As some of you may know, I am in love with Tebori, or traditional, hand-poked, Japanese tattoos. In fact, I already did an introduction to the subject here. Well, here’s a followup, and this time it’s about the iconography and symbolism of the Japanese pictorial tattoo.

Most of the techniques and images that are still utilized today in Tebori were developed during the Edo period, around 1603-1867. The individuals getting tattooed were mostly working class citizens that were part of some type of brotherhood – for example, firefighters, carpenters, and laborers. Therefore, the style and iconography really came out of working class artwork, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). Popular folk legends and heroes, along with religious figures, are all featured heavily in this genre and moved easily into the tattooing world. Each of these heroes, and heroines, have specific stories and attributes that went along with them. By getting a tattoo of Kintaro (the Golden Boy), for example, the tattooed individual might be aligning himself with perseverance, incredible strength, and an almost Superboy persona.

Today, Horihide, a famous and amazing tattoo master, says that his clients are still largely the same group of people that traditionally were tattooed – members of fraternal organizations like firefighters and construction workers – so it makes even more sense that the traditional iconography remains.

Though there are many characters and symbolic characteristics that go along with them in the iconography of Tebori, that doesn’t interest me as much as the meanings of the flora and fauna that you find in many tattoos. It’s also important how you combine the flora and fauna – the two elements have to make sense together as a cohesive statement about a season. Horihide expresses it eloquently thus:

Tattooists who have not been apprenticed and trained by tattoo masters do not know the reasons or meanings of the traditional designs. For example, there are four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter) in Japan. The seasons should be expressed in tattoo art as well. Real Japanese tattoo artists express each season on the skin. However, the untrained tattooists do not know traditional thoughts on Japanese art. The untrained tattooists draw a snake and cherry blossoms, but this is a wrong way in tradition. When cherry trees begin to bloom in March in Japan, the snake still hibernates under the ground. So the snake and cherry blossom cannot be seen in the same period. In other words, it does not make any sense if the snake and cherry blossoms are drawn together.

So now we know that the images must make sense not only within a set story (what the character/hero is doing) but also within a set season. Breaking it down even farther, each element has it’s own meaning.

Here are a few examples of flora –

Cherry blossoms/sakura: the flowering cherry doesn’t last very long and only blooms for a short while. Taking this biological fact as it’s starting point, cherry blossoms symbolize the transient and evanescent nature of life. The cherry blossom is similar to a samurai warrior, in that it/he might die at any point the next day – a few days alive and then blown away by the wind. For the cherry blossom, all things are ephemeral.

Maple leaf: the maple leaf is in some ways similar to the western symbolism of the red rose. It connotes undying love, eternal fidelity, and perhaps the ability to rise above a more mundane life.

While plants/flowers might have pretty clear cut symbolism, the animals are a little harder. They don’t seem to have the strong one-to-one associations that western iconography has with animals (lion = bravery for example). However, the meanings they do have in Tebori are pretty rad.

Carp: the carp is celebrated for many qualities. It is admired for it’s strength as it climbs waterfalls for instance. However, it’s main claim to fame is that when caught, the carp lies quietly, waiting for the knife to kill it without thrashing about. Therefore, it’s symbolic attributes are something like bravery, stoicism, and steadfastness.

Dragon: the dragon is an incredibly complicated symbolic animal and even changes it’s meaning relative to it’s position (coiled vs. supine etcetera). In Japan, the dragon lives in water, so in some way the flame of a dragon within it’s water habitat represents the reconciliation of opposing forces. It also has elements of strength, true wisdom, and benevolence.

As you can see, with the vast amount of information and symbolic attributes, getting a traditional tattoo is about more than just the way it looks. I think Horikoi (a modern practitioner of Tebori) expresses it very well:

One reason I think many young Japanese are interested in Western style tattoo designs…they do not demand too much from people. There is little depth to the modern Western designs. Traditional Japanese designs demand a lot from people. They must have knowledge and respect of the complex nuances associated with the myths and stories. Most young Japanese find this too demanding and difficult. It is the responsibility of the tattooer to know all the stories. It will take time and dedication but someday I want to know as much as Horiyoshi III. It will take time.

I feel strongly attracted to this dedication to understanding a culture and desire for the knowledge of stories. I think the depth of symbolism, beauty, and physical practice involved in Tebori tattooing is rarely approached by any other practice. In our increasingly busy lives, I feel that perhaps we don’t take enough time to learn and appreciate symbolism and symbolic interactions. I would love, Love, LOVE to see a traditional Japanese tattoo in real life, and if I ever do get a tattoo (something I have to admit is unlikely), I will wait until I can somehow find a master in order to become part of this beautiful practice.

Here is a list that I compiled, and that you should check out if you would like to know more about this subject:

Dinter, Maarten Hesselt van. The World of Tattoo – An Illustrated History. Trans. S. Green. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005.

Fellman, Sandi. The Japanese Tattoo. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers. 1986. (Though this book is as old as me, it has BEAUTIFUL photographs and some neat information).

Kitamura, Takahiro. Tattooing from Japan to the West: Horitaka Interviews Contemporary Artists. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2005.

Kitamura, Takahiro and Katie M. Kitamura. Bushido: legacies of the Japanese tattoo. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2001. (Really, really cool book).

Knight, Anthony. “Horimyo – Traditional Japanese Tebori Tattoo Artist Interview.” Tokyo Fashion, 19. July. 2012. <http://tokyofashion.com/horimyo-traditional-japanese-tebori-tattoo-artist/> (A pretty cool video interview)

McCabe, Michael. Japanese Tattooing Now. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2005.

Oguri, Kazuo. Traditional Japanese Tattooing. Trans. Mieko Yamada. Web. 12. July. 2013. <http://www.tattoos.com/tebori-oguri.html> and <http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/ancient-art-of-the-japanese-tebori-tattoo-masters-ink-in-harmony/>.  (If you like this topic at all, you should really read what Horihide as to say in his own voice!)

Richie, Donald. The Japanese Tattoo. New York: Weatherhill, INC., 1980. (A really comprehensive book, a little old, but great information – especially on symbolism.)

Ruben, Arnold. Marks of Civilization. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, 1988.

Sebag-Montefiore, “Clarissa. Horihide still practices the dying art of hand tattoo.” Los Angeles Times, 24. June. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/24/entertainment/la-ca-culture-japan-20120624>

I borrowed the gorgeous photos from these sites:





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