The Magical Folklore Behind Kitsune Tattoos

The Magical Folklore Behind Kitsune Tattoos

These eight sly, spellbinding tattoos illustrate the mythos surrounding foxes in the birthplace of Irezumi.

Indomitable is our weekly series where we examine various motifs in traditional Japanese tattooing (Irezumi) through work by some of the most talented tattoo artists in the world.

The image of the kitsune — aka magical fox — is one of most perplexing motifs in the tattoo world. These remarkable critters are known for their supernatural abilities, which include shapeshifting, spirit possession, pyromancy, and other forms of elemental divination. According to legend, they live incredibly long lives, sprouting new tails as they grow older, wiser, and more powerful. Though they may not exist in real life, they certainly do in the global cultural zeitgeist, having first appeared in legends that predate written record. Whatever hole these pranksters of Japanese folklore crawled out of, they’re not going extinct any time soon.

According to ancient accounts by Chinese writers like Guo Pu and stories handed down through Japan’s history, once a kitsune develops nine tails, it ascends to the heavens, transcending into the form of a celestial fox. While earthbound, however, they’re notorious for being tricksters, rascals that derive pleasure from mimicking humans to take advantage of the unexpected. Given the mystique surrounding these shifty figures, it’s no wonder that they made it all the way from woodblock prints of the Edo period to contemporary Irezumi. 

Though the archetype of this magical fox dates back to before the Common Era, it didn’t become an icon in Japanese art until the rise of ukiyo-e between the 17th and 19th centuries. During this time period, kitsune became a staple figure in the country’s iconographic lexicon, body art included. In today’s Irezumi, you can still see the vestiges of early depictions of these enchanting animals done by artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

Of the masterful compositions showcased here, the pieces by Matt Beckerich, Simone Mutti, and Mike Rubendall feature the iconic bushy tails, giving a nod to the creature’s divine status. Genko, Hanzo II, Regino Gonzalez, and Olga Dobryakova, on the other hand, turn their foxes into troublemaking changelings by dressing them in traditional clothing, while Matt McLaughlin’s back-piece stands out because of its fiery breath. Their preferences aside, all of these tattooists show how kitsune have achieved immortality — just as the legends foretold — through the art of tattoos.

To see more Japanese tattoos of mythological creatures, make your way to these artists’ Instagrams. If you want a piece of Irezumi featuring one of these magical foxes, we recommend that you have one of them design a nine-tailed or kimono-wearing kitsune for you.

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