Oriental tattoos are very popular in our little Western world, but what is their origin anyway?

When we think of large oriental designs and closures, we immediately associate them with Yakuzathe dreaded Japanese mafia. To bear a tattoo, one must endure exposure to pain. So the process of "sealing off the body" with ink takes years to complete.

The practice of closing up large pieces of skin goes back to one of the groups that is believed to have given rise to the Yakuza: o Bakuto. Itinerant players in the period of feudal Japan (around the 18th century), the Bakuto were outlaws who traveled around the fiefdoms earning money from traditional games of chance, such as hanafuda (Japanese card games) and dice. Eventually, during the Edo era (when Japan was ruled by shoguns of the Tokugawa family), the Bakuto were hired by the government to entertain the workers in the fiefs ? the players could keep the workers' money, as long as they paid a percentage to the government.

The gamblers locked their arms and chests with elaborate tattoos that hid the codes revealing their crimes and number of convictions.

As the gamblers got organized and expanded their business, getting involved in loan sharking, protection rackets, drug trafficking, and prostitution houses, among others, the families of the Yakuza. The tattoo artists ended up associating themselves to some criminal family and, until today, they are responsible for choosing the drawings to be done on each individual - which will also bear the artist's signature. To elaborate the "second skin", called, in Japan irezumiThe tattoo artist must know the client well: besides the organization's values, the images also reflect the personality and beliefs of each person, according to his or her personal history.


The most common designs are dragons, which offer protection to those who carry them, as well as being considered symbols of masculinity. Arising from Chinese myths, they also mean longevity and prosperity, and each dragon has nine offspring, each with a specific personality: ?recklessness is the characteristic of the dragon Haoxian; Yazi is bellicose and brave, sometimes his image is employed on weapons; Bixi doesn't like to be alone; Quiniu, great fond of melodies, often spelled on musical instruments, especially those with strings; Chiwen, always looking at the horizon; Suanmi loves fire, so he can be seen on incense burners; Pulao enjoys a good roar and is part of bell decoration; Jiaotu, always wrapped around his body, is often used on doors. Even benevolent, the enraged dragon can cause natural disasters and eclipse

* text taken from Portal Tattoo.

It is believed that some carp, when swimming towards the source of the Yellow River (Huang Ho), must climb the Longman Falls, or Dragon Gate, and it is there that they turn into dragons.

Each closure should be visually balanced, and the images should always appear in pairs. The tiger, symbol of perfectionism, strength, and courage, often appears as the pair of the dragon.

The carp tattoo, done in an upward direction, signifies strength to achieve goals; downward, indicates that the goals have been achieved. The leaf designs that appear around carp and dragons reveal the path to heaven that these beings have to follow.

The samurai represent discipline, dedication, and loyalty. Cherry blossoms are commonly associated with the ephemerality of life; chrysanthemums are symbols of beauty, simplicity, and perfection. The fLotus flowerThe fragrant and beautiful peonies, which grow out of mud, represent the evolution of the soul; peonies indicate honor, wealth, and distinction.


Legendary characters from Japanese theater and myths are still part of the tattoo compositions.

The most commonly used colors are shades of black (sumi-e) and red (resulting from a very toxic mixture). To fill the large skin spaces, a method called tebori (?etching with the hands?) is used, which requires strength and continuity for a uniform application. The instrument is made from the union of several needles tied together and placed on a metal or, more commonly, wooden support. The process is considered more painful than machine tattooing not only because it takes longer, but also because of the impact of the needles on the skin.


As for the signature of the tattoo artist, the more respected and older the artist is, the bigger the plate that bears his name. A very respected tattoo artist also charges a lot, and getting a tattoo from that one is a status symbol among members of the organizations.

To learn more:


In an excerpt from the book ?Yakuza Moon, A?, the former gangster Shoko Tendo tells the story behind her second skin and why she got it. The writer appears alongside other members and former members of the organization in an episode of The History Channel's series "Marked Bodies", entitled "Death of the Yakuza".

Original by Francine Oliveira at the late Tattoo Tattoo

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