Gang tattoos IV

Written by Rocky Geneva on . Posted in blog


Fourth post in this topic, this will be a brief presentation about the yakuza tattoos’ history and symbolism; probably one of the world’s most known and talked about tattoo types.

Believed to be one of the largest organized crime phenomena in the world, they have been around longer than the Sicilian and Russian mafia. The origins of the yakuza organisations is uncertain, but most modern yakuza derive from two classifications which emerged in a division of Japanese history which was ruled by the shoguns of the Tokugawa family, running from 1603 to 1868. These are the tekiya, those who primarily peddled illicit, stolen or shoddy goods; and bakuto, those who were involved in or participated in gambling. More on Yakuza history here.

In Japanese legal terminology, Yakuza organizations are referred to as bôryokudan, literally violence groups. To a Yakuza member, the most important thing is courage. They are prepared to fight to the death, rather than lose the battle. Yakuza members must be willing to die for their boss.

The Yakuza hold within their skin some of the most detailed, vibrantly colored tattoos known to this world. The yakuza tattoos have distinctive and special meaning, because of Japanese tribal culture, but also regarding their social behavior and the illegal characteristics of Japanese crime organization. This is a sign that they were unwilling to accommodate themselves to societies rules and norms. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the yakuza. For this reason many businesses still ban customers with tattoos.

In the days of the Shogun, Japan’s authorities would mark criminals with tattoos to distinguish them, these highly visible tattoos usually took the form of a black ring around the arm; with rings added as convictions increased. These tattooed men would stick together and form gangs. This custom was picked up by some modern day Yakuza members, who get a black ring tattooed around the arm for each crime they commit.

Yakuza members get tattooed for mostly two reasons, for one they get the tattoo to show their determination, strength and willpower. They also get it to show their loyalty to their Yakuza clan and it’s lifestyle. The intimidation factor is invalid, as they rarely show their tattoos in public, unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Because tattoos were banned in Japan for several time throughout history, Yakuza always stop their tattoos at the ankle, wrist and neck as their ancestors did, so the tattoo can easily be hidden by their clothing.

The Yakuza’s tattooing method is not a modern one, they use a method called “horimono” it’s done manually by hand with a stick with needles at the end usually in a bundle. Most Yakuza have full body tattoos that are hand-poked, instead of using electric needles. This method is very painful, time consuming, and expensive. Since full sleeve tattoos and full body tattoos are trends that the yakuza is known for, it can actually take years to finish using this method and can cost up to fifty thousand dollars.

It’s common within Yakuza circles to tattoo themselves. Their tattoos can depict their clan’s crest.



Popular designs for horimono as showen above can include, dragons, tigers, koi fish, plants, gods, geisha, samurai, and many more.

Though many of today’s Yakuza gang factions are patriarchal in nature, women are integral parts of Japan’s gangland society. Wives, mistresses and girlfriends of top Yakuza figures often undergo extensive tattooing. These women sometimes use tattoos to demonstrate their affiliations with the gang lifestyle, or in some cases it’s meant to show loyalty and obedience to the Yakuza member they are involved with.

The most well known and prominently tattooed woman in ties with the Yakuza is Shoko Tendo. Author of the best-selling book “Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter”, Tendo is tattooed in traditional Yakuza style using traditional Japanese motifs and brilliant colors.

The book is the shocking, yet intensely moving  autobiography of 37-year-old Tendo, who grew up the daughter of a yakuza boss. This lecture caught attention to the Yakuza customs, history and tattooing tradition, intriguing a lot of people towards this matter.


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