The Art of Tattooing in Japan: A Time-Honoured Tradition

vintage photo black and white Japanese tattooing tebori jarrad chivers

Tattooing is an ancient art form that has been practiced in various cultures around the world. One country known for its rich tattooing heritage is Japan. Japanese tattooing, or irezumi, has a deep-rooted history that spans centuries, reflecting both artistic expression and cultural significance. In this blog post, we will delve into the captivating world of Japanese tattooing, exploring its intriguing history, the tools involved, and the techniques employed.

A Brief Historical Overview:

Tattooing in Japan can be traced back thousands of years. Initially, tattoos served as symbols of spiritual devotion or marked criminals as a form of punishment. However, during the Edo period (1603-1868), tattooing evolved into an art form embraced by various social classes. It became popular among firefighters, laborers, and even samurai warriors, who used tattoos to display their bravery, loyalty, and personal stories.

Tebori needles 

Tools and Techniques:

Traditional Japanese tattooing employs distinctive tools and techniques that contribute to its unique style. One essential tool is the hori, a slender needle attached to a wooden or metal handle. The hori is used in a process called tebori, which involves hand-poking the ink into the skin. This technique allows the artist to have greater control over the tattoo and create intricate designs with remarkable precision.

Another important aspect of Japanese tattooing is the use of vivid colors and intricate motifs. Iconic images such as dragons, koi fish, cherry blossoms, and geisha are often incorporated, each carrying its own symbolic meaning. The artists' skill lies not only in their ability to capture these elements but also in their understanding of how to harmoniously blend them together, resulting in breathtaking full-body tattoos known as bodysuits.

Kuniyoshi tattooed warrior prints

Kuniyoshi  featured many tattooed warriors in his artwork

Cultural Significance:

Japanese tattoos possess a deep cultural significance that goes beyond their aesthetic appeal. They are often considered a form of personal storytelling, reflecting an individual's values, beliefs, and life experiences. The images chosen for a tattoo can represent protection, strength, good fortune, or serve as a reminder of ancestral heritage.

Additionally, the art of Japanese tattooing is closely intertwined with ukiyo-e, a genre of woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e artists such as Kuniyoshi and Hokusai played a significant role in influencing tattoo designs, contributing to the intricate and dynamic style seen in many traditional Japanese tattoos today.

Hokkusai: Great wave off Kanagawa from the series "36 views of Mt Fuji"

Contemporary Evolution:

While Japanese tattooing maintains its traditional roots, it has also evolved to incorporate modern techniques and styles. With the introduction of electric tattoo machines, artists now have the option to employ machine tattooing methods alongside the traditional tebori. This fusion of old and new allows for more efficient and faster tattooing while still preserving the essence of the art form.

Japanese dragon tattoo backpiece

Contemporary Japanese Backpiece made by Jarrad Chivers


The history, tools, and methods of tattooing in Japan reveal a captivating journey of artistry and cultural significance. From its early origins as a means of punishment to its transformation into a revered art form, Japanese tattooing continues to captivate and inspire individuals worldwide. The meticulous craftsmanship, symbolic motifs, and rich storytelling ingrained in Japanese tattoos make them an enduring testament to the country's artistic heritage.

Whether one appreciates the artistry, embraces the cultural significance, or simply marvels at the aesthetic beauty, Japanese tattooing remains an art form that has stood the test of time, offering a glimpse into a world where tradition and innovation coexist harmoniously.