Samurai were the warrior class of feudal Japan, known in the popular imagination for their famous type of sword – the katana – as well as their characteristic armor and system of ideals. Samurai lived within a code of conduct called Bushido, which outlined ways in which honorable warriors should live (and, for that matter, die). Fearlessness, loyalty, and honor were prized as highly as martial arts skill, and the influence of Bushido has been carried into the modern age. This warrior code was not, in practice, a strict set of specific rules, but more a general atmosphere of honorable morality that permeated samurai society despite their violent, dangerous lives. This is also in keeping with the samurai’s status as a higher social class. The ideal samurai was strong but honorable, fearless in the face of death, and a master of his practice. Those with samurai tattoos identify themselves as carrying on this tradition, possibly subscribing to the honorable ideals that made this warrior class flourish for hundreds of years.
In traditional Japanese tattoo, samurai often appear as part of full body, full back, or sleeve designs. They are often mixed with other traditional imagery, sometimes battling a human opponent or a mythical one, such as a dragon or tiger. They may be flanked by other traditional symbols as well, such as cherry blossoms tattoo designs, koi tattoo designs, waves, or lightning.
Though samurai are often depicted in tattoos in a warlike atmosphere, fierce and decked out in armor with a katana, they’re not always – in traditional Japanese paintings, in fact, they’re just as often pictured in a peaceful moment as a heroic one. They may also use traditional weapons of war other than swords, like spears or bows.
Some designs are more informed by animation and video games than traditional images of samurai. Samurai in these types of designs are still recognizable by their katana and the style of their dress, and some people prefer this style. In some cases, even the samurai’s traditional topknot (a feature of their hair worn as an important status symbol) is dismissed. This more “unkempt” samurai is reminiscent of wandering ronin and masterless vagabond swordsmen, similar to the very famous Miyamoto Musashi.
The armor of the samurai is as iconic as their swords, and many designs feature heavily detailed full armor, down to the helmet, called a kabuto. The crest on the top of a samurai’s helmet is significant, representing a family affiliation, spiritual idea, mythical beast, or animal.
Though women could not be samurai in feudal Japan, female warriors trained in the art of war (onna bugeisha) were not uncommon. In modern popular culture (especially anime and video games), that gender barrier is further broken down, though the resulting designs are often sexualized. “Samurai geisha” are also a fairly common representation of this warrior woman idea.
Technical prowess in battle, honor, and an absolute fearlessness in the face of destruction are hallmarks of the samurai ideals that live on today through art, writing, martial arts, and other cultural sources. Samurai tattoo designs offer individuals the chance to wear a piece of that history – as well as a reminder and sign of those ideals – on their bodies.