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What is Japanese Irezumi?

5,000 years. That’s how long tattoos have been around in Japan. If you’ve seen a traditional Irezumi tattoo before, you won’t miss it. They’re bold, vibrant, and often cover large parts of the body. Irezumi literally means “inserting ink,” and refers to the distinctive style of Japanese tattoos. 


The process of applying irezumi is long and intricate. Tattooists work by hand, using wooden handles with metal needles attached via silk thread. Irezumi tattoos hold deep cultural and spiritual significance in Japan, with illustrations inspired by Japanese folklore and mysticism. It’s no surprise that the Yakuza, commonly referred to as the “Japanese Mafia,” have donned irezumi for hundreds of years. These creatures are beautiful, frightening, and absolutely mesmerizing. 


The dragon, the hero


We’ve all heard the typical dragon myth: the knight must slay the dragon to save the princess. While this medieval trope depicts the dragon as a fearsome beast that must be slayed, traditional Japanese culture honors the dragon, or ryu, as a symbol of blessing, wisdom, and strength. The ryu is benevolent, a creature that maintains the balance of the universe and protects its spiritual essence. In Japanese culture, the dragon is the knight in shining armor. It is often depicted with piercing eyes, scales, and features from other animals it encounters during its journey.


The phoenix always rises


The phoenix, or hou-ou, is revered in traditional Japanese culture as a magnificent, undying creature. In irezumi, these mythical birds often have long necks, scales, and peacock tail feathers. The hou-ou represents immortality and new eras, but not always in the name of triumph and conquer. Rather, it is seen both in times of peace and strife. Although the phoenix always rises, many hou-ou tattoos do not show the bird on fire at all — and we’re here for it. The journey is just as important as the magnificent rebirth. 


The red-faced, club-wielding demon


Cue the Japanese demon, or oni, because every story needs a villain. With horns, claws, and fangs, these beasts are often depicted as rampant and violent. Their faces are typically brightly colored in reds, pinks, or blues, making the oni one of the most recognizable creatures in Japanese cosmology. Despite being known for casting malevolent plagues on humanity, the oni can be tamed. Other powerful deities will step in when needed in order to re-balance the universe. We’re still frightened, for sure.  

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