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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Japanese Irezumi Part 1

Updated: Feb 3

So here we are again friends and family of speakeasy Tattoo Los Angeles! Yeah yeah, I know the title isn't some clever esoteric pop-culture reference. Give me a break guys. My brain is grey mush and coffee. Another week down! It’s strange how time seems to fly in this weird era where everything seems to have been frozen since last year. I can’t believe how many of these blog posts I have tried to scrounge together out of my neurotic brain.

So last week I made mention that I would try to make a super post in regards to what is known as Japanese Irezumi. While I know I have covered such subjects in the past, this will be a quicker more easy to read reference post. Hopefully it can advise you in the future on what you think you might want to adorn your body with. There is a lot so this will be done in parts. So here we go.


We all have seen him. Even if we don’t even realize. The red faced tangle masks are some of the most striking Japanese tattoos one can get. They are made famous by their presence in the library of emojis preset on iPhones. Most mistakenly referring to it as a devil face. Tengu are part of the pantheon of Japanese Yokai (demons and ghosts and all sorts of supernatural beings). In tradition they are depicted as a sort of half human half bird with red skin. Over the years the bird beak has turned into a long phallic looking nose. Typically the tattoo is done in the form of a Noh mask even featuring ropes to tie on ones face. Wearing this Tattoo typically represents one’s desire for knowledge and protection. Often associated with military knowledge. A powerful warrior.


Similar to the Tengu, Hannya is most often represented as a mask. In short, a Hannya is a woman scorned. A vengeful and jealous woman that transforms into a demon. The Hannya tattoo is typically seen as some thing to ward off evil spirits or negative emotions such as the aforementioned. Depending on the color, anywhere from a white to a deep red to a black. There can be further meaning to these masks. White usually representing someone of noble birth. Red usually representing deeper more volatile emotions and so on and so on. For a great and in-depth write up on the Hannya, check out this outstanding article by Peony at Tatring.

Kappa demons

These are some of my favorite. Even if they are a little funny in a few ways. Kappa demons are still a part of popular culture in Japan. The Kappa is a humanoid turtle hybrid usually around knee height. They have stringy black hair usually a tooth beak mouth and a turtle Lake shell. They live in the water and feast on humans. Typically children. Varying over the years, couple have been depicted as mild tricksters to violent murderers and rapists. At the same time they are rigidly formal and adhere to protocol. This is exemplified by the whole top of their head in which their home waters is contained. This is where the Kappa derives his power. If one encounters a Kappa is simply a means of offering a bow in greeting. The Kappa will be compelled to return the polite gesture in doing so his water will spill from his head. The cabin must immediately return to his home water or will wither away and die or be that person‘s servant depending on which legend you read. A Kappa tattoo represents both strength and adherence to honor and politeness. To get real in-depth with the Kappa, check out this page here.


These severed bloody heads are some of the most grizzly and striking Japanese tattoos popular today. Like much of Irezumi culture, Namakubi has ties to the Yakuza, Which in turn takes a lot of imagery from samurai culture. In short these grew some tattoos serve both as a reminder to the wearer of the impermanence of life and to enjoy what short time we have but also as an intimidation factor.


I think that these are probably my favorite form of tattoo in general. Yurei are what would classically be described as ghosts. Have you seen the garage? That is a classic depiction of a Japanese Yurei. Usually featuring distinct long stringy black hair and mourn for haunting looks. These are spirits who are not at risk in the afterlife. Usually as the result of suicide or murder in some sort of horrific manner. These tattoos conserve as yet another reminder of the impermanence of life as well as serving a connection to the spiritual world.


These are “hungry ghosts.” Usually representing someone spoiled or gluttonous in life. They live in the constant state of starvation. Endlessly ravenous. They will literally consume anything and their stomachs protrude in turn. Tattoo pictured here by the great Hector Fong. To learn more about Gaki check this page out here.

Chochin Obake

What is interesting about Japanese ghost mythology, is that not only can human spirits walk the astral plane but in animate objects can take on spirits. Such is the case here. These are common paper lanterns found all over Japan usually hanging from doors. Overtime if these lanterns have survived long enough they can take on faces. Usually starting as a tear that becomes the mouth. Gradually a face becomes more and more prominent.


Raijin is another demonic looking spirit. Featuring the classic sharp teeth, red skin and horns and terrifying demeanor. He is the God of lightning and thunder often being shown with drums he uses to create said thunder and lightning bolts shooting through the sky. His brother is Fujin who is the god of wind and it is their rivalry that creates storm.


Brother to Raijin, god of the wind. Similar in appearance to his brother but depicted with skin in a blue to green tone.


Quite possibly the most classic and famous (if that’s an appropriate word) of all classic Japanese imagery and certainly the most striking, Ryu are the quintessential dragon. They represent symbol of wisdom, strength, knowledge, and are looked upon as one of the most sacred blessings. They have the ability to manipulate earthly elements in favor of humans so they are seen as good omens. It should also be noted that the Street Fighter character Ryu is named after these dragons.

I think that shall serve us enough this week. I don’t want to overwhelm everyone. And of course, I don’t want to blow it all in one week! Gotta keep you coming back for more! Next week let’s move away from the demonic and focus on animals.

Until then I hope everybody has a wonderful weekend. Don’t forget that we are always taking submissions for the summer. It’s looking more and more like things can get closer to being back to normal but keep in mind the Covid protocols are still in effect. That means ppe masks are mandatory for now.

Live long and prosper.



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