Decoding the Human Canvas is our series where we analyze the meaning behind profound pieces of large-scale body art. This time we’re taking a look at a traditional Japanese (Irezumi) depiction of the Shinto gods of storms and wind. Be sure to check out some of our previous installments about The Fall of the Angels, Leda and the Swan, maritime symbolism, and Christ’s crucifixion.
Before the advent of meteorology, numerous cultures developed fascinating myths to explain the phenomenon of thunderstorms. In Japan, followers of the Shinto religion attributed tumultuous weather to two warring siblings in the sky — Raijin and Fujin. It is believed that these brothers are locked in an eternal feud, creating the thunder, lightning, and wind as they endlessly squabble in the skies. They’ve been popular figures in Japanese art for centuries, appearing in paintings, sculptures, and traditional Irezumi tattoos, like this back-piece by Rodrigo Melo.
To understand the symbolism of Raijin and Fujin, one needs to consider Japan’s long history with bad weather. The country is frequently ravaged by typhoons, tempests, and other intense storms, which cause widespread damage and loss of life. Because of the impact that severe storms have on Japan, the gods behind them are deeply revered and feared.
Fujin is the god of wind in Japanese mythology. As seen in Melo’s piece, he is generally depicted as a blue or green kami or oni, who carries a large ornate sack, aka windbag, that he uses to create gusts, gales, and zephyrs. He is typically rendered wearing a loincloth made out of a leopard’s pelt. To illustrate his divine command over air currents, tattooists tend to compose windbars and clouds around his figure.
Raijin is the deity of storms and, in many ways, is much more fearsome than his sibling. He is traditionally depicted with red skin and holding a pair of tom-toms with which he beats massive drums, causing the heavens to quake and tremble. While the tumult that he makes in the sky is unsettling, the urban legends surrounding the god are what make him terrifying. Throughout Japan, parents often tell their children to sleep face down during thunderstorms for fear of the Raijin electrocuting their belly buttons, while shooting arrows of lightning at his tiny companion, Raiju, who is rumored to hide in their navels.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos that tell the legends of old, make your way to Melo's Instagram. He operates out of a private studio in NYC and can be contacted at email@example.com for consultations if you’d like a large-scale piece of Irezumi for yourself.