The History and Symbolism of Japanese Hannya Tattoos

Oni Mask Tattoo |
Oni Mask Tattoo @zkullx

Japanese themed tattoos have captured the imaginations of many all over the world.

From the unattainable quality and beauty of geishas, to cherry blossoms and mythical creatures, irezumi (meaning “inserting ink” and references the distinctive features of traditional Japanese tattoos) encompasses many things.

One significant aspect of irezumi is mask tattoos, traditionally used in Japanese theatre, called Noh.

This form of dance and drama has been around since the 14th century, and uses many different masks to portray different aspects of the human condition – including jealously and rage.

What Is a Hannya Mask?

The Hannya – a mask with devil’s horns, somber eyes, and a wide mouth – is one of the most popular subjects in Japanese-themed tattoos. This design has deep roots in Japanese culture and Noh, and conveys strong, vengeful emotions. 

In Noh, the mask represents jealousy and anger, and is a female version of Oni, or demon. 

Colorful Mask Tattoo |
Colorful Mask Tattoo @marios_rta

There are many plays that have a women’s scorn turning her into a demon as the central theme.

One such play, The Laughing Demon, as explained by History of Masks, tells of a man turning away from his mistress, causing her to be overtaken by sorrow and anger,

“In one play Prince Genji [got] married to his wife Lady Aoi when he was young. He had a mistress Lady Rokujo. When Lady Aoi became pregnant, Genji began to ignore Lady Rokujo. In anger, Lady Rokujo’s spirit left her body, possessed Lady Aoi’s body and led to Lady Aoi’s death. So, this story presented betrayed and angry women who transformed into Hannya demon.”

Dark Mask Tattoo |
Dark Mask Tattoo @namsontattoo

One of the most interesting things about this mask is that it can change expressions depending on the angle of the viewer beholding it. Looking at the audience straight on, the wearer of the mark may seem overcome with rage.

As they look down, for example, the light changes the shadows and the audience is able to see the immense sorrow that accompanies the anger of unrequited love. 

The Meanings of Hannya Mask Tattoos

As with many tattoo designs, the meaning of a tattoo can depend greatly on the point of view of the wearer.

However, due to the deep historical and cultural significance of the Hannya mask, before getting one, you should definitely do your homework to ensure that you have an understanding of the symbolism and its role in Japanese culture and society.

Demon Mask Tattoo |
Demon Mask Tattoo @eleventhhourtattoo

Even though the Hannya mask represents an angry, sorrowful demon, the meaning does run deeper than that, as Chronic Ink Tattoo explains,

“Though the overall story and appearance of the mask may seem dark, the word Hannya in Japanese actually means ‘wisdom’ and the masks themselves are considered a symbol of good luck. In Japan today, the masks are often used as a means of warding off evil.”

So, a person sporting this tattoo design isn’t necessarily paying homage to a scornful female spirit. But, some are.  

“A Hannya tattoo may indicate that the wearer is unforgiving. It is for this reason that the tattoo is so popular among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia),”


Intense emotions play a big part in pivotal moments of a person’s life. A tattoo representing the pain of loss, and the overcoming of that anger and grief, can serve as a powerful reminder to a person to move forward in life by taking heed of past lessons learned.

Another aspect to consider is the color of the Hannya mask and other traditional symbolism that can be incorporated in the tattoo design.

Hannya Mask Colors

It’s not just the fangs, pointy horns, and sorrowful eyes that give power to the Hannya mask – the color of the mask plays a role in Noh, too.

As the story being acted out progresses, so does the mask. Before being scorned, the mask that the performer wears could be a pale hue with small horns, as the woman is still more human than demon.

Then, her lover starts ignoring her passions, and he turns away from her. This propels her emotions to the next level as she is deeply hurt, and the mask progresses to a shade of red, as she moves closer and closer to the edge of despair and rage.

Red Mask Tattoo |
Red Mask Tattoo

Then, the final stage, when her lover forsakes her and she finally jumps over the edge of her humanity and the demon of pure anger overcomes her, the horns and fangs grow and the color of the mask becomes a deep, foreboding red. 

“Their extreme misery leads them to murderous and cruel actions. This is the Hannya mask tattoo that most people choose, even if they are not crazy in any way. It is an iconic image that can be a huge tattoo on its own or mixed with other tattoo designs,”

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Popular Accompanying Designs

Hannya tattoos can be eye-catching, intense designs on their own, but they can be taken to the next level with other features of Japanese culture and myth.

A Hannya tattoo with a snake is a popular design, as a snake also has strong cultural significance in Japan – the reptile represents, due to its ability to shed its skin, rebirth and transformation.

Blue Mask Tattoo |
Blue Mask Tattoo @diego_tatt2

Geishas are one of the most well-known aspects of Japanese culture and society, and they have a long and interesting history. Depictions of geishas have also become popular designs for tattoos over the years. As explained on Tattoodo,

“Geisha have been known to be muses; they are the perfect epitome of an artful existence, which is something very inherent to much of Japanese life.”

If the thought of offsetting the intense expressions of a Hannya mask with delicate flowers seems appealing to you, there are two types of flowers that are popular in irezumi: cherry blossoms and peonies.

Cherry blossoms are a striking way of representing the beauty and temporariness of life (as they only bloom for about two weeks), while peonies are known as the King of Flowers in Japan and can represent a daring personality, according to Tatt Mag.

Tebori: The Traditional Way to Get a Hannya Mask

Along with many beautiful designs that have interesting, cultural backstories, there is also a traditional way of getting tattoos in Japan: Tebori.

Snake and Mask Tattoo |
Snake and Mask Tattoo

This is a method of tattooing that sees the artist hand poking the ink into the skin – the word “Tebori” means “hand carve”, and is said to have its beginnings in woodblock carving and printing.

“Accordingly it is thought that many woodblock printmakers and carvers from the old Edo Japanese were also tattoo artists in their spare time as the skill sets required for both had a lot of overlap, Kuniyoshi being a prime example of a famous Edo era artist thought to have been a horishi [tattoo artist].”


Sorrow and anger, the pain of unrequited love and the wisdom that comes after you conquer the demon and move on, Hannya tattoos are not only stunning designs that capture the imagination, they can symbolize a significant part of the human condition.

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