Some of you have probably seen it at least once in your life – the beautiful demon-like face that adorns the back, or arms of a Japanese tattoo lover. You may even have wanted it yourself! This is the Tengu: a mythical creature said to live on mountains and look like half-man and half-bird (or sometimes just bird-like), and look after the safety of that mountain. It is said to be very powerful, even capable of flight yet despite its power, it’s considered a wise creature – one whose intelligence surpasses humans’.
The tengu was originally worshiped as the Shinto god Sarutahiko (猿田彦). But now they are often seen as messengers of Inari, the god/kami of fertility, rice, tea and Sake. You can read more about their original meaning here , but for this article let’s focus on their appearance in Japanese tattoos!
There are many different kinds of Tengu Tattoos out there – each with their own meaning. This article will be divided into two sections: the first will cover images of tengu on their own, and the second will focus on tengu in combination with other symbols, animals or motifs.
Tengu On Their Own
The first kind of Tengu Tattoo is just them by themselves – no frills! These are the most common forms you’ll see, even though they can still be pretty interesting! The main reason for this is that they mean “mountain safety” (in relation to Shintoism). So basically you’re getting a tattoo to show your respect for the mountain where you live – like an offering! You might also see people who get these kinds of tattoos as signs of strength. They demonstrate courage and absolute confidence in oneself, and can’t be frightened or swayed – which is how a Tengu is supposed to be.
This might just be my favorite kind of tengu tattoo since it looks so sassy! These kinds of tattoos are inspired by Buddhist paintings, as well as other sources such as Kabuki theatre. In those cases the design was meant to scare away evil spirits and demons, but in a tattoo context it might just mean that the wearer is very keen on learning. Or it could be a sign of protection from evil – because if you get one of these you definitely won’t get stuck with any bad luck!
In combination with other symbols or motifs
Tengu Hanging From A Spear
This design is typical for yakuza tattoos, which means that it’s most likely to signify strength and courage in battle (just like the Tengu Tattoos with a spear). Although if we’re going by their original meaning then they’re actually demonstrating vigilance and alertness – since they’re supposedly far-sighted. However they can also just mean perseverance: someone who won’t give up no matter how many times they are beaten down. So this kind of tattoo is really flexible in meaning!
Tengu And Garuda
I’m not sure if Garuda has any specific meaning behind it, but I do know that the two of them together have some sort of symbolic connection to Buddhism. According to Wikipedia “the earliest known depiction of a combined Garuda and Tengu figure originates from a Shingon Buddhist ritual text titled Mikkyō Zuzō Uchi no Hajime (御教祖資訊承旨). It was commissioned by the Japanese court during the Nara period.” Even so – why these two particular symbols were linked is still a mystery… But we can see how they fit together well!
Tengu With A Fan
I’m not exactly sure what the fan symbolizes, but I would guess it’s a sign of wealth because Japanese nobles used to carry fans made from paulownia wood. That being said – these particular fans also look rather large and extravagant which is a sure way to get attention! They’re very aesthetically pleasing tattoos that can be placed almost anywhere on your body – even though they’ll probably work best on the arms.
Tengu With An Orb
This design is just really cool – it’s like the Tengu has become one with the world. They’re seeing everything that goes on because they’re all-seeing and all-knowing, but at the same time you can’t escape them so you might as well confess to your crimes! Although the symbolism behind it all is not exactly clear – I find that tattoos like this can mean different things to different people.
Tengu With A Rope
There are actually two kinds of tengu who use ropes: one is Ame-no-tajikarao, the god of strength and war… But he’s usually drawn with a rope in his left hand instead of around his right! The other kind of tengu which uses ropes is Sarutahiko, whose name means “monkey bridge.” And so you might want to research these guys if you’re looking for a tattoo design idea because I’m really not sure… But since this tattoo shows a Tengu holding a rope in each hand maybe it’s about balance?
One looks like it’s for support while the other one is there to pull (and tie) things down? It’s hard to say – but in any case this tattoo would look awesome anywhere on your body!
I know that this may be an unpopular opinion, but in my own humble opinion tattoos like these are way more badass than the simpler design at #1. Especially when you get them touching each-other… Even though once again I’m not 100% sure what the symbolism means in this particular context.
Tengu With A Scythe
Here we see a tengu with a scythe instead of a sword – which seems to symbolize death and destruction rather than strength and power. But since it’s a part of the design I’ve seen so much it could also mean something completely different to the person who’s wearing it. For example: they might just like this kind of scary tattoo and that’s the only reason why they got it!
But what do you think? Are these kinds of tengu tattoos super cool or just too out there for your tastes?