Irezumi: Japanese for tattoo, an ultimate guide

japanese for tattoo

A Guide to Irezumi: The Art of Japanese Tattoos

Irezumi the Japanese for tattoo, is a complex and nuanced art form. While it’s often associated with the image modern-day yakuza gangsters, irezumi is in fact an intricate design tradition that has been practiced in Japan for centuries.

Irezumi (入れ墨, lit. ’inserting ink’) (also spelled 入墨 or sometimes 刺青) is the Japanese word for tattoo, and is used often to refer to a very distinctive style of Japanese tattooing, however, it is also used as an overarching term to describe many Japnese tattoo styles, including tattooing traditions from both the Ainu and the Ryukyuan Kingdom.

japanese for tattoo
Kusakabe Kimbei.

In Japanese culture, tattoos are usually placed on areas of the body that are hidden from public view. Many people associate Irezumi with criminality because most yakuza members have visible tattoos.

However, this was not always so. In the past, tattoos were worn by aristocrats to show their loyalty to a specific clan or organization. They were commonly used as symbols of loyalty or membership within a group.

Japan has a rich and complicated history. Its visual culture is just as elaborate, ranging from the refined elegance of the kimono to the wild theatricality of Kabuki. But perhaps one of the most intriguing cultural phenomena in all of Japan is irezumi, Japanese for tattoo.

Called “the art of insertion” by practitioners, Irezumi is a traditional form of body art that dates back centuries.

What is the difference between irezumi, tebori and horimono tattoos?

While irezumi generally refers to any type of Japanese tattoo design although often with negative connotations., horimono on the other hand specifically is used to describe traditional full-body tattoos and Japanese tattoo sleeves.

In addition to serving as marks of identification, tattoos also had symbolic meanings. For example, an arrow would be tattooed on one’s arm to show loyalty and readiness for battle; a dragon signified that its bearer had great strength, and tigers indicated bravery in battle. The use of tattoos as symbols of bravery continued into the Edo Period (1603-1868). Tattooing was also used by merchants during this time as a form of advertising their businesses or as a way to show their rank within society.

Although the word irezumi is often used in modern times to refer to all forms of tattooing, the word originally referred to a specific type of tattooing done by professional artists. This type of tattoo was called tebori. It involves traditional techniques of applying ink using either a metal or bamboo rod with a needle attached to the end. Tebori generally is less harmful to the skin than modern machines and also less painful. Needles can be grouped in different ways to the end of the stick to allow different artistic effects.

Photo: Authinetink tattoo studio

The origins of tebori date back to the 17th centruy in Japan. During this time, tattooing was performed exclusively by members of the lower classes.

Photo: Authinetink tattoo studio

Lastly, one other term widely used in Japan is OUKOSHISEI 櫻 虎 至誠: which refers to the Japanese tattoo as an artistic expression, where its greatness and beauty are shown.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), non-samurai professionals began taking up tattooing as a means of earning a living. These professional artists were called horishi and they used a method called horimono (literally meaning “decorative carving”) in order to create tattoos that resembled woodblock prints or paintings on one’s skin. Horimono had become popular during this time because it was considered very fashionable and beautiful so it was only natural that it would find its way into irezumi at some point.

japanese for tattoo

History of Irezumi

The first documented use of tattooing in Japan was during the Jomon Period (10,000-300BC), when clay figurines were discovered with markings on their faces and bodies. During this time, tattoos were used as a form of identification to mark slaves or prisoners. However, this practice was not exclusive to the Jomon Period. Later on in Japanese history, during the Kofun Period (300-538AD), tattoos were used to identify members of royal families or members of specific clans who served them directly.

Historically, tattoos have been used to denote status, rank, or profession for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of tattooing comes from the Iceman, a mummified corpse discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. The mummy dates back approximately 5,300 years and is covered in 56 different types of tattoos. Among Asian cultures, tattooing first appeared in Southeast Asia, where it was used to ward off evil spirits. Tattoos were extremely popular in Japan since the Jomon period (10,000 – 400 BC). During this period, people had their bodies covered in tattoos, which were made using bamboo or wooden sticks and organic dyes. These tattoos were applied as a form of protection against evil spirits or diseases. See our article on Sak Yant, the ancient form of Thai tattoo

The Strict Culture of Tattooing

In Japan, Irezumi is a complex art form that was and still is very strict about the designs and symbols used. Many of these designs have their roots in the rich history of Japanese culture and religion. Before you get a Japanese tattoo, you will have to choose from a wide variety of designs and symbols. You should consider what the tattoo means, its historical relevance, the symbolism behind it, and the style of the tattoo. You should also think about where you want the tattoo and how large or small you want it. It is important to remember that tattooing is not a quick process. The larger or more complex a design, the longer it will take to tattoo. A single session can take anywhere from a few hours for a small design to a few days for a large, detailed design. Because of this, you should think about how long you want to remain in the tattoo studio.

japanese for tattoo

Types of Tattoos in Irezumi

As mentioned above, Irezumi is a form of tattoo art that is deeply connected with Japanese culture and Buddhist beliefs. These tattoos emit an aura of mysticism and culture, and their designs are often beautiful and intricate. The most popular design for Irezumi tattoos is the Horimono, which is simply a Japanese word for tattoo. Horimono tattoos are usually done in black ink and are extremely detailed. These tattoos usually depict Buddhist symbols, dragons, or other intricate designs.

japanese for tattoo
Kusakabe Kimbei.

The Importance of technique in Irezumi

These are some Japanese tattoo words that should help you grasp a better understanding of the craft.

Akebono bokashi 

Shading where different colours merge or blur within the tattoo.

Akebono mikiri 

A border within the tattoo that is adjacent to the sun. This bold line will fade in time.


Grading of tones, is an important technique used to illustrate wind and water.


Gakubori is a type of background in traditional Japanese tattoos. Gakubori frames and enhances the main theme by depicting the world around it.


This technique the tattoo artist inserts the needle at an angle


A tebori technique that inserts ink into the skin straight in and out again.


Essentially a tattoed beauty spot, often popular among Japanese courtesans.


A tattoo made either in the armpit or on the inner thigh. These tattoos are placed where they are not meant to be seen and often have sexual connotations.


The ‘The Tortoise Shell.’ is a tattoo bodysuit that covers the back, buttocks and thighs.

Matsuba mikiri – A tattoo border inspired by pine needles. Straight lines are used to create the border.

Munewari – A full tattoo bodysuit leaving just a space down the middle of the chest. This space runs from the neck all the way down to below the navel.

The style is inspired by a traditional Japanese workman’s coat.


A bodysuit tattoo with full sleeves that finish at the wrist.


Refers to areas within a tattoo design that are left unmarked. Negative space that informs the design.


A tattoo bodysuit covering the back thighs and bottom.


The central theme or subject of the tattooed piece.


Heavy shading with ink.


A term to describe Japanese-style tattoos, such as samurai, koi and dragons. Western designs are described as youbori.


In Japan, Irezumi tattoos are deeply connected with Buddhist beliefs. These tattoos emit an aura of mysticism and culture, and their designs are often beautiful and intricate. The most popular design for Irezumi tattoos is the Horimono, which is a Japanese word for tattoo. One of the most important aspects of Irezumi tattoos is the shading, or hikui. Hikui is an artistic technique that uses a gradual change in darkness from the top to the bottom of a design. It is this gradual change in darkness that gives the tattoo its three-dimensional effect. If you are considering a Japanese tattoo, make sure that the artist uses this shading technique when applying the tattoo. Otherwise, the design will look unfinished and unprofessional.

“Ten years ago, I had 10 percent of foreign clients, and this year, I have maybe 40 percent of clients who are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years. Tattoos may fade over time but the art of tattooing itself will never fade way. ”

“The carving is one’s personal symbol.”

Horiyoshi the Third, aka Yoshihito Nakano

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