The Earth Spider

Let’s dwell once again in the rich realm of Japanese folklore and its supernatural creatures. This time we talk about Tsuchigumo (土蜘蛛), often depicted in tattooing for its captivating aesthetics. Also known as the earth spider, this is a fascinating character in Japanese legends. She was a formidable enemy of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, also known as Raiko. Yorimitsu and his four chief retainers were entrusted with the task of eliminating robbers and bandits in the capital city. Through various adventures, they managed to rid Kyoto of not only human criminals but also the yokai, or monsters, that plagued the city.

Two stories

There are two notable stories involving Raiko and Tsuchigumo. In the first story, which is also a famous Noh play, Raiko is depicted as a sick retainer in the palace in Kyoto. He suffers from recurring nightmares where he is attacked by demons. Despite his retainers standing guard, they eventually fall asleep, allowing Raiko to be bound by silken robes in his dream. Filled with madness, he strikes out with his sword, causing the vision to disappear and leaving behind a trail of blood. Raiko and his retainers follow the blood to a large mound of earth, where they encounter Tsuchigumo, a giant earth spider. In the battle that ensues, Raiko kills Tsuchigumo, earning his sword the name Kumokirimaru, or spider killer.


In another story, Raiko and his men are led by a fiery skull floating in the air. They are ordered by the emperor to rid Kyoto of evil spirits, so they chase after the skull outside the city to a hill, where they are confronted by an army of hideous yokai. The army is led by an enchanting woman, who catches Raiko’s attention. As his retainers prepare to fight, Raiko is captivated by the woman and fails to react. He soon realizes that he is being enveloped in soft cobwebs and, with great effort, strikes out with his sword. The woman transforms into Tsuchigumo, the giant earth spider, and her yokai army disappears. Raiko engages in battle with Tsuchigumo, slicing her belly open. As she dies, thousands of skulls spill from her belly, representing her human victims, along with countless vicious baby spiders. Raiko and his retainers defeat the baby spiders, putting an end to Tsuchigumo’s reign of terror.


As always with Japanese characters, it’s both captivating and helpful to trace their identity(also visual) to the origin stories to have a fuller understanding of the context that created them.


Reflections on Design

’In painting it is disastrous to give equal importance to a number of things at the expense of the one overall theme.’ Joseph Hersch

What is Design?

According to Britannica: “The design of a painting is its visual format. The arrangement of its lines, shapes, colors, tones, and textures into an expressive pattern. It is the sense of inevitability in this formal organization that gives a great painting its self-sufficiency and presence.”

Now, on a practical note, Keene Wilson strateches the importance of simplifying:

“Simplify. Start with sketching, breaking the painting down into 3 to 5 shapes and 3 to 5 values. Use a sketch to lay out painting, not reality. Provide just enough information to start perception in the right direction, let the mind of the viewer fill in the rest. More information = less interesting.”

His advice reminds us of the importance of synthesis, less is more.

When you hide something and just suggest it – could be a color, a character, a line – it automatically acquires more importance. The viewer is suddenly involved in the process, as the brain works on completing the puzzle.


Also, remember what the painting is about. Strip it of unnecessary details.

As Gordon Toi said during his interview for Tattoo Tales:

“It’s the simplicity that brings the power.”