Unspeakable Times

16 Yakuza Tattoos and Their Symbolic Meaning

Traditional Japanese tattooing, or irezumi, has been intertwined with the yakuza since their inception. In the Edo period (1603 to 1868), criminals were tattooed by authorities in a practice known as bokkei, making it hard for them to reenter society and find work. The tattoo culture of the yakuza evolved in protest to this branding.

The meaning of yakuza tattoos are usually related to imagery and symbolism in Japanese art, culture, and religion. The full body suit tattoo, in particular, is a product of yakuza culture. In the past, it was obligatory in many yakuza clans for members to get tattoos. In modern times, the practice is not as common; many yakuza in the 21st century maintain clean skin to better blend in with society. Conversely, more and more non-yakuza in Japan are getting tattoos. Despite these changes, being tattooed is considered a rite of passage for the yakuza.

This list includes some of the most common motifs and images featured in yakuza tattoos, as well as their meanings. Some of them are totems of protection, others tell stories of the individual's life. Yakuza tattoo designs have a fascinating history rich with symbolism and tradition.

  • The Koi Fish

    The Koi Fish
    Photo: augrust / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The koi fish is a common yakuza tattoo that generally relates to good luck and fortune. In Japanese folklore, it's said koi can climb waterfalls, working against a heavy current. Thus, koi represent perseverance, and are often used to indicate that a person has made it through tough times. All of this applies to black koi.

    Red koi in tattoos represent love of some kind, typically strong, masculine love, such as the fraternal bonds of yakuza membership. Blue koi are symbols of reproduction, and considered very masculine. 

  • The Dragon

    The Dragon
    Photo: dr. huxtable / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Dragons are viewed differently in Japan than in the West. The Japanese see dragons as benefactors and protectors of mankind. Dragon tattoos symbolize bravery, wisdom, and strength. Black dragons are associated with experience and wisdom. Green dragons are associated with nature, and gold dragons represent value and a variety of virtues. Blue dragons are gentle, forgiving, and benevolent, while yellow dragons are noble companions.

    In addition to symbolic colors, there are six dragon variants in Japanese culture. They are Sui, Han, Ri, Fuku, Ka, and Hai, which are often written with the word "ryu" ("dragon") on the end (for instance, Sui-ryu). Each of these variants has its own meaning; Sui, for instance, is the king of dragons, while Ri possess extraordinary vision. 

  • The Phoenix

    The Phoenix
    Photo: augrust / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The phoenix is a mystical bird that is consumed by fire and reborn from its own ashes. In line with the story of the phoenix, this tattoo represents rebirth, triumph, and fire. It is a common motif in yakuza tattoos. The myth of the phoenix arrived in Japan by way of China, as did many aspects of Japanese culture. 

  • The Snake

    The Snake
    Photo: Mez Love / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The snake tattoo has a variety of meanings in Japan. It is considered an embodiment of regenerative power and a sign of good health. In Japanese folklore, snakes are associated with wisdom, prophecy, and the powers of the earth. They also represents divine female attributes, and can be symbolic of protection from illness and bad luck. 

    In the Chinese zodiac, those born in the year of the snake are thinkers and philosophers, intelligent people with a stubborn streak.