The Wild Symbolism Behind Japanese Hannya Masks

The Wild Symbolism Behind Japanese Hannya Masks

Prepare to tremble before one of the most fearsome and tragic motifs in traditional Japanese tattooing — the Hannya Mask.

Indomitable is our weekly series where we examine various motifs in traditional Japanese tattooing (Irezumi), while looking at work from some of the most talented tattoo artists in the world.   

Hannya masks are one the most popular archetypes in Irezumi, but for as much as people fixate on their ferocious looks, their tragic origin in Japanese folklore all too often gets glossed over. These figures, with their bulging eyes and severe underbites, have been around since the Edo period in Japan, when they were portrayed by actors in Noh theatre. The myths surrounding these icons are heartbreaking: a hannya is said to be born when a woman grow so obsessive, jealous, and angry after being spurned by a lover that she transforms into an oni hell-bent on wreaking vengeance on unsuspecting men.

Since its stage debut, the image of the hannya mask has spread into other traditional Japanese art forms — paintings, epic poetry, and other mediums, including tattoos. Whether it's Lady Rokujo from The Tale of Genji or the “The Laughing Demon” by Katsushika Hokusai, every depiction of these cursed women has the emotional imprint of the artist who created it, and tattoos of hannya are no exception.

All the artists featured here bring out the anguish and rage embodied by hannya masks in unique ways. Some capture the somber backstory of the sullen figures, rendering them with muted color palettes as seen in the pieces by Marius Meyer, Regino Gonzales, Damien Rodriguez, Caio Pineiro, and Hide Ichibay. Others tattooists, such as Mike Rubendall and Henning Jorgensen, celebrate the icon’s more colorful designs, which can be seen in the masks still worn in Noh performances to this very day. The most impressive hannya are often the large-scale ones. Johan Svahn's and Mike Suarez's massive compositions portray the inner turmoil and outward fury of these female demons perfectly.

To see more examples of this cautionary symbol of obsession, jealousy, and anger, make your way to the Instagrams of these Irezumi masters or check out this article. If you're thinking about getting a tattoo of a hannya mask of your own, we recommend you commission one of them to execute it.

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