The History and Symbolism of Japanese Hannya Tattoos

Last Updated on March 22, 2023

Japanese art is popular amongst many cultures, and you would often find people with Japanese themed ink on their body.

Like much art, Japanese tattoos hold a lot of meaning. Japanese related designs you will find are those of the koi fish or of pink cherry blossoms, but one that is a particularly popular design is the Hannya tattoo.

As we continue, we will be delving into the meaning of a hannya today and its symbolism.

What is Hannya?

The Hannya is a mask used in traditional Japanese culture and is representative of the jealous female demon.

The mask is very memorable for its unique facial expression, bull-like horns and gaping mouth with sharp teeth spiking out.

The Story of Hannya

The Hannya mask is more than just a physical tradition, but it comes with an origin story. There are many different folklore stories used to present this mask.

The Samurai and Hannya

There was once a samurai who wanted to put a stop to the female demon, Hannya, who was taunting people who tried to pass the Rashomon gate in Kyoto.

As he waited for the demon a beautiful woman approached and asked him to walk her home, which he did. The samurai walked ahead of this mysterious woman but upon turning to look over his shoulder saw that the demon, Hannya, was now behind him.

Hannya was disguised as that beautiful woman all along. The demon and the samurai fought but the demon was able to get away with only a decapitated arm.

The samurai carried the arm back home and locked it away.

Years later the Hannya returned, but now disguised as his aunt. She pleaded to see the arm he locked away and when he showed her, Hannya dropped her disguise, took the arm, and fled.

The Hannya is a creature that invokes fear. Its face is a disturbing twist of rage, jealousy, and pain and its abilities to transform into a person with such beauty is something to fear.


The mask is a symbolism of female rage and displays a confusing expression of pain, anger, heartbreak, and melancholy. It is representative of emotions brought up to the surface when a woman is betrayed.

The History and Symbolism of Japanese Hannya Tattoos
Credit: uncle.kit

Although the Hannya is a demon and is mostly looked at in a negative light, the word in English translates to ‘wisdom’ and many Japanese look at the mask as a sign of good luck.

In Japan, people use masks to scare off any evil entities which may come their way, so this mask helps to protect them. It provides that good luck.

Getting a Hannya Mask Tattoo

Before getting a Hannya mask tattoo it is important to know its meaning. It is much more than a simple design.

It may look cool with the facial expression of the mask and the bold image, but the mask holds a lot more symbolism.

Much detail and focus go into making the Hannya mask appealing and accurately interpreted, details such as the way the tattoo is colored.

The colors of the Hannya mask tattoo provide many different meanings depending on both color and shade.

Typically you would find a red mask, and if you want this tattooed in color there are a few things you need to decide. Depending on the shade of the mask, a different emotion is presented.

Lighter complexion – a Hannya mask with a lighter complexion means that the wearer is not yet a demon but is on the cusp of pain.

Dark red – dark red is representative of a person who has been through emotional turmoil.

Deep red – representative of a person who is filled with pure hatred and rage and is craving vengeance.

Although there are different options for colors, this is a traditional route. The great thing about tattoos is there are no boundaries.

You are free to decide placement, color, size, whatever it is to fit your style and needs.

Getting a Hannya Mask Tattoo

Hand Poking

There are many ways to get your tattoos done. The western mainstream way is to use a tattooing gun to ink your clients, but in some parts of Japan they use a different method.

This is called hand poking and is a technique used to tattoo a person with the use of machinery.

The tattoo artist pushes the needle and ink into the skin manually by hand, hence the name hand poking.

This method of tattooing may seem painful however it has been known to be less painful than getting tattooed by a machine and also heals a lot quicker.

The only downside is that the hand poking tattoo can take much longer, especially if you are wanting to have a larger piece done.

But to have a traditional tattoo done in a traditional style is worth all that time and effort. Why turn that opportunity down?

The History and Symbolism of Japanese Hannya Tattoos
Credit: mjunmjunmjun

Hannya Design Ideas

A tattoo is an art piece which should be unique to every person. Many people have the Hannya mask on their skin for many reasons.

It could be to represent their own culture, it could be to pay tribute to another’s culture, or it could be a symbolism of inner torment.

Perhaps a person just loves the design and sees it as a work of art. Whatever the reason, it is important that your design has qualities which are personal to you.

Below are listed some design ideas to make your tattoo design unique to you whilst still carrying the spirit of the Japanese tradition.

Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossom is a flower Japan is most known for. In the months of March and April the cherry blossoms (also known as the sakura) blooms.

This captures the attention of many and is a wonderful sight for all. Incorporate the sakura into the Hannya mask design to further pay homage to the Japanese culture.

Half Face

Another great design idea is to have a half face, one side showing a beautiful woman and the other side revealing the demonic face of the Hannya mask.

This is a unique concept which explains the story of the Hannya through the use of visual art.

Jealous Woman

Instead of the hannya mask being the center of attention, have instead the image of the beautiful but jealous woman who is wearing a mask discretely above her head.

This is paying tribute to the story of the samurai and the Hannya, reiterating the story of the demon’s disguises and abilities to transform into other beings.

The Snake

The image of the snake is popular in Japan. It is a symbolism of rebirth as the snake sheds its skin and transforms into a new form.

This is similar to the theme of the Hannya mask and how it is able to take on disguises to fool others.

Final Thoughts

To have a tattoo of the Hannya mask is something to take into consideration. It is not only an image, but it is also an art piece which stems back centuries.

It tells the haunting tale of a demon with the twisted face of an angered yet pained female and is a big part of Japanese history.

It is also a sign of good luck for having the mask wards off any misfortune and evil.

As a tattoo artist it is their job to present the design as perfectly as requested, whether that be traditional with the correct tone of colors and meaning, or whether that be uniquely changed to suit the needs of the tattooed client.

In order to embrace the full extent of Japanese culture, you can have your art done using traditional tattoo methods such as the hand poking method which uses manual needle punctures into the skin instead of any electronics of machines.

By allowing this, you are embracing a new culture, or a culture you are already apart of, and exploring other forms of tattooing.

What is the most important thing, however, is that you are staying respectful. For people who are especially not a part of the culture, it is important to understand what you are having inked on your skin and that you are respecting traditions.

You want to know of the Hannya mask’s symbolism and realize that it is much more than a work of art.

This piece is a story passed down in Japan and a story we are fortunate to now know in the west.

When you do choose your piece, make sure that you are keeping it unique. There are a variety of designs to choose from and this decision can be helped by your tattoo artist.

Tattoo artists have the skill to have a design and incorporate it to a person’s specifications, meeting their standards.

Try a design which uses other aspects of traditional Japan to accentuate the Hannya tattoo. Make sure that your tattoo is culturally accurate and that your artist too knows of its origins.

There is so much that can be done with a design such as this one and is a great piece to have.