A common passion in tattooing that owners Alex, Ryan and Nathan share, is their love of Japanese tattooing. This extends to other artists at the studio as well who have joined the crew in order to learn and develop their craft by working alongside likeminded tattoo artists. There are variations in style within the Japanese genre from artist to artist, but the main elements, based in tradition, are always present.
Broadly speaking, tattooing in Japan is generally referred to as Irezumi. But more specifically, the traditional Japanese tattoo style is referred to as Wabori. Traditionally this was done by hand using needles fastened to bamboo sticks, and is referred to as Tebori which means hand carved or engraved. This method is still practised today, although the outlines are almost always done by machine. Machine tattooing is referred to as Kikaibori, but the result can still be described as Wabori, implying its current status and legitimacy.
Nathan can do Tebori on request, but this is subject to the appropriateness of the piece.
Known as the ‘rebellious’ style of tattooing due to the illegality of it within Japan, Traditional Japanese tattoos hold an incredible amount of meaning within them for the wearer and artists alike. Dating back to over 5,000 years ago, Japanese tattoos were derived from Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World) which were created on blocks of wood with incredibly intricate designs portraying nature scenes, ghosts, animals, stories of war and erotic imagery (known as Shunga).
Tattooing in Japan was perceived as a negative practice soon after its birth, and was soon reserved for criminals, who would receive tattoos as a form of punishment for their crimes. In the late 1800’s tattooing was officially banned within Japan due to the country wanting to be perceived by their European counterparts as a highly sophisticated nation. Despite the Governing bodies’ best efforts, tattooing in Japan is still practiced in an underground manner, and has evolved internationally to one of the most prolific styles to date.
Some of the legacies within the Japanese Tattooing industry are Horiyoshi III, Horimasa, Horikashi and Horitada. The term ‘Hori’ means ‘to carve’ and is followed by the earned name of the artist given to them by their master.
Traditionally Japanese tattooing is characterised by a boldness and readability that leaves no ambiguity as to what is depicted in the tattoo. This is achieved through high contrast, strong line work, and a background that compliments and contrast the foreground. There is also a focus on dynamic positions and shapes that convey a sense of movement both in the portrayal of the subject as an illustration, as well as in the overall tattoo as it is positioned on the body.
Most often, the use of bold colours helps the foreground to stand out from the background, which is always black and grey. In a piece that is entirely black and grey, and there is no colour in any part of the tattoo, there must still be a strong contrast created between the foreground and the background. This is done via the clever use of negative space and leaving open skin to maintain the readability of the image. In either case a decent amount of black must be present in the background to create the contrast, not only between foreground, but between the elements of the background itself. This is why it is almost always the case that an artist will complete the background first in order to establish the darkest parts of the tattoo, and from that base, maintain an adequate contrast in relation to the tones used for the subject of the tattoo.
There are also various famous battle scenes that have become common subjects in the tradition of Japanese tattooing. Most popular are scenes featured in Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print series “108 Heroes of the Suikoden” and various woodblock artists’ depictions of scenes form Japan’s Genpai War.
For the background of the tattoo, one must consider the environment and season appropriate to the subject. The traditional background elements are wind bars, clouds (often referred to as bubble cloud), wind spirals, water, finger waves, and rocks. These should all be done solely in tones of black and grey as this separates the foreground and background most effectively. Many subjects have traditional flower pairings (for example, a peony traditionally accompanies a shi shi). And many subjects and flowers are associated with a specific season or environment. This can make for ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of putting the subject, accompaniment, and background together. And where the ultimate goal is to join tattooed sections of the body together into a whole, or bodysuit, it is important to keep these features consistent.
For the client, all these elements can be chosen because of the story they tell and symbolism they carry, or simply because they appeal to the wearer on an aesthetic level. Many of the elements have specific meanings or stories, but many are more loosely symbolic, and some are simply visually appealing. At Lighthouse, our Japanese tattoo specialists love doing the classics, but we invite clients to explore the huge range of subjects available to them within the traditional Japanese tattoo genre.
Subjects and Symbols.
The subject of the tattoo refers to the character or creature featured in the foreground of the tattoo. There is a huge range of subjects to choose from in the world of Japanese tattooing, but these are all most often referenced from woodblocks prints of the Ukiyoe era in Japan. Many famous woodblock artists, such as Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Kyosai, Kunisada, Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Utamaro, and many more, are revered by Japanese tattooists as the originators of their imagery.
There are many iconic images within Japanese Tattooing, some of which are listed below with brief descriptions and pictorial examples from our Lighthouse Tattoo artists.
Japanese dragons represent bravery, wisdom and strength. The main difference between Chinese and Japanese dragons is the number of claws; Japanese dragons have three claws and Chinese dragons have five. Many people adorn themselves with a dragon to symbolise their strength and generosity doing good for mankind. The below back piece is tattooed by Johann Ingemar, and a black and grey dragon sleeve tattooed by Garth B Neale.
Koi symbolise many things including strength, resilience, good luck, transformation and power. It is believed that as massive schools of Koi swam up the Yellow River in China, they would reach a waterfall known as the Dragon’s Gate. For those Koi who were strong and perseverant enough to leap to the top of the waterfall, the God’s rewarded them by turning them into a beautiful dragon. Koi can be represented in many colours and are typically accompanied by maple leaves, lotus flowers, rocks and water. The below image is tattooed by our resident artist, Enku Shoji.
Fu Dog (Komainu, Shi Shi)
The Fu Dog is commonly referred to as Shi Shi or Guardian Lions, as they are mythical lion-like creatures who are believed to have special protective powers by Chinese Buddhists. Buildings across Asia are adorned with Fu Dog’s on either side of an entrance to protect and watch over the domain. In Japanese tattooing, Fu Dog’s are traditionally represented in pairs, both a male and female. The male Fu Dog will be resting on a globe and the female will be restraining a young cub under her paw. Fu Dog’s are usually tattooed alongside peonies for a number of reasons; the Chinese believe the lion to be the ‘King’ of animals, and the peony to be the ‘King’ of flowers, whereas in the Edo period, the peony and fu dog were combined to create a set piece called Kara-jishi Botan and were particularly popular on hanging scroll paintings. Below is a male and female Fu Dog tattooed by our resident artist Garth B Neale.
The Hannya is one of the most popular Japanese masks that make their way to tattoo form. Originally, the Hannya was used in Noh and Kyōgen theatre shows, and represents a woman’s descent from sadness and jealousy into resentment and bitterness. In these shows, the mask was used to show when a female character had lost all sight of her own emotions and had succumb to her anger and sadness; usually from the deceit of her male lover. Due to the striking appearance of the Hannya, they make for excellent large scale tattoos as well as smaller one shot pieces. In the images below, a large Hannya back piece is tattooed by artist and co-owner Ryan Ussher, and a smaller Hannya is tattooed by resident artist Jarrad Chivers.
As the Hannya is representative of the female demon, the Oni represents the male demon in Japanese folklore. Often, Oni’s appear as red ogre-like demonic beings with horns protruding from their head alongside a mane of black hair, however the colour scheme is not set only to this. Oni’s are usually tattooed either as a mask or as full body creatures wielding an iron club in their hands, and a tiger skin loincloth. Oni’s are believed to be the ‘punishers’ of demons, and are sometimes seen torturing other beings in the depths of hell. Full body Oni’s make for excellent backpiece tattoos, as seen in the below image tattooed by Alex Rusty.
Tiger’s are known to symbolise strength and courage, and also provide protection against bad spirits for the wearer of them. Japanese Samurai’s would adorn themselves with tiger tattoos so that if they died in battle, their family would be able to identify them and their spirit would be protected on the ascent to the afterlife. Within Japanese tattooing, tigers are traditionally gold and brown in colour, or white (appears as light blue/white). Tiger’s are usually seen in tattoos fighting another creature such as a dragon, or standing proudly on rocks accompanied by flowers. The following backpiece features a white tiger with peonies, and was tattooed by co-owner and artist Alex Rusty.
The Japanese Phoenix differs from the commonly known Western creature, as they do not rise from ashes nor are made of fire. Instead, Phoenix’s are known to descend from the heavens as a sign for peaceful things to come. They retreat back when trouble is on its way, so they are known to be both good and bad omens. Traditionally, the Phoenix is known for its beautiful colours within Japanese tattooing as there are no limitations to how the creature should appear, and the artist has full creative rein to colour it as they wish. The below phoenix sleeve was tattooed by co-owner and artist Nathan Puata and features a more earthy colour palette with beautiful composition and flow.