Indomitable is our series where we examine the meaning behind motifs from traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi). This week we’re body art filled with sakura in honor of all the blooming cherry trees throughout Japan right now. Be sure to check out some of our previous installments, including posts about hannya masks, kappas, kitsune, and the Nue.
It’s amazing that a seemingly insignificant tiny pink flower can represent something as significant as the cycle of life and death. In Japanese culture, sakura — cherry blossoms in the English-speaking world — embody the relationship between these two pervasive forces in nature. Every Spring, the Japanese populace takes time to indulge in the ritual of hanami — the appreciation of flowers — celebrating the blooming of cherry trees throughout the country from late March until early April. The festival is short-lived, but you can celebrate the beauty of nature all year long with these sakura-filled tattoos.
Throughout these months, groups of people gather for picnics under cherry trees during both the day and night, dining while surrounded by the windswept sakura. The oldest existing written record of hanami comes from The Tale of Genji (11th century), but this practice is said to date all the way back to the sixth century. During the height of the Heian Period, Emperor Saga adopted the tradition of holding “flower parties,” in which members of the court would gather to feast and write haiku about the beautiful falling petals.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the merchant class accumulated substantial enough wealth to start indulging in hanami as well, and the celebration of sakura soon found its way into their popular art forms, at first ukiyo-e — woodblock prints — and traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi) a little later on. Now the image of the cherry blossom lives on primarily through cherry blossom tattoos — dancing around figures like koi, daruma dolls, and more.
Though some pieces of Irezumi — like the ones by Artemy Neumoin, Horitada, and Caio Pineiro — feature only sakura drifting among the iconic black wind bars of the style, they are generally used to complement other central icons in large-scale tattoos. Paired with a dragon or phoenix, as seen in the pieces by Horisumi and Johan Svahn, sakura take on the connotation of rising or ascending through life. When accompanied by figures such as tengus or hannyas (see: the sleeves by Baek Woon), cherry blossoms can be interpreted along the lines of death and destruction.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos that are swirling with these little emblems of life and death, make sure to drift like a petal on the wind over to these tattooists’ Instagrams. Should you desire an Irezumi sleeve or back-piece for yourself, consider having one of them adorn your body with sakura. If you start now, you could even have the piece completed in time for next year’s festivities.