Tattoo and Yakuza

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Tattooing in Japan is an ancient art, which throughout its history has been used for the most diverse purposes. The most famous Japanese tattoo technique is the tebori, a very painful process where the dermis (second layer of the skin) is marked through perforations carried out by a bamboo rod with several needles at the tip.


At a certain point in history, Japanese authorities began to use tattoos as a means of punishment and identification of criminals. Offenders were marked with simple images such as bars and ideograms in visible places on the body and, due to the perenniality of the ink on their skin, they never completely got rid of their crimes: a tattooed person had a great chance of being permanently excluded from society and, therefore, For this reason, many believed that being tattooed was a worse punishment than imprisonment and torture.

Over the years, tattooing developed as an art in Japan and, in the mid-18th century, it reached its peak, no longer related to punishment. Some researchers believe, however, that the use of the tattoo as an ornament emerged as a way for criminals to hide their markings, through the superimposition of images.

At this same time, the yakuza, a criminal organization formed by men of Japanese origin whose activities are linked to drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling and extortion of multinationals through blackmail. Its members follow a code of rules based on loyalty and fidelity and have certain obligations such as not hiding money from the group, not going to the police and never disobeying a superior's order.

The famous Yakuza tattoos emerged as a way for its members to demonstrate this loyalty to the organization, in addition to certifying their strength and courage: the members usually cover their bodies from shoulders to knees in a process that can take several years and, on top of that, is extremely painful to be done with the technique tebori. The video below shows several examples of Japanese people almost completely tattooed.


Gang tattoos are made up of a wide range of visuals. The most common designs involve elements related to nature such as flowers, waves, lightning and animals (such as tigers and carp), and mythological figures such as the dragon, a sacred character present in several oriental tales and legends.

Tiger tattoo

Due to the association with the Yakuza, the Japanese have again developed prejudice towards tattoos, but this does not prevent them from being seen as great works of art around the world. An interesting and at the same time macabre fact is that some large pieces of skin from dead Yakuza members are found in universities for studies, exactly for the artistic value they have. Unfortunately (and for obvious reasons), illustrative photos could not be found, but probably few would have the stomach to look at them.


TAKIGUTI, Karina. The image of the mafia: an analysis of the Yakuza tattoos.

WALLS, Cezinando. The influence and meaning of tattoos on prisoners inside the penitentiaries

SILVA, Oberdan Ferreira Costa da. Organized crime: procedural aspects and evidence. 2014. 58 f. Monograph (Bachelor of Law)—University of Brasília, Brasília, 2014.

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