Common Japanese-Style Sleeve Tattoo Design Considerations

Tattoos are highly personal, often meaningful, and symbolic, and none more so than a Japanese-style tattoo. Cultural motifs, readability, and bold shading characterise this style. It is also called Wabori, Harimono, or Irezumi


What Are Japanese Tattoos?

The work is typically colourful and illustrative, displaying a distinctive use of negative space. While the traditional Japanese application is a single, full-body design, the art is most applied to the back or as a Japanese sleeve tattoo in the West.

Subjects include traditional Japanese masks and figures such as samurai, koi, tigers, snakes, and mythical entities such as dragons, food dogs, phoenixes, kitsune, and Kirin. Artists frequently soften these fierce motifs with natural elements, including water, waves, clouds, flowers, and cherry blossoms. 

Japanese-style tattoos are beautiful and unique. At the same time, choosing and designing one requires consideration, especially around images and colours. 


Choosing Your Colours 

In Japanese tradition, different colours have specific meanings. For example:

    • Black: This tattoo style includes a lot of black – usually more than half of the design. However, adding colour is advisable, as black and white alone symbolises mourning in Japanese culture.

    • Red: Red is a prominent colour, especially in Irezumi. Fundamental to Japanese culture, red embraces passion, life, happiness, and protection against evil.

    • Yellow: The radiant colour of the sun and gold can symbolise prosperity and joy. It can also represent deception, so use it cautiously.

    • Green: Use this glorious nature colour generously to project youth, growth, and the earth.

    • Blue: Another colour you can use as much of as you like. Blue personifies work, faithfulness, and luck.

    • White: In Japan, white represents truth and purity but also death – a new beginning.

    • Purple: Similar to European associations, purple indicates royalty in Japan, but even more so. Historically, the poor were not allowed to wear this important colour.

    • Pink: Use this appealing colour to your heart’s content to project health, spring, and femininity.

While modernising traditions and breaking the rules is the tattoo way, always be sensitive to culture and respectful of etiquette. Tattoos should honour and celebrate.

The design, too, can carry meaning. So, be aware, especially when using traditional or folkloric images. 

Choosing Your Design

Consider their meaning when selecting one large or a series of small images for your sleeve. Japanese illustrations can include real and legendary beings, including:

  • Dragons (Ryu): These majestic creatures are associated with yang and feminine energy, Taoism, wisdom, flexibility, and adaptability. 
  • Tigers: Also found in Taoism and Kung Fu, this awe-inspiring big cat symbolises yin and masculine energy, strength, and power.

  • Snakes (Hebi): Choose the sinuous snake for protection against sickness, misfortune, wisdom, strength, and rebirth. 
  • Phoenixes (Fenghuang): Beyond being stunning aesthetically, this powerful symbol represents honesty, loyalty, and incorruptible power.
  • Koi: Synonymous with Japan, this gorgeous motif embodies strength and perseverance in the face of adversity, good fortune, and in Buddhism, courage. 
  • Cranes: Birds symbolise freedom; for the Japanese, the crane is the “bird of happiness” – symbolizing good luck and longevity.
  • Wolves (Okami): These enigmatic animals are revered as Shinto gods and divine messengers and represent devotion. 
  • Octopi: It’s not just any mollusc; it’s called Akkorokamui, representing wisdom and healing.

Other iconic designs include Japanese lions, frogs, Baku spirits, kanjis (lettering), demons and skulls, heroic warriors, and divine geishas. 

Ready to Make a Statement? 

Visit one of our Lighthouse Tattoo studios in Sydney for your eye-catching and personalised Japanese-style sleeve tattoo. We’re ready to take your call.


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