Tattoo Artist: Dan Belden
When inking an image upon your skin, it’s always best to do your research. We’ve all heard that fabled story about someone rushing into a tattoo parlor and requesting the Japanese or Sanskrit symbol for the word “Love” or “Hope” only to later find out that it really means Ketchup or something equally ridiculous.
Every image has a meaning, a symbol, and it’s best to really understand the meaning of something before you permanently emblazon it upon your body. Let’s face it, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? This goes for animal tattoos. If you dig far enough on the internet, you’re bound to find meanings for every animal you can think of. Sure, if you really love that cute little owl, go for it. I’m not saying you have to skip inking your favorite animal onto yourself just because some internet blog said it stood for something. If you love it, do it. Go for it, book that appointment. But, if you want to know a little more about what the most popular animal tattoos stand for, then read on.
When it comes to animals, most of the symbolism you’ll find equates to characteristics displayed by their species. While most animal tattoos have a more personalized meaning (for example, my soon-to-come peacock tattoo is because of my dearly departed pet peacock, Henry, not because of the regal status symbolized in Greek and Roman mythology…although, that is a nice perk), they do tend to carry a generalized symbolism behind them. In fact, most cultures and religions have a similar concept when it comes to the symbolism placed on each animal.
Cat tattoos are exceptionally popular, despite the whole ‘cat lady’ concept. Of course, most cat tattoos are a little more on the Big Cat side than the House Cat side, although you will see quite a few of those running around, too. Tigers often symbolize strength, power, and energy, for the obvious reasons. Other popular meanings behind this big cat include passion, ferocity, beauty, and sensuality. Panthers are often believed to symbolize adventure, loyalty, and triumph. Lions appear in many different religions and cultures. In Greco-Roman myths, lions were connected with deities such as Cybele, Aphrodite/Venus and Dionysus/Bacchus, giving them an association with love and virility. In Christianity, lions are often used to depict God (think Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) because of its regal standing. In Buddhism, the lion stands for security, wisdom, and knowledge.
Water Life Tattoos
When it comes to water-themed tattoos, there are a million different meanings for these liquid-living creatures. For example, Koi fish are often thought to symbolize strength, bravery, and pride as a Chinese legend states that the Koi fish that swam upstream would transform into powerful dragons. In Buddhism, they stand for courage. Dolphins often symbolize intelligence. In Greek mythology, they were often associates of Apollo and Poseidon and therefore represent higher thought. You’ll also see them associated with harmony, friendship, and generosity. Sharks are thought to be the King of the Sea by the Maori people, so it can be seen as a symbol of immense power. The Celts believed the shark was resourceful and saw it as a symbol of transition from one life phase to the next.
Birds are a widely unique species. Every type of bird has its own unique traits, many of which easily translate into tattoos. A popular bird to be inked is the dove, which has always been a symbol of faith, sacrifice, and peace. Many religions and cultures depict the dove as a creature of pureness and well-being, from the Celts to Christianity to Arthurian Legends. Another widely popular bird tattoo is the eagle. An obvious meaning to the eagle is patriotism and American pride, but they also appear in other cultures and religions with different meanings. The Native Americans referred to the eagle as the messenger of the heavens, giving it a meaning of purity, beauty, and power.
Tattoo Artist: Dan Belden
These are more popular than one would think and their meanings can be quite surprising. Take the snake, for example. In Greek myth, snakes are often associated with the God Asclepius, who was a deity of medicine and regeneration. This, combined with the snake’s ability to shed their old skin for new, gives snakes a healing and rebirth symbolism. In Roman ideology, snakes were thought as a protective symbol. They are intimidating, powerful, and wise—often appearing with commanding figures like Hermes or Pythia. Frogs symbolize transformation, renewal, and rebirth. In Egyptian beliefs, the frog-headed goddess, Heket, would breathe new life into every child at birth. The Native Americans believed the frog to be a symbol of purification and the Aztecs and Mayans associated the frog with rain—another symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation.
Butterflies are an extremely popular tattoo in recent years. This winged creature can symbolize metamorphosis, beauty, and life. Japanese culture regards the butterfly as a representation of beauty and feminine qualities. In Esoteric Christianity, it is an emblem of immortality—a rising of Christ. To the Celts, the butterfly showed beauty, love, and honor and was often thought to be a mark of the soul. The Chinese believed the butterfly to be a bringer of good luck, joy, health, and other blessings. Dragonflies are considered both wind and water creatures, and therefore represent change. In Native American and some Asian cultures, the dragonfly represents prosperity, good luck, strength, and harmony.
In contrast to the butterfly, you will find spider tattoos appearing quite frequently, although not so delicately. In India, spiders represent the web of reality, a sign of order. In Hindu beliefs, spiders weave the web that alters perception, causing illusions. Islam dictates that white spiders bring good luck, whereas black spiders bring quite the opposite. This eight-legged creature has appeared with such deities as the Egyptian Goddess Neith, the African God Anansi, and the Grecian Goddess Arachne. In the gothic cultures, spiders have a darker connotation—often depicting death, fate, and craftiness. Dragonflies, another popular tattoo choice, symbolize dreams, prosperity, and harmony. Scorpion tattoos can depict a transition, as the ancient Egyptians believed that these creatures were powerful guardians in the passage to rebirth in the Afterworld. The Aboriginal claims regarding the scorpion were that it had healing qualities, making it a greatly honored creature, while the zodiac symbol refers to it as bold, dynamic, mystically powerful, secretive, and seductive. There are darker sides to the scorpion, as well. It can be associated with death, sex, control, and defensiveness, too.