Japanese Hannya masks – their history and meaning

You’ve almost certainly seen a tattoo with this image, but probably don’t know what it actually represents.

Hannya masks are one the most popular motifs in Irezumi (Japanese tattooing), but existed in Japanese culture long before they became popular with Western Hipsters and UFC fighters. But behind the devil’s horns, pointed fangs, and bulging eyes lies a fascinating history.

Menacing grin or tormented soul?

The Hannya mask has been worn by traditional Japanese theatre actors for over 700 years.

The mask is specifically used to represent the soul of a woman whose obsession, jealousy, and anger has turned into a demon. After being spurned by a lover, the poor woman transforms into an demon, hell-bent on wreaking vengeance on unsuspecting men. 

Though often pictured with menacing grin, a deeper look will show the Hannya is also tormented and sorrowful, displaying the complexity of human emotion. In fact, in its original 3D form, the appearance and emotions of the mask changed depending on the lighting and which angel it was viewed from.

Hannya tattoos

From the Japanese theatre hundreds of years ago, the Hannya mask has spread into other art forms, such as paintings, poetry, and of course, tattoos. 

Even as a tattoo, the Hannya can have different meanings depending on the colour, shape and expression. Traditionally, the deeper the colour of the mask, the angrier or more malicious it’s supposed to be. Conversely, a lighter complexion means that the wearer is still human but is experiencing turmoil beneath the surface.

In Asian cultures, many tattooist don't fill in the eyes until the piece is near done, believing that once you 'dot' the eye, the tattoo comes alive.

If you’d like a Hannya tattoo to express your inner demon, or just because you think it looks cool, then come and see us here at Sunset Tattoo Studio. Our main man Tom Tom is an expert in Japanese tattooing and will be happy to have a chat about how he can help.