one’s self.
Tattoo Meaning: strength, courage, protector against bad luck,
evil spirits, and disease
The Japanese tiger tattoo carries with it the same traits we attribute to the real animal–strength and courage, but also long life. The tiger tattoo is also used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck, as well as disease. The tiger is a symbol for both the North and for autumn, they are said to control the wind, and they are one of the four sacred animals.
Tattoo Meaning: protective, strong, courageous, good luck, heroism
This tattoo resembles both a lion and a dog. More specifically, it looks like a lion with pointed ears. They are said to be protective, strong, and courageous. As statues they serve to keep evil out, as tattoos they serve as protectors and often indicate a courageous person with heroic aspirations.
Tattoo Meaning: protection, wisdom, good luck, strength, and change
In traditional Japanese tattoos, the snake holds a wide range of meanings and performs a number of important functions. Among its many attributes are protection from illness, disaster, and bad fortune. Snake tattoos also represent wisdom and protection, particularly from the results of bad decisions. The snake can also embody regeneration, healing, and medicine as it was revered in Japanese culture in association with medicinal rites and remedies. As a symbol of good luck, it was also though to bring good health.
The Japanese snake tattoo also represents the Divine Feminine, or the holy female attributes. It was thought that much in the same way a snake sheds its skin, a woman could take on the positive attributes of a man. Seems a little sexist, but it was ancient Japan, after all.
Tattoo Meaning: life, death, change, reverence for dead/ ancestors
Though the image of the human skull in much of tattoo culture and art in general has come to have a negative connotation (such as death, danger, and an ill fate), the skull used in Japanese tattoos was intended to be a positive representation of the natural life cycle.
Traditionally, the Japanese skull tattoo represents change, which makes sense as death is the greatest change man can experience.