The serpent is a charming yet spine-chilling reptile, often seen as a cold-blooded symbol, both literally and figuratively. In Japan, the Hebi (snake) is also a popular tattoo subject. Find out why, what it means symbolically, and draw inspiration from the gallery of beautiful snake tattoo designs.
In Japanese, Hebi means snake. In most cases, the cunning snake in the western world would typically carry along with it negative associations — such as the snake in the book of Genesis, who’d tricked Eve into eating the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; or Medusa, the entrancing beauty with a head full of venomous vipers for hair.
Here, we talk exclusively about the oriental snake, as seen in many beautiful and fearsome Japanese tattoo art and what they mean to the people of Japan and Asia.
Snakes as Good Luck Tattoo Symbols
In olden day Japan, it is often said that if you were to encounter a snake — especially a white one — you’ll be blessed with good luck, however, coming across a dead snake is a very bad omen.
Till this very day, many people living in the outskirts or countryside of Japan will not chase away or kill a snake if they find one in their yard (notably the Aodaisho, a non-poisonous, Japanese rat snake), believing it to be both a sacred being and an ally, killing rats and mice which would otherwise ruin their crops and means of survival.
Snakes are religiously regarded as an auspicious animal in Japan. You will see straw “snakes” (straw woven to look like one) tied around torii gates at the entrance of shrines.
Japanese Snake Tattoo Meanings: Rebirth and Change
Back in ancient Japan, where the knowledge of Biology aren’t as deep as it is today, people were amazed how a hebi could molt and shed off its skin, it shed everything — including its eye-caps! Snakes are therefore deemed as the ultimate embodiment of rebirth, renewal and total transformation. Some also saw this constant regenerative cycle of as a representation of eternal life.
Serpents and the Hannya Tattoo
The snake is very closely linked to another wildly popular Japanese tattoo icon, the Hannya. Hannya is said to be an anguished women, whose intense emotions took over, contorted her face into a ghastly serpentine form and pushed her over to the demonic realm.
To delve deeper into the meaning of Hannya tattoos and get some design inspiration, read this article: Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas
Year of the Snake Tattoos — Japanese Zodiac
In the Japanese zodiac system (Juunishi), every year is headed by an animal with 12 different animals representing a cycle. It repeats itself after every cycle, starting with the first animal once again (Rat: Nezumi).
Juunishi was adapted from the Chinese zodiac system (Shēng xiào) with the exception that the Japanese New Year is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar (1st January) while the Chinese follow the Lunar calendar (usually around late January to mid February).
It’s said that people inherit some of the qualities and traits of the zodiac they were born under. The Hebi comes in sixth position in Juunishi, further, different years of the snake fall under different “elements” — if you were born under the year of the snake, this might be something you could incorporate into your snake tattoo design.