Indomitable is our series where we unpack the history and meaning behind the most prominent icons from traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi). Be sure to check out our other installments about hannya masks, kitsune, and the legendary Nue.
Everybody’s experienced the unsettling feeling of something brushing up against their leg while swimming. It’s enough to make anyone want to never set foot in the water ever again, and for good reason, too: some of the creatures that lurk beneath the surface are terrifying as hell, especially because we can’t see them. This fear of what stirs in the shallows has preoccupied people’s imaginations since the dawn of man, and our collective subconsciouses have given birth to some of the most frightening monstrosities conceivable.
One such fiend that has crept out of the black lagoon of the human mind is the kappa — a turtle-like demon that has an appetite for flesh and sucking out entrails. Kappas are one of several Suijin — aka water deities — from Japanese folklore. Aside from tengu and oni, they are one of the most commonly depicted yokai seen in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and other Japanese art. Though this beast hasn’t ever been definitively sighted in real life (thank God), it’s made an appearance in countless tattoos, where it’s unnerving legend lives on to this very day.
Though kappas have taken on numerous forms throughout the centuries, their most common incarnation is an anthropomorphic turtle with an ape-like head. As seen in pieces like Rory Pickersgill’s, the kappa’s defining attribute is the bowl-shaped cavity in its skull, which holds its liquid lifeforce. These amphibians have a bad reputation as tricksters who grab people and drag them into rivers and streams to suck their innards out through their anuses. Gross, right? According to some accounts, they’re even associated with rape, luring girls beyond the shoreline to have their way with them. For these reasons, the kappa is one of the most sinister icons in all of Irezumi.
Each of the tattooists featured here bring out the horrifying qualities of the kappa in different ways. Stewart Robson’s piece honors the old masters by taking after a creepy woodblock print from the 1800s by Katsushika Hokusai. Some of the artists capture other aspects associated with the creatures, as seen in Peter Lagergren’s sleeve with several kappas wrestling each other, an activity which they are rumored to frequently engage in, and Matty D. Mooney shows just how they look most ferocious when depicted in large-scale Irezumi.
To see more depictions of yokai, make sure to visit these artists’ Instagrams. If you’re out to get a tattoo of a kappa, have one of them design it for you. They all bring out its bizarreness in unique ways, channeling the creepiness that makes these murderous turtles such captivating icons in traditional Japanese tattoos.