2014 Reboot

Just the Tip(s): Ink Info

from Black Amethyst Tattoo Gallery

You Beast, You: Animal Tattoo Art

Calling all spirit animals, house pets, familiars, beastie boys, grumpy cats, p-hounds, birds of a feather, 800-lb. gorillas, cash cows, scapegoats, lone wolves, internet kittehs, lipstick wearing pigs and horses of a different color. Time to talk about animal symbolism in tattoos.

But first, from the brainiac files: the word “symbol,” meaning something which represents or stands for something else, was first used in English around 420 years ago.  If the number “420” just made you think of something else, it’s because to you it’s a symbol of…something else.

OK, for hundreds of years people have used the word “symbol,” but the idea of one thing representing something else, especially in art, has been around since, maybe, literally forever. Symbols vary from person to person, from culture to culture and from one epic epoch to the next.

For example, an eagle may be the most American thing you can think of; but eagles are also prominent national symbols in present-day Albania, Armenia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Iceland, Indonesia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria, Palestine, Panama, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Syria, Yemen and Zambia.

When it comes to animal symbolism on your skin, ultimately the meaning of the imagery is what you say it is. But you’ll be wise like an owl to consider cultural context – what others who see your ink may bring to its meaning.

Here is a sampling of some tattoo-subject animals and their symbolic characteristics.

Alligators and crocs are stealthy survivalists

Ants represent diligence, hard work and patient success. 

Armadillos are self-protecting, the original ballers, who know how to roll.

Badgers are passionate and aggressive.

Bats are protectors of the night, and are seen as good omens.

Bears are known for great strength and protectiveness.

Beavers are goal-oriented builders, dammit.

Bees are industrious and communal, sweet as honey but packing a serious sting.

Birds symbolize many things – the freedom that comes with flight, soaring spirituality, music, mystical insight and migration. Specific species embody a variety of meanings.

Eagles are strong and courageous, owls wise and uber alert; hummingbirds are speedy and excited, penguins are pinkies-up and dedicated; doves are peaceful, hawks are not. A flamingo may represent flirtatious fun or tropical tackiness; the ibis is an ancient auger of wisdom and a modern-day emblem of bravery and/or stubbornness, depending on your point of view. Cranes symbolize loyalty and longevity, crows are shape shifters with supernatural insight.

Buffalo traditionally represent worldly needs being met, and the gratitude we should have for that.

Butterflies and moths signal rebirth and transformations. Butterflies seem social and active, while moths appear obsessive, doomed to die in flame.

Cats, big and small, are stealthy, strong and mysterious. Felines are ferociously carnivorous, more than most other mammals.

Coyotes are seen as tricksters.

Crickets are musical and lucky.

Camels are humpy survivors, overcoming long periods of doubt or drought.

Deer are graceful and compassionate.

Dogs are symbols of companionship and loyalty.

Dolphins stand for harmony and intelligence.

Dragonflies are magical, and herald good fortune.

Elephants symbolize commitment and longevity.

Fish images speak to good luck and magic, with a side order of foresight and knowledge.

Foxes camouflage and hide themselves, and are well known for their wits.

Frogs may represent healing, health and fertility, not to mention potential princes.

Goats are tenacious, which is polite talk for stubborn and hard-headed.

Horses have great power, stamina and speed. Don’t get hung up on anything else.

Ladybugs are lucky and joyful symbols.

Lambs represent children, innocence and parental respect.

Monkeys on your back, or anywhere else, are good luck charms and also symbols of playfulness.

Rabbits may stand for fear, fertility or speed. Or all three if you are a total mess.

Raccoons can mean disguised trickery or theft, or if you prefer, dexterity and cleanliness.

Scorpions are cautionary, warning of potential danger.

Snakes can be cunning or just evil, often with supernatural powers.

Spiders weave webs of destiny or fate.

Squirrels tend to the home, gathering resources for safekeeping.

Turtles, aquatic and land-bound, often represent Mother Earth or the natural world and all its magical qualities.

Wolves can be teachers, guiding us toward sacred things, or fighters, red in tooth and claw.

Zebras have many symbolic meaning, including the strength of community and its opposite, the importance of individuality.

That’s not nearly the full list of animal imagery. I may know a thing or three, but I’m not Noah, with a master list. I’m not gonna call you out if a rainbow-pooping unicorn is your personal symbol of long life and true love, or if a zombie black cat represents your deceased granny. The point is, your tattoo art, like any art, is rich in multilayered meanings. It’s also straight up beastly, you badass, you.

  1. Michael Taylor owns and tattoos at Black Amethyst Tattoo Gallery, an art-first shop in St. Petersburg, FL.  He is a tattoo artist, painter and art show curator/producer. In his spare time, which he doesn’t have, he plays guitar, works out and collects skulls.