There are many different motifs that you will see recurring in Japanese tattoos. Many of these have roots in traditional Japanese religion, folklore, literature, and art (ukiyo-e).
Learn about these motifs for inspiration and discussions with your tattoo artist.
A list of animal motifs can be found here. Below are brief descriptions for some of the flower motifs often found in Japanese tattoos.
The cherry blossom is a five petal pink or white flower that blooms en masse every spring. Often associated with Buddhist reflection in Japan, the sakura can be considered a symbol for life itself – vibrant, beautiful, but ultimately finite and brief in the grand scheme of things. Along with being a symbol of life and mortality, the cherry blossom is considered a symbol of beauty and Japan itself.
It is small relative to the other flowers that are most often seen in traditional Japanese tattoos. The sakura is often tattooed being carried along by wind or water often with other creatures or images representative of spring.
Since the cherry blossom is considered a symbol of spring, the chrysanthemum is seen as a symbol for autumn when they bloom. This flower is said to represent longevity and perfection. Which is why it is the symbol for the Japanese Imperial throne – often referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Although there are many varieties of chrysanthemums of vastly different shapes and sizes grown throughout the world, the chrysanthemum most often depicted in Japanese tattoos are large with many narrow curved petals radiating upwards from the center.
Lotus flowers are strongly associated with the Buddhist religion not just in Japan but any area in which the teachings and teachers of Buddha have spread. Said to represent everything from beauty, wisdom, elegance, rebirth, transformation, purity, the cyclic nature of life, and most notably, enlightenment, there could be entire theses (they exist) written on the symbolism of the lotus.
The lotus is a mystical and beautiful flower often drawn in different colors for different representative purposes. It is said that the flower has grown firmly rooted in mud, stem in the murky water, and blossom rising finally above the water in the air – representing the path one must take towards enlightenment.
An artist once told me that he felt it was a comforting thought to imagine the passage of the water the lotus flower draws up from its roots, through its stem, and breathed into the air. The lotus is a symbol in which it may be important to first determine what it means to you – and not the other way around.
The anti-heroes in the classic Chinese novel Suikoden (The Water Margin) were depicted in ukiyo-e prints made by Utagawa Kuniyoshi sporting many tattoos, including the peony. The unparalleled popularity of the novel and subsequent Kuniyoshi illustrations in Japan led to many people emulating the macho rogues of the book and prints with tattoos of their own.
Also representative of wealth and beauty, along with the roguish masculinity of the characters in the Suikoden, the peony has long been a popular symbol amongst traditional Japanese tattoos. They are often depicted with shishi (lion).