Popular Japanese Tattoo Imagery: Hannya Mask history and symbolism

The Hannya is one of the most timeless and classic japanese images of all time, as well as in tattooing. Millions of images depict this demonic looking face. Characterized by a leering smile with many sharp fangs, metallic melancholy eyes and two prominent horns on both sides of the head. Although at first glance it may seem like just a scary figure, the history and mythology runs much deeper; let’s take a look together.

The origins of the hannya mask date back to 14th century Japan, where the mask appeared in a variety of well known Japanese musical theater known as ”Noh Theatre”. Noh theatre sees actors adorned with intricate masks while using gesture to tell stories. The Hannya mask symbolizes a woman who has been consumed with so much rage, sorrow, or envy that she turns into a demon. One of the most well known plays featuring a hannya tells the story of prince Genji and his wife lady Aoi. Prince Genji also had a mistress named lady Rokujo, who loved him very much. Eventually, Lady Aoi necomes pregnant and prince Genji gives her all of his love and attention, ignoring lady Rokujo. His mistres, filled with rage and sorrow over her lost love, transforms into a hannya and posses lady Aoi, leading to her death.

Hannya masks, with their heavy symbolism and meaning, are timeless images in art and tattooing alike, and will continue to adorn the body of those in the future.

Traditional Japanese style blue hannya tattoo on the chest
Tattoo of a blue hannya with orange peonies in a Japanese style on someones chest