The yakuza, a mafia-like Japanese criminal organization, has been notorious for centuries for their strict code of conduct and criminal exploits. The gang has been known to terrorize (and help) neighborhoods in Japan up until this day.

Even more famous than their criminal activities are their extensive body art. Many members of the gang are actually easily identifiable when you take a peek at their incredibly intricate and distinctly large tattoos.

What’s in a Yakuza Tattoo?
Photo from The Conversation

These vivid pictures have been a source of inspiration and wonder for tattoo artists and media around the world, commonly being featured in film, television, and literature.

So what exactly is in a yakuza tattoo? Let’s find out.

The beginnings

The practice of tattooing members actually began in the 17th century as a way to brand and punish lawbreakers for committing crimes. As time went on, and the traditional Japanese art style of woodblock printing gained popularity, tattoos of the same nature also flourished.

Photo from Authentink

This led to tattoos being “hand-poked,” or being manually done. Artists would use a needle or sharpened bamboo to stab the color into the skin, creating complex and meaningful designs. These decorative tattoos, or irezumi, often featured creatures of Japanese mythology and history, symbols of Chinese culture, and floral designs.

The meaning

For the yakuza, each character and animal had a specific meaning. For example, images of a dragon could translate to good luck and strength, while koi fish could symbolize long life and perseverance. Hannya masks, or demon, tattoos could be used to ward off evil.


Surprisingly, these types of full-body tattoos are very painful and expensive and can take years to complete. Designs are never-ending as one’s body is an ongoing work of art. Yakuza members who sport completed tattoos show proof of endurance and determination.

The future

As expected of the conservative Japanese cultural landscape, tattoos are very much looked down upon. They are still considered signifiers of criminal involvement; some establishments even have signs that say “No Tattoos Allowed” to discourage potential yakuza members from entering their store.

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Photo from Arthouse Tattoo

Because these tattoos can stretch across the whole back down to the buttocks, upper legs, and the upper arms, tattooed men and women will often wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to avoid being seen and discriminated against.

Though it seems that Japan still has a long way to go in terms of tattoo acceptance, the rest of the world greatly appreciates the work of art that is the yakuza’s body. Each design, color, and image captures the attention of foreigners across different cultures, ensuring that the rich tradition of irezumi stays alive.

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