A tradition that appeared since prehistoric times, tattooing is an ancestral practice in Japan. Nowadays, there are a number of terms to designate the practice of tattooing. Irezumi, also called ink insertion or body decoration, designates the traditional Japanese tattoo. Indeed, this one has the particularity to cover the body with sophisticated patterns. This practice can extend from the neck, to the lower back, the buttocks, on a part of the forearm or on the chest.

All forms of this tattoo are done by hand with a traditional method. It is applied with a wooden handle and a metal tattoo needle, attached via a silk thread. It is a method that requires a special ink, known as "Nara ink". Irezumi is practiced by a limited number of master tattoo artists and specialists called "Horishi".

Irezumi tattoo on arm

Japanese tattooing dates back thousands of years. Despite the longevity of this tradition, the art of tattooing still experienced several difficulties until today. In the beginning, it was practiced especially for a man, with a social purpose. This is done to distinguish rank, religion and clan. The tattoo would be practiced for the first time by the Ainu people, the first people of Japan. Although this tradition represents beauty and elegance, tattooing has gone through a period where it lost its nobility. Indeed, during the Edo period and the Kofun era, it was used to mark and punish criminals. Moreover, in 1868, during the Meiji era, Irezumi was banned. Nevertheless, its image changed, and this practice will be legalized again in 1945.

All over the world, the traditional Japanese tattoo style is considered as a work of art. To know that to be tattooed with this Japanese style, requires a lot of patience. Indeed, it takes an average of 5 to 10 years to produce one. This is because it is a single piece that covers the entire body. In addition, each image and motif represents precise and cultural meanings. Thus, its wearer embodies a fragment of this Japanese culture, which he continues to perpetuate during his death.


According to archaeologists, tattooing in Japan would be practiced since 10 000 years before Jesus Christ. This tradition goes back at least to the "Jōmon" or Paleolithic period, used for spiritual and decorative purposes. Irezumi was first glimpsed through the discovery of the "Dogû" and "Haniwa" statuettes. In addition, figurines that were placed in tombs as magical protection.


Ainu Tattoo

The tattoo of the upper lip is the symbol of maturity in the Ainu people

It is during the third and fourth century that Chinese observers witnessed the use of tattoo in Japan. The Ainu tribe, which is the first inhabitants of Japan, used tattooing for social and decorative purposes. Indeed, men and women were all tattooed:

  • Women were tattooed on the edge of the mouth, and on the cheek for married women. This tradition continued until very recently, despite its prohibition in 1871;
  • Men were tattooed to protect themselves from spirits. At that time, tattooing also designated their membership in a particular clan or profession.

In spite of their culture, the act of getting tattooed was still considered as barbaric by the Chinese chroniclers, a period with which the Chinese thought entered Japan, and imposed laws in relation to religion. It is from this period that Irezumi started to have negative connotations. Indeed, instead of being used for rituals, the tattoo was used to mark and punish criminals. Thus, it would be easy to discern the delinquents from the others. These criminals were tattooed with a character on the forehead or a circle around the arm for each offense.


Japanese tattoo on the arm

Splendid traditional Japanese tattoo on the arm

It was in this period that the clay statuettes "tattooed" were discovered. The "Haniwa", which had for function to protect and accompany the deceased in the afterlife. It is in the Chinese history book "GishiWajinden" that we find the first mentions of Japanese tattoos of this period. This book appeared in the third century and told about the tattoos of men on their faces and bodies as symbols. It also told about the activity of Japanese people like underwater fishing of fish and shell. Thus, they decorated their bodies to protect themselves from big fish.

From the sixth century, the Chinese aristocratic culture in Japan brought with them a negative vision of tattooing. With the diffusion of Buddhism and the Chinese elites, the Irezumi lost all its value. Indeed, the strong impregnation of the Chinese culture dominated the community from this time on.


Dating from the year 710 and 794, more exactly in the year 712, that the "Kojiki" establishes the laws concerning the tattoo! Thus, there are two types of tattoo which are:

The first one : reserved for men of high rank;
The second one: reserved for criminals.
This last one spread on a large scale, because of its great visibility. Indeed, this one will contribute to distinguish well the inhabitants and the criminal population.


It is on this period, in the middle of the fifteenth and at the end of the sixteenth century, that the practice of the tattoo was diffused among the samurais. Indeed, this period was marked by the war between "daimos", and the tattoo was seen as a means of identification. Thus, the tattoo patterns on the body allow to recognize the warriors in combat.


It is in the south of Japan, in the "Amani Öshima" islands that women were tattooed with "Hajichi" on their hands. Starting with the fingertips up to the elbow, the tattoos were a rite of passage, indicating that the woman is married. When the woman dies, it is the "Hajichi" that will protect her from a life of suffering in the next world.

Hajichi on a woman's hands

Besides being tattooed on the hands, they were also tattooed around the mouth. Indeed, this allows to beautify oneself, to obtain a spiritual protection, but also to show one's social rank. This practice of "Hajichi" is very old, but the first references of this practice go back to the sixteenth century.


It is during the year 1600 to 1868 that the Irezumi knew the evolution and the consideration in Japan. During this period, the "Kojiki" introduced a beginning of codification of the tattoo. So the tattoo was divided into three distinct types, which are:
  • Corporate tattooing;
  • Decorative tattooing;
  • The penal tattoo.


This corporate tattoo has been practiced for many years, especially among several trades. Indeed, firemen and rickshaw pullers also called "Jinrikisha" used to tattoo dragons to protect themselves from dangers. This practice spread very quickly, especially among the "Yujos" and "Geishas" also called legal prostitutes.


Japanese tattoo print

Before, tattooing already existed among the social categories, but it is on the Edo era that it would be institutionalized under the name of "Irebokuro". Indeed, this term which meant inserting a mole designated the lovers who wanted to get a tattoo. At that time, this practice existed in homosexual relationships between priests and young men.

During this period, there was also the "Kishibori", a variant word of "Irebokuro". It consists in tattooing the name of the beloved person. Together with the ideogram of "Life", it was considered as the mark of eternal love. To flatter their client and to reach a higher rank, the "Yujos" had the name of their lover tattooed. It is often on the inner part of the arm or near the armpits that these tattoos were drawn. Geishas" and luxury courtesans considered these two types of tattoos as degrading. Nevertheless, some of their rich clients asked them to tattoo their name on these prostitutes.


It's in the 1650's, that the decorative tattoo was developed, with the printing on wood block. It was built in symbiosis, with the attraction for the pleasure districts like the Kabuki theater, the literature and the poetry and the "Ukiyo-e". It is in the second half of the eighteenth century, with the Chinese adventure novel "Suikoden", that the decorative tattoo took its rise.

Indeed, this novel related the exploits of highwaymen. It was thus, a major source of inspiration in the revival of the tattoo. Fascinated by the exploits of these bandits, people tattooed their heroic figure and the recurring symbols in the work. Thus, the Ukiyo-e artists who illustrate this work gave the tattoo a very specific style.

Japanese tattoo by Kimbei

Beautiful Irezumi on the back of a Japanese Samurai

The common people adopted the decorative tattoo, which was seen as a fashion item. The Irezumi was quickly in vogue and especially among craftsmen who often worked undressed. These craftsmen proudly displayed their tattoo as a sign of style and to distinguish themselves.


Institutionalized in 1720, the penal tattoo was used in order to replace the amputation sentences for criminals. This tattoo was imposed on the forehead and on the forearm. They also designated the crimes that the convicted person had committed, and had the function of excluding them from society. This led to a bad image of tattooing in Japan.

Inspired by the bases of the "Kojiki", this punitive tattoo stigmatized the individuals who gathered around the "Yakuzas" clan. Complexed by the fact of having been excluded from society, these outlaws sank deeper into crime. So, in order to dissuade these criminals, the police generalized the tattoo as punishment.

After their release from prison, these criminals called upon "Irezumishi" to disguise their criminal tattoo under another design. These "Irezumishi" are also called the tattoo masters of the "Yakuza" and outlaws.

yakuza tattoo

Japanese tattoo exhibition at a Yakuza Matsuri

So, in order to avoid to be seen as a back country, the Japanese government forbids tattooing in 1872. That's when the idea of hiding the Irezumi under the clothes was invented. Moreover, many people were forced to abandon their custom and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, some tribes continued to tattoo themselves, but they were soon discovered. For this, these tattoos were removed surgically or with acid.


It is under the Meiji era that the ban on the practice of tattooing is reinforced. At this time, from 1868 to 1912, the country was showing its access to modernity by adopting a western style. That's why tattooing was more than ever considered as a regressive and barbaric practice. In 1870, tattooing, including criminal and Ainu tattoos, was definitively prohibited.

Moreover, while the tattoo side of Japan was struck by inequality, the western side began to be interested in Irezumi. Especially since the ban in 1870 did not apply to foreigners, many Europeans decided to tattoo themselves in Japan.

Fascinated by this practice, many of the world's elites of that time adopted this style. In particular the Duke of York, the future George V and Tsarevitch or Nicolas II got tattoos. Indeed, this western craze gave back work to the master tattooist of Japan. This allowed the "Horishi" artists to expose their art outside their country, especially in Europe and the United States.


During the Edo era, the best tattoo artists lost their trade little by little, and for that they had to find a solution. At that time, during their trip to Japan, some foreigners wished to get a precious Irezumi. This last one, considered as exotic, attracted several travelers to Japan.

It was at this time that several choices and opportunities were offered to these "Horishi". First of all, they have the opportunity to continue their art, clandestinely. The tattoo artists are strategically placed near the ports, under the signs of painters or lantern makers.

The other part is that these "Horishi" decide to leave the country or to expatriate. Several countries are preferred destinations such as Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, Great Britain and the United States.

In 1948, Japan decided to lift the ban on tattooing. Thus, the "Horishi" surfaced under the American occupation after the war. It is during the Vietnam and Korean war, that the number of tattooists increased.



Despite the changes in the design of a tattoo, the basic methods and ritual of Irezumi have remained the same. To get a tattoo, you must first consult a master tattooist. After making an appointment, the tattoo artist proceeds to draw the outline of the tattoo.

Then, the master proceeds to the coloring and shading, from where the contours are fixed with two or three needles. Some areas of shading require up to thirty needles. At the time, these needles could be fixed with bamboo, ivory or wood. Nowadays, a metal handle is the most used by tattoo artists.

This technique is called "Tebori", a traditional practice which consists in being tattooed by hand. Irezumi requires a very high degree of knowledge from the tattoo artist. The latter must take into account the rendering that the ink will have once poured.

Very long, very expensive and very painful, many customers stop the realization of their tattoo before the end. Some clients, because of their financial means, are led to interrupt their session with one master, but continue it with another. Thus, the "Tebori" being carried out by several "Horishi" gives place to a hybrid tattoo.


Since always, there is a quasi ritual relation between the customer and the tattooist. The tattoo artist has the right to refuse a client who he considers not worthy of wearing his work.

horiyoshi 3

Portrait of master Horiyoshi III

It is to the master Horiyoshi III, that the evolution of tattooing technique owes a lot. Indeed, this master tattooer combined Japanese and Western techniques. With this combination, he made sure that the handmade tattoo is slightly more time efficient for the artist.

Indeed, the handmade Irezumi requires almost 5 years of work for a complete tattoo. For the colors, the masters use a black Indian ink called "Sumi" for the outlines. As for the filling, the Nara ink which gives the blue-green effect under the skin is very often used. Red, yellow, blue-black or indigo inks are also used for filling.

The kakushibori, or hidden tattoo is a more or less proven myth of a negative ink. This tattoo is made with rice powder or lead white. Supposed to be invisible in normal time, this tattoo appears when the body temperature rises.

Also called the "Irozumi", this one appears when the person takes a hot bath, makes physical exercise or drinks alcohol. Born from a play on words between "Irezumi" and the suffix "iro", Irozumi refers on the one hand to color, but on the other hand to eroticism. Nevertheless, its existence seems to be anecdotal, and few tattoo artists admit to know about this practice.


çCurrently, the tattoo masters privilege the myths and history of Japan. Indeed, this one aims to make the taste and the respect of this tradition last, near the young Japanese.

For that, few of the tattoo masters mix western motives to those of the traditional tattoo. In Irezumi, each symbol represents its own meaning, be it an animal, flora or mythological beasts.

Among these motifs, many of the designs are from "Ukiyo-e" prints such as "Geishas" and samurais. There are also figures from the popular literature "Suikoden", but also religious and mythological themes. In addition, "Shinto" deities, demons and Buddhas are often represented, but also animal and plant motifs.


Considered as the King of flowers, the peony is a masculine emblem that symbolizes wealth, health and prosperity. Moreover, together with the Irezumi, it denotes a bold, confident and proud character.


In Japan, this solar flower is officially an imperial emblem. In fact, the Supreme Order of Chrysanthemum is the highest honor a dignitary can receive. The petals of this flower are like the rays of the sun, at the center of which is the emperor. Chrysanthemum also marks perfection in simplicity, and the image of a long and happy life.


This flower is the most famous symbol of Japan. Indeed, this one evokes the fragility of existence, the sense of sacrifice, the awareness of destiny and the sublime and ephemeral beauty. These motifs are thus linked to a warrior ideal or to brave samurais. These flowers also represent the purity of existence advocated by Buddhism. It also marks the contemplation of the beautiful and simple things of nature, detachment from material possessions and ideal death.


The lotus is the symbol of Buddhist awakening and revelation. A flower that blooms in the mud, the lotus is the image of the struggle of life against death. It has an essentially religious character that shows the beauty of the Irezumi.


Maple leaves are related to the passing of time, serenity and peace of the renewing cycle. This one is another favored symbol along with the cherry tree petals, lifted by the wind.


The koi carp is a masculine emblem, particularly celebrated in China than in Japan. Indeed, this one is known for its strength and tenacity to go up the currents. It is also associated with determination, ambition and the ability to overcome obstacles.


Also very well known in China, as one of the guardians of the four East. Namely, the four guardians of the East are:

  • The White Tiger of the West, related to metal;
  • The Azure Dragon of the East, associated with wood;
  • The black turtle of the North, representing the aquatic element;
  • The vermilion bird from the south represents fire.

Indeed, the tiger symbolizes strength, longevity and courage on the Irezumi. This one are also related to autumn and wind, it repels bad luck, disease and demons.


This one is likened to Buddha's lion, drives away demonic spirits, brings health and wealth. Very often, the lion is always represented in pairs including a male symbol and a female emblem. Indeed, the male symbol has an open mouth to let out the evil in him, and putting his paw on a globe. This globe represents the heavens and the laws of Buddhism.

On the other hand, the female emblem has a closed mouth to prevent evil from entering. This one has a paw on a lion cub, which symbolizes the earth.

Previously, there was a confusion between the lion and the dog, that even the lion translated into Chinese is also called "Fu Dog".


Often associated with merchants, in the Asian continent, it is the snake that guards the treasure. Indeed, the snake is a symbol bringing wealth and prosperity while warding off disease, bad luck and disasters. Considered as the ancestors on earth, it is also seen that finding a snake in a house is a sign of luck.


The dragon has different meanings in different countries, whether in the West or the East. In Asia, dragons are creatures that move well in the water as well as in the air, and can summon rain. They are powerful and wise creatures, who use their strength for the benefit of people.

Indeed, the dragon symbolizes the reconciliation of opposite elements, but also the symbiosis of Yin and Yang. Getting a dragon tattoo indicates a thoughtful, strong and benevolent character. A dragon is often seen with an open mouth, which means to let the evil in him escape.

While a dragon with a closed mouth means, not to let the evil in him enter. Sometimes this is depicted with a globe between these claws, showing the dragon's control over water, wind and fire.


The phoenix is the symbol of immortality and resurrection, and which is also the mythical bird par excellence. This one represents the rebirth within life and the triumph over death, but also the renewal of the soul. Thus, along with the Irezumi, the phoenix also represents the union of Yin and Yang.


Namakubi is an image of a decapitated head. Indeed, it symbolizes courage, threat, honor and acceptance of fate. For those who see it, it also invokes a sense of respect and shows the punishments that await those who do not live uprightly.


This one is a mythological and legendary creature, which feeds on nightmares. Indeed, it protects from evil spirits and malignant thoughts.


Hannya is the ghost of a vengeful woman, who is originally a creature of Japanese folklore. The Hannya mask indicates the depth and violence of feelings, but also the control one wishes to exert over other people. In the past, this mask was used in a play called "Noh". In the play, the more intense its color, the more devouring the feelings were.


yakuza tattoo

Japanese tattoo on a member of the Japanese mafia

Currently, tattooing in Japan is not necessarily well seen, because it is often connected with the image of criminals. Nevertheless, young people succumb to the charm of the Irezumi and decide to tattoo themselves despite the size of the tattoo. For several years, the "Yakuzas" have used this tattoo as a trademark.

Thus, the Japanese mafia uses the tattoo as a distinctive sign for the membership of their clan. The "Yakuzas" proved their allegiance to their clan through this art. This allowed them to express their courage and their value in society! The Japanese mafia favored tattoos that covered the back, legs, buttocks, torso and arms. Nowadays, the "Yakuza" opt for discreet tattoos in order to blend in and not be identified.

Moreover, the modern vision evolves and the Irezumi starts little by little to find its letter of nobility. Indeed, small and discreet tattoos are favored, while those covering the body tend to scare. Nevertheless, some public establishments in the country of the sun ban tattooed people. Indeed, the latter are not accepted in public baths, gyms and public swimming pools.


Becoming a master tattooist is a very difficult job. The young people who want to become tattooist are sometimes practicing since their youngest age and are self-taught. Their first tasks are a duty of obedience, training in discipline and good manners.



The tattoo master Horiyoshi III in the middle of Japanese tattooed people



Until now, the greatest specialist and best tattooist of Irezumi is the master Horiyoshi III. There is also the master tattooist Honda Tsuyoshi, who participated in the Cantal Ink festival in 2016. Kenji Shigehara is also one of the best "Horishi" of our time, with a modern style.


There are several tattoo artists in France who have succumbed to the charm of Japanese tattooing. In the Paris area, there are : Bernard Soufflet, Daru Manu, Tin-Tin and Easy Sacha who practice tattooing in France. Not to mention the French tattoo masters Henrik in Toulouse, Mathias Bugo in Lyon and Guicho Tatouage La Rochelle.


In Europe, more precisely in Switzerland, there is the tattoo artist Filip Leu whose involvement has helped popularize Japanese tattooing. There are also European and American masters of Irezumi tattooing such as:

  • Chris Cook in Ireland ;
  • Henning Jorgensen in Denmark;
  • Calle Corson in Sweden;
  • Dan Arietti in Great Britain;
  • Jess Yen in the United States;
  • Haewall in South Korea;
  • Jeff Gogue in the United States;
  • Damien Rodriguez in the United States.


Irezumi is a majestic and imposing tattoo, it can embrace the entire body. Indeed, this practice requires a lot of time and for that, it is better to choose the right place. Thus, the ideal location is on the back, so that the body ornament unfolds its most beautiful contours. The legs, torso and arm are also the most often tattooed parts at the moment, because it reflects the beauty of the tattoo.