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5 Japanese tattoos and what they mean

Perseverance, the Japanese Tattoo exhibition that opened at Newcastle Museum last week, explores the artistry of traditional Japanese tattoos. But what does all the symbolism mean?

Here, we take a look at 5 different Japanese tattoos and their meanings. Armed with this info, you’ll be able to impress your friends and loved ones with your in depth commentary as you make making your way around the exhibition.

1 – Dragons

Let’s start at the obvious point. In Australia dragon tattoos usually, symbolise strength and ferocity. Dragons in Japanese tattoos, however, are benevolent symbols of wisdom and generosity that care for others. Therefore, dragon tattoos are very popular in Japan.

2 – Koi

When many people think of Japanese tattoos they think Koi or carp. These intricately tattooed fish are symbols of strength and courage. Furthermore, many believe that Koi evolve into dragons.

3 – Skulls

In western culture skulls are often seen as “bad arse”, but in Japan skulls represent the cycle of life or change.

4 – Oni

There are many different depictions of oni. Commonly they are drawn as giants with sharp claws, demonic hair and horns. Often tattooed as punishing the unjust and evil, as well as spreading disease

5 – Water

Sometimes a torrent of water is drawn and other times the water is drawn as a gentle stream. This is because in Japan tattoos of water symbolise the ebb and flow of life.


The Instagram photos above are from the account of Japanese tattooist, Kian ‘Horisumi’ Forreal.

Kian is a Sydney-based tattoo artist whose expertise and passion lies within traditional Japanese tattooing or irezumi. Kian has been tattooing worldwide for more than two decades and in the Japanese style for the last 10 years. In 2013, he was given the name ‘Horisumi’ by a Japanese tattoo master due to his exquisite artistic Japanese inspired style gained after working for over 20 years in the industry.

Kian will be at the Newcastle Museum on April 23 to discuss his practice, introducing some of the tools and techniques of his trade before showing them in action with a live tattooing demo.

The session is free but bookings are essential and can be made on 02 4974 1401