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The Complete Guide to Japanese Traditional Tattoos

Few tattoo styles can compete with the timeless classic that is Japanese traditional tattooing. Japanese traditional tattoos are one of the oldest tattooing styles that we know of; the look of which remains iconic to this day. Everyone can imagine the classic large koi fish saturated with deep, rich color. Images in the Japanese traditional style burst off the skin with amazement and are usually massive in size. Detailed line work brings something like the koi fish to life as it swims down your leg; these tattoos feel bigger than just ink on skin. In Japanese culture, their tattoos are traditionally filled with symbols and underlying meaning from the animals used to the colors tattooed.

In this guide, we will explore some of the popular ideas used as centerpieces in a Japanese traditional tattoo and what each popular symbol represents. Then, we’ll explore the different color choices and what each of them represents to traditional Japanese culture before answering some frequently asked questions for people considering a Japanese Traditional Tattoo for their next ink.

Table of Contents



Arguably the most iconic symbol in Japanese traditional tattooing is the dragon. The dragon is a symbol of strength, power, and wisdom. In Japanese culture, they are kind-hearted creatures; the dragon is said to protect people and help them overcome evil. The color of the dragon is quite important, however, so these details should be planned accordingly. For example, a green dragon is also said to connect you with nature while a gold dragon stands for virtue.


The tiger is a powerful image around the world, but is especially hailed in Japanese culture. The tiger is said to bring courage, strength, and good fortune to those around it. What’s more, the tiger chases away disease and evil, creating harmony for people.


Koi fish are arguably the most recognizable images of Japanese tattooing. These fish can be found around the world, but are seen as especially important in Japan. They symbolize bravery and success for the individuals who wear them. Color-wise, a red koi is said to bring love upon the person who gets the image.

Cherry Blossom:

A more gentle design, the cherry blossom is a popular pick amongst the Japanese youth. The cherry blossom is said to represent the fragility of life, the beauty of life, as well as the ultimate end of life, that is death. These designs are vibrant with color and are unique in how the leaves are presented.


Often seen in American tattooing, the skull also has a meaning within Japanese tattoo culture. Similarly to the cherry blossom, the skull represents life and death. Where these symbols differ is that skulls are traditionally used to pay respects to someone who has been lost.

Hannya Mask: (般若)

The Hannya mask is a traditional Japanese mask used in Noh theatrical performances, kyogen theatre and Shinto kagura dances. It is a representation of a jealous woman driven mad and transformed into a horrible demon. In a way she is similar to Medusa, but she has her own backstory and its roots are very much in Japanese culture.


The Japanese phoenix story draws its source from the story that's indigenous to mainland China. Regardless of origin, phoenix tattoos are meant to symbolize rebirth and triumph, as well a renewal and rebuilding of one's self.

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While some symbols gain extra meaning from being certain colors, there are general rules to the coloration for everything else. Let’s explore these different options:


White in Japan is said to represent innocence and purity. Like a baby, white is a fresh start on life, yet to be corrupted. Innocent, honest, and pure.


Red is a vital color to Japanese culture as it is the color of blood, the vital fluid to life. It is recommended to have a piece of red somewhere within the design as it is said to serve as protection. In Japan, red represents happiness, joy, passion, and longevity; the joys and meaning of life.


Blue is usually tied with money and is said to bring good luck and fidelity for those who wear it.


Green being the color of nature is said to represent energy, youth, and life as a whole.


Purple traditionally was a sign of royalty as the pigment was once difficult to produce. Today, it still represents a certain classiness.


Pink is seen as a feminine color in Japan and thus, represents the delicate, fragile nature of life.


Yellow can represent a few things: in some areas yellow is seen as a symbol of joy and optimism while other areas see yellow as a sign of deceit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Japanese Traditional Tattoos:

Do I have to adhere to the traditions and symbolisms of traditional Japanese tattoo culture?

In short, you should. Japanese traditional tattoos are meant to mean more than just a cool design. Being conscious of this and understanding the symbolism of your tattoo goes a long way. Ask your artist if you have any questions regarding the style!

Can I get a small Japanese traditional tattoo?

Generally speaking, no. This style of tattoo is meant to be large with intricate details to go along with intense shading. Some people get pieces that cover their entire body! If you’re looking for a small piece, consider a different style like black and gray.

Do Japanese traditional tattoos last?

All tattoos fade over time, but Japanese traditional designs tend to hold up over time better than other styles. This is due to the deep saturated color and bold lines that are central to the style.

Contact the Japanese Traditional Tattoo Experts at First Class Tattoo Today!

The expert artists here at First Class Tattoo in New York City can help guide you to a beautiful and meaningful Japanese traditional tattoo! With years of experience and knowledge, we can help guide you towards making your tattoo dreams a reality. Contact us today to get started!

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