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

When thinking of large drawings and closings of oriental drawings, we immediately associate with Yakuza, feared Japanese mafia. To sport a tattoo, one has to endure pain exposure. Therefore, the process of “closing the body” with ink takes years to complete.

The practice of closing large pieces of skin goes back to one of the groups that is believed to have given rise to the very Yakuza: The Bakuto. Traveling players in the feudal period of Japan (around the 18th century), Bakuto they were outlaws traveling through fiefdoms making money from traditional gambling such as hanafuda (Japanese card game) and dice. Eventually, during the Edo era (when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family shoguns), Bakuto they were hired by the government to entertain the feudal workers - players could keep the workers' money as long as they paid the government a percentage.

Gamblers would wrap their arms and chest with elaborate tattoos that hid the revealing codes of their crimes and number of convictions.

As gamblers organized and expanded their businesses, involving themselves with loan sharking, protection, drug dealing, prostitution, among others, the families of Yakuza. The tattoo artists also ended up associating with some criminal family and to this day are themselves responsible for choosing the designs to be made on each individual - which will still carry the artist's signature. To elaborate the “second skin”, called, in Japan, irezumi, the tattoo artist needs to know the client well: in addition to the values of the organization, the images also reflect the personality and beliefs of each, according to their personal history.


The most common designs are dragons, which offer protection to those who carry them, and are considered symbols of masculinity. Arising from Chinese myths, they also mean longevity and prosperity, with each dragon having nine offspring, each with a specific personality: “recklessness is the hallmark of Dragon Haoxian; Yazi is bellicose and brave, sometimes his image is used in weapons; Bixi doesn't like to be alone; Quiniu, a great lover of melodies, often written in musical instruments, especially stringed ones; Chiwen, always looking at the horizon; Suanmi likes fire very much, so it can be seen in incense burners; Pulao enjoys a good roar and is part of the decoration of bells; 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.

Some carp, as they swim toward the source of the Yellow River (Huang Ho), are believed to have to climb the waterfall of Longman Falls, or Dragon Gate, and this is where they turn into dragons.

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

Upward carp tattooing means strength to achieve goals; downward, indicates that the objectives have been achieved. The leaf designs that appear around carp and dragons reveal the path to heaven these beings must 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 lor, fragrant and beautiful that is born of mud, represents the evolution of the soul; Peonies indicate honor, wealth and distinction.


They are still part of the compositions of legendary tattoos theater characters and Japanese myths.

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


As for the signature of the tattoo artist, the more respected and older the artist, the larger the plaque bearing his name. A well-respected tattoo artist also charges dearly, and getting such a tattoo is a status symbol among members of organizations.

To know more:


In an excerpt from the bookYakuza Moon, A”, Former gangster Shoko Having tells the story behind her second skin and why she did it. The writer appears alongside other members and former members of the organization in an episode of the series "Marked Bodies," aired by The History Channel, titled "Death of Yakuza."

Original by Francine Oliveira in the late Tattoo Tattoo

Tattoos, motorcycles, graffiti, music are some of my passions and my main topics on BlendUp.

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