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Traditional Japanese Tattooing Sydney

A common passion in tattooing that owners Alex, Ryan and Nathan share, is their love of Japanese tattooing and its designs. 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 like minded 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 from a traditional view-point, the 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.


Traditional Japanese tattoos can hold important meaning for the wearer and artists alike. Historically, Japanese tattoo designs have been derived from temple carvings, traditional paintings on silk and paper, and most notably from woodblock prints of the Ukiyo-e era. The term Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World) refers to printed images produced in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), and to a lesser extent the Meiji Period (1868-1912). The popular prints depict scenes from history, myth, nature scenes, ghosts, animals, stories of war, erotic imagery (known as Shunga) and often Noh or Kabuki theatre portrayals of folk tales. The prints themselves were printed onto paper using hand carved blocks of wood for each colour.

Tattooing in Japan was perceived as a negative practice, and originally was 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 governing bodies’ best efforts, tattooing in Japan is still practiced, and has evolved internationally to one of the most prolific styles to date.

Some impotent legacies within the Japanese Tattooing industry are represented by Horiyoshi II, Hoyiyoshi III, Horitoshi, Horihide, Horiyasu, Horimasa, and Horitada, to name but a few. The term ‘Hori’ means ‘to carve’ and is followed by the earned name of the artist given to them by their master.

The Background

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 clouds), wind spirals, water, finger waves, and rocks. These are traditionally rendered 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 Ukiyo­-e era in Japan. Many famous woodblock artists, such as Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Kyosai, Kunisada, Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Utamaro, Horishige, Yoshiiku, and many more, are revered by Japanese tattooists as the originators of their imagery.

There are many iconic tattoo subjects within Japanese Tattooing, some of which are listed below with brief descriptions and pictorial examples from our Lighthouse Tattoo artists.

Johann Ingemar

Dragon and Warrior

Japanese dragons represent power and strength. Often seen as a protector, or a force of nature. Traditionally, Japanese dragons have three claws, while Chinese dragons have four, and sometimes five claws. Many people adorn themselves with a dragon to symbolise the dragon’s strength and generosity doing good for mankind. The above back piece is tattooed by…

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Enku Shoji


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 persevering 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 rocks and water, along with cherry blossoms, maple leaves (depending on the season in the artwork), or lotus flowers. The below image is tattooed by our resident artist, Enku Shoji.

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Jarrad Chivers

Foo Dog

Foo Dogs are mythical lion-like creatures believed to have special protective powers in Buddhist mythology. They are also known by many variations of the name including Fudog, Shi Shi, Karashishi, guardian lions. Buildings across Asia are adorned with Foo Dogs on either side of an entrance to protect and watch over the domain. In Japanese tattooing, Foo Dogs are traditionally represented in pairs representing a male and female. The male Foo Dog will often be resting on a globe and the female will be restraining a young cub under her paw. Foo Dog tattoos traditionally include peonies as the accompaniment. In Chinese and Japanese culture, foo dogs (as well as some other virtuous subjects) are considered as a ‘King’ of animals and the peony to be the ‘King’ of flowers. In the Edo period, the peony and foo dog were combined to create a set piece called Kara-jishi Botan and were particularly popular on hanging scroll paintings. Below is a Foo Dog tattooed by our resident artist Jarrad Chivers

Ryan Ussher


The Hannya is one of the most popular Japanese masks to make their way into tattoo form. Originally, the carved wooden Hannya mask was used in Noh and Kyōgen theatre shows, and represents a woman’s descent from sadness and jealousy into resentment, bitterness, and eventually madness. In these shows, the mask was used to show when a female character had lost all sight of her own emotions and had succumbed 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 image above, a large Hannya back piece is tattooed by artist and co-owner Ryan Ussher.

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Alex Rusty


Oni are numerous and come in many forms, and are generally represented as male. Often, Oni’s appear as red ogre-like demonic beings with horns protruding from their head alongside a mane of wild hair. However the colour scheme is not restricted, and many traditional depictions of oni include hues of blue or green skin, with a range of hair colours. Oni can be tattooed either as a mask or as full body creatures wielding an iron club or other crude weapon, and adorned in a tiger skin loincloth. Oni’s are believed to bring chaos and disrupt Buddhist principles. Some other gods are depicted in an oni form, and there are many examples of these demons administering punishment in the depths of hell. Full body Oni make for excellent backpiece tattoos, as seen in the below image tattooed by Alex Rusty

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Jiho Jong


Tiger’s are known to symbolise strength and courage, and also provide protection against bad spirits for the wearer. In some cases, Japanese Samurai 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. Tigers are said to have power over wind, and represent the opposing or accompanying natural force to a dragon, forming a yin-yang relationship. Within Japanese tattooing, tigers are traditionally gold and brown in colour, or white (often shaded with grey shade or a blue ink). Tigers can be seen in tattoos fighting another creature (most often a dragon or warrior, or less commonly an oni), or standing proudly on rocks with accompanying elements. Tigers are also an animal considered worthy of pairing with a peony (Botan). The following backpiece features…

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Nathan Puata


The Japanese Phoenix differs from the commonly known Western creature, as they do not rise from ashes nor are made of fire. Instead, the Japanese Phoenix, known as Hou-ou, are known to descend from the heavens only in times of peace and prosperity, and retreat when trouble is on its way. Generally, they are regarded as a good omen, bringing a message of hope and rebirth. Traditionally, the Phoenix is known for its beautiful colours within Japanese tattooing as there are few limitations on how the creature should be rendered. Here the artist has a broader range, and can have creative freedom in colouring the piece. 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.

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