If you’re looking for a tattoo with a distinctive appearance, an Asian flare and a wealth of meaning, then you might be looking for a tengu tattoo. This brightly colored and highly recognizable image has been used for centuries to represent a number of things, including a warding against evil influences.
The tengu is an Asian spirit, whose nature has taken on a number of roles in the lore of various countries. Its incorporation into various religious festivals and stories has turned the image into one with a wide ranging history of meanings, symbolism, and purpose.
This article looks into the history and symbolism of the tengu tattoo, its meaning, and the styles most often used for tengu imagery in tattoos.
What Is The History of Tengu Tattoos?
The history of tattoos in Asian culture is a long one, going back to around 5000 BC. Individuals received tattoos to prove their courage and to serve as forms of identification.
Early designs helped link different members of a clan together. Later, warriors like the samurai were tattooed for luck and protection, and to provide a permanent method of being identified if they fell in battle.
Where and when the Tengu became a part of this tradition is not well documented, but the history of the tengu and its many forms and purposes is every bit as long as the tradition of tattooing, if not more so.
What Is the Historical Significance of the Tengu?
The first written record of the Tengu is from China, around 1791, but there are indications that the Tengu has been around for much longer in traditional tales.
The Tengu has had many different representations and purposes over the years. The original meaning of the word stems from Chinese and means ‘heavenly dog’.
Since then, the tengu has come to be regarded as a goblin of sorts, gifted with powers that include flight and shapeshifting, and often other tools used to trick unsuspecting individuals.
He sometimes appears as a trickster, sometimes a tempter, sometimes a destructive force, and sometimes a defender of the virtues of Buddhism. In more recent times, the tengu is known as a spirit who dislikes arrogance and falsehood, and often employs his powers to reveal the faults of supposedly virtuous men.
The Tengu images most popular today gained prominence during the rise of Noh theater and the Shinto religious celebrations. During performances and festivals the mask is worn to represent a trickster, but also a warrior and patron of the arts who will bring good luck and drive away evil spirits.
What Do Tengu Tattoos Symbolize?
The symbolism of Tengu tattoos is as varied as their representations in legends and stories.
In keeping with the oldest stories, a tengu tattoo may symbolize destructive power, or prowess in combat. It may be seen as a symbol of conflict, survived or anticipated.
In keeping with more recent legends, it may symbolize a defense against ill fortune, falsehoods, or evil influences.
In the last half-century or so, the tengu has also become considered a symbol of physical or sexual prowess.
What Do Tengu Tattoos Mean?
According to traditional meanings, a tengu tattoo is meant to serve as a reminder to the wearer to remain true to the code of Bushido. The tattoo is meant to keep the bearer on the virtuous path.
The tengu tattoo in this form was meant to represent a commitment to virtues such as honor, loyalty, duty, and courage. It was also supposed to be a shield against vices and personal weakness.
Today a tengu tattoo may mean the person wearing it adheres to these principles.
Another potential meaning is that the person is ready for, or has shown prowess in, physically demanding circumstances, or combat and violence. This meaning draws on the tengu’s older representation as a harbinger of violence and a warrior.
A tengu tattoo may also indicate a person who is a trickster, possibly in order to expose falsehoods and corruption, or just on general principle.
Where Do Tengu Tattoos Usually Go?
The tengu is a tattoo that has been worn in pretty much every possible location. Some individuals have even had the tengu tattooed into the top of their heads.
Upper arms, shoulders, chests and backs are all very common locations for the tengu to be portrayed. Often these images are part of intricate tattoo sleeves or full-body artwork.
Thighs and calves are also common locations.
Forearms are a common location, though more likely to feature a stand-alone tengu mask.
Hands and feet are rarer, and usually involve a simple tengu mask on its own, rather than the more complex imagery often used in larger areas.
Styles and Characteristics of Tengu Tattoos:
When it comes to styles, Tengu images – tattoos included – fall into two categories.
– Images following the most traditional representations show a bird-headed entity with a beaked nose over a fanged mouth, often with wings and dragon-like skin. These images are usually done in shades of green.
– More modern images, and those most recognized today, feature a red-faced man with long hair, beard and mustache, and a comically long nose. These depictions usually sport yellow eyes and a faintly menacing grin.
– In the latter images, the hair is usually black, though it is sometimes white.
– Both sets of images often have short cords surrounding the main face, reminiscent of the Noh masks these images take their inspiration from.
– These images range from simple line drawings to incredibly detailed images, reminiscent of a painting.
– These images are almost always only of the face alone, rarely of a full figure.
– Images may be surrounded by flames, clouds, flowers, abstract designs, or other fantastical imagery. They can also be set on a blank background, as a standalone image.
Whatever kind of tengu tattoo you consider, the end result will be a vibrant and highly recognizable image with an abundance of meaning and long history, perfect for a defender or trickster either one.