Indomitable is our series where we examine the meaning behind our favorite motifs from traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi). In this installment, we’re looking at one of the most powerful icons in the art form — dragons. Make sure to check out our previous posts about cherry blossoms, hannya masks, kappas, kitsune, and the Nue.
When someone mentions traditional Japanese art, one figure probably rises through the dark mists of your imagination before any other — the dragon. Ryū are some of the most impressive and meaningful icons in Irezumi and Japanese art at large. Extending from Buddhism, these mythological beasts have been a part of the country’s folklore for thousands of years, and over the course of countless myths, dragons have accrued numerous meanings, becoming an emblem of wisdom, royalty, success in life, and more.
Though dragons have been depicted in most Asian cultures, Japanese dragons have features that set them apart from the rest. These sublime animals have heads like camels, deer horns, koi scales, and claws like those of an eagle. Even the number of toes that each dragon has is specific to its place of origin. The majority of Japanese dragons are believed to have only three toes, but as they travel further from their homeland, they sprout new ones, four when in China and five as far as Korea.
One legend is about two rival Buddhist temples in the Heian Period. In this myth, becoming jealous of the other temple’s leader, a priest uses a charm to capture the king of the dragons — Ryūjin — causing a devastating drought that lasts until he’s released and rain pours across the land. Because of tales like this one and others about koi turning into dragons, dragons controlling the tides with enchanted orbs, etc., they are frequently associated with the life-giving properties of water.
The fearsome dragons that we see in the Irezumi of today are based on images of them found in ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) from the Edo Period by renowned practitioners of the art form like Hokusai and Kunisada. Whether they are soaring through the heavens or twisting their way back to earth to grant wishes, you can sense the vestiges of the old masters in all of these epic dragon tattoos, which speaks to the incredible longevity of the immortal icon.
Want to read more about the history, imagery, legality and artists of Japanese Tattoos? Be sure to take a look at our guide here.
To see more spectacular traditional Japanese tattoos, make sure to visit each of these artists’ Instagrams. If you want a back-piece or sleeve featuring a fierce Irezumi dragon, have one of them bring it to life on your body.