Since tattooing was illegal for the most part in Japan from the nineteenth century until about 1945, tattoos carry more of a rebel edge in that country than they do in the west. The fact that Japanese tattoo designs and art have such a long history, though, make them highly attractive both within that country and with Westerners as well. Irezumi is usually used to describe the art in Japanese, though it literally refers to the insertion of ink as opposed to the actual term for tattooing in that language.
The Chinese novel Water Margin is called Suikoden in Japan, and it made a huge splash in the world of Japanese tattoo designs. When it was introduced, it was loaded with extravagant woodblock prints that illustrated men in particularly heroic and brave scenes. They featured body art with motifs of dragons and legendary beasts as well as tigers, flowers and even religious iconography. The themes of rebellious courage also struck a chord with many reads, and the demand for tattooing took off. With woodblock artists being the primary influences behind the world of Japanese tattoo designs, there are numerous themes that share a visible connection to this famous Far Eastern art.
Several different symbolic motifs are heavily featured in Japanese tattoos. While many younger Japanese people may opt for a tribal armband or other such generic designs, traditional Japanese tattoo motifs are nothing short of works of fine art. They can even be so detailed as to feature elaborate backgrounds that illustrate waves of water, clouds and the forces of wind in the same way that woodblock prints might. Others might show heavy influence from the Floating World school of Ukiyo-e painting. Buddhist and Shinto themes are very common, with deities like Kannon and Tengu taking prominent places in the design. These are sometimes aside mundane animals or legendary creatures like dragons or foo dogs.
Various species of plants like bamboo and flowers are also quite common. The cherry blossom and the chrysanthemum both hold special places in the Japanese psyche, and therefore they are particularly important in the world of Japanese tattoo designs. Regardless of the design in question though, the art of irezumi carries with it a history that stretches back for many years. As such, traditional artists are trained under a master of Japanese tattoo designs and take their craft extremely seriously. This training brings with it a great deal of responsibility, and may even carry the right to use the master’s name.