Art of the Yakuza: Japan's Tattooed Men & Women

Color my underworld... tattoo photo of Yakuza membersColor my underworld... tattoo photo of Yakuza members
Centuries ago in the days of the Shogun, Japan's authorities would mark criminals with tattoos to distinguish them from the rest of the population.

 These highly visible tattoos usually took the form of a black ring around the arm; with rings added as convictions increased.

These marked men were usually discriminated against so they tended to stick together, eventually forming the organized, mafia-style gangs now known as "Yakuza". Worn proudly as symbols of status and dedication, Yakuza tattoos have evolved into magnificent, multicolored full-body masterpieces.

Original painted lady... tattoo photo from early 20th centuryOriginal painted lady... tattoo photo from early 20th century

Today's many Yakuza factions are patriarchal in nature but women are integral parts of Japan's gangland society. Wives, mistresses and girlfriends of top Yakuza figures often undergo extensive tattooing.

The illustrated mistress... an exquisite tattoo photoThe illustrated mistress... an exquisite tattoo photo

Sometimes these women use tattoos to demonstrate their affiliation with the gang lifestyle; in other cases it's done to show loyalty and obedience to the Yakuza member they are involved with.

"Yakuza Moon", by Shoko Tendo"Yakuza Moon", by Shoko Tendo

One prominent - and prominently tattooed - woman with Yakuza ties is Shoko Tendo. Author of the best-selling book "Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter" , Tendo had herself tattooed in traditional Yakuza style using traditional Japanese motifs and brilliant colors.

Tattoo photo of adolescent imageryTattoo photo of adolescent imagery

Japanese society is slowly losing its prejudice against tattoos, tattooing and those who are tattooed. Young people are embracing tattoos as a form of pure body art with no Yakuza connotations and the influence of Western celebrities, who have no historical bias against tattooing, tends to make tattoos more acceptable.

Sign of the timesSign of the times

Still, many public baths and hot spring resorts post signs banning bathers with tattoos - though who's going to raise the issue when the Yakuza comes a-knocking?



For your own temporary version some of  these Japanese Tattoos, you can take a look here. 

READ MORE: Tattooed Pets Blur The Line Between Art and Abuse

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Sep 17, 2007
by Casual Adventurer (not verified)

Useful tattoos?

What a waste.

 Why don't people get useful tattoos........ could be useful for recording things like your blood type and allergies or other information useful for medical personnel  in case of an accident........ or maybe just a delivery address so that you are assured of making it home if you are really drunk..........

Function really is the most artistic form/\ 

Sep 18, 2007
by Zervas (not verified)

useful tattoos

a lot of marines have their dog tags tattooed on them. I think that would fall under the useful category.

Sep 19, 2007
by Steve Levenstein
Steve Levenstein's picture

ID tats

Absolutely - this is a longstanding tradition. Long ago, Japanese samurai would tattoo themselves so that if they died in battle and their clothes & armor were looted afterwards, there would still be some means of identification. Can't get more practical than that, i'd say.

Feb 18, 2008
by alejandro (not verified)



aka yo soy de chile

y si alguien tiene tatuajes estilo japones k me mande unas fotos pliss

Apr 18, 2008
by Anonymous

..... This is irrelevant to


This is irrelevant to most people, as it should be. Keep your information in your wallet. BANG! Was that so hard?

Apr 28, 2008
by Anonymous

Personally, I like tattoos

though I firmly believe one should be at least of legal drinking age (21 and over) and you should spend a LOT of time thinking about why you want the tattoo, what you want it to represent, and how you're going to feel about it when you're 80 and your skin is saggy. And place tattoos accordingly.

I have two... got them both when I was past 30, and they are 10 years apart, and I love them more every day, and want a third... and after these beautiful pictures I just might...

Jul 21, 2008
by slydishere

It's like street art, There

It's like street art, There is a right place and a wrong place, In the right place it brings colour and originality to the world, keep inkin!!

... I WAS ............
.......... HERE ......

Jul 22, 2008
by Anonymous

1 of many reasons 2 get tatt'd

only get the tattoo if u will love it 4evr and never regret it and it has special meaning 2 u.

im only gunna get the tats that mean sumthing... sumthing tru, and wen i die ppl will look at me and my tats and know wut i wuz all about


Sep 30, 2008
by Anonymous

Sure but...

How many of those people got tattooed in a drunken binge? People make stupid mistakes... I once heard a guy bitch that he loved his hummer, but it got crappy gas mileage... No??? REALLY???

So the fact is, people pick crappy tats and then regret it. Some goes for people picking dogs, TVs, Computers, WIVES (and Husbands I guess). Buyer's remorse is very common, especially for things not easily gotten rid of.

Oct 19, 2008
by Anonymous

make sure you do it in the right place!

i got my first tatoo done 4 years was a secret from my family, but they all loved it when find's just a symbol, well hidden, as i did it to please myself with it. the guy i'm with now for a bit more than 2 yrs ...well he kind of hates tetoos, but i feel like getting another one done soon.i'll have to find a good spot for it..think a lot before you get it done and if it's your first one hid it.if you'll like it after years it's time to make it visible, but not necessary as u're supposed to get it for yourself, not anyone else, the same way as no1 should have the right to tell you not 2 have it

Nov 11, 2008
by Anonymous

people's impression for tattooist

get real 2 da people with shallow thinking. TATTOO is an ART not a symbolise for gengsterism or watever da bad things are!! we deserve 2 be respect ans accepted like everyone does. we all knows that everyone got their own interest so.. FACE IT!!

Dec 7, 2008
by Anonymous


No one gets Tattooed like this in a drunken binge. It takes many several hour sessions to get this style of tattooing done, not to mention it needs to be designed for you.

Dec 28, 2008
by Anonymous

yeah that's true it can

yeah that's true it can hundreds of hours you would have to be drunk for weeks lol

Jan 20, 2009
by Anonymous

to "casual adventurer":

to "casual adventurer": that's almost the opposite of what i believe tattoos should represent. tattoos are a type of art and self expression- a way to be individual. putting information such as you suggested on your skin makes me think of the government putting computer chips in the back of your neck. just scan, and you know everything. tattoos represent mystery and beauty...why use them for something that could be abused by the government or anyone who could get their hands on you? an exception, as someone mentioned, is dog tags, because in this situation people are much more likely to die. even dog tag tattoos, though, have meaning, moments, and thoughts behind them. but if it was simply a permanent ID tag? i don't agree at all.