Sakura and chrysanthemums are regal, but no flower in traditional Japanese tattoos is quite as prestigious as the peony — known as botan in Japan — “the king of the flowers.” This plant grew from the fertile soil of China’s mainland, cross-pollinated with Japanese culture, and sprung up in numerous art forms, including Irezumi. Now they’re one of the most frequently depicted flowers in the world of tattoos. Their natural form — with blooms up to six inches, lush lobed petals, and wide range of colors — translates perfectly into body art. Just have a look at these pieces featuring the celebrated blossoms, and you’ll understand the appeal of peonies.
Botan garnered their reputation as the king of the flowers because they were grown in the gardens of imperial palaces throughout China. Because of their association with royalty, they evoke themes such as good fortune, wealth, and nobility. During the Genroku period (1688-1703), they became extremely popular and were cultivated on a massive scale, spreading through most of Asia, including Japan where they became a staple icon in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and later Irezumi. Aside from their pleasant scent and beautiful appearance, they were highly valued for their medicinal properties, which were believed to fight off evil chi and stomach aches alike.
Peonies are linked to mythological creatures in Eastern folklore. One legend goes something like this: a monk from Japan sailed to China on a quest to Mount Wutai to meet Monju, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. On his way, he came across a boy carrying a bundle of firewood at the foot of an old stone bridge. He warned the monk not to cross, because hungry shishi (or foo dogs, as they’re more commonly called) lurked on the other side. The monk heeded the boy’s advice, even though he knew it meant that he would fail his mission, and catching the sweet aroma of botan, he saw one of the beasts frolicking around a bush of peonies. As he stood in awe, the boy revealed himself to be Monju, rewarding the monk for having the wisdom to not trespass on sacred ground.
Aside from gardens, one of the most common places that botan crop up today is Irezumi. Because the flowers were so popular during the rise of the art form during the Edo period (1603-1868), images of them were basically an invasive species, spreading like wildfire. Just like in the legends of old, peonies are commonly depicted adjacent to foo dogs and other mythical animals in the traditional Japanese body art of today, but they look just as alluring on their lonesome. They are such a popular choice among modern Irezumi enthusiasts that they’ve become ubiquitous with the style itself, reigning as the king of flower tattoos, too.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos, follow all of these artists on Instagram. If you want to get a peony or a whole sleeve full of blossoms, reach out to one of them turn your body into a royal garden.
This was a very flowery edition of Indomitable, our series where we explore the history and symbolism behind motifs in traditional Japanese tattoos. We hope you liked walking through this little garden of peonies, but if it didn’t satisfy your appetite for Irezumi, check out our previous posts about cherry blossoms, dragons, hannya masks, kirins, kitsune, phoenixes, the Nue, samurai crabs, severed heads, and tofu boys.