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The Powerful Meaning of Butterfly Tattoos (With Images)

Butterflies are one of the most popular choices for tattoos due to their symbolism, versatility and beauty. They’re a symbol of hope, transformation, beauty and change. While butterfly tattoos are often sported by both men and women, they tend to be more common among women. Let’s take a look at what makes butterflies a meaningful tattoo choice, along with a few design ideas for your next ink.

What Do Butterfly Tattoos Mean?

Meaning of butterfly tattoo

We’re going to take a look at the specific symbolism of butterflies across different cultures, but before we do that, it’s worthwhile looking into the overall symbolism of butterflies. In general, butterflies symbolize:

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  • Transformation
  • Resurrection
  • Rebirth
  • Freedom
  • Fertility
  • Triumph
  • Endurance
  • Metamorphosis
  • Joy and playfulness
  • Immortality
  • The soul
  • Signs from deceased loved ones

Everyone can relate to at least some of the above meanings, which makes the butterfly a universal symbol.

Butterfly tattoo on hand

Change and Transformation

There’s a mystery in a caterpillar’s metamorphosis, turning into a beautiful, winged creature from its humble, lowly beginnings. This makes the butterfly an excellent symbol of positive transformation and change. Some even see the butterfly as a spirit animal that guides them towards personal growth and change. For this reason, many choose to symbolize their transformation with a butterfly tattoo.

Rebirth and Hope

In Celtic symbolism, butterflies represent rebirth and are used as a guide for making better choices in life. They spread their wings and reach the end of their journey, regardless of the several changes in their lifecycle. For many, butterfly tattoos are a source of inspiration and hope when dealing with life’s challenges and difficulties. It’s said that the winged creature teaches us to face risks and dangers in life as casually as it does.

A Symbol of Love

In China, a legend tells the story of a young man who met his true love by chasing a beautiful butterfly in a garden, which associated with love. In fact, two butterflies flying together are a symbol of love for the Chinese. In Japan, the winged creature represents happiness in marriage. In some parts of the U.S. there’s a wedding tradition of releasing butterflies after the ceremony to bless the newlyweds with love and happiness.

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A Representation of Human Soul

Throughout history, many cultures have associated butterflies with the human soul. In fact, the word for soul and butterfly are the same – psyche. Long before the Greeks, ancient Egyptians believed that butterflies awaited the deceased in the afterlife.

For the Aztecs, butterflies were the soul of the dead that would visit their loved ones. There was even a superstition that flowers should be sniffed from the sides, as the top part must be left for the souls (butterflies) to visit. In modern day Mexico, there’s a town where monarch butterflies migrate every year, and people see the spectacle as the returned souls of the deceased.

Good Luck and Long Life

In Han culture, the first Chinese character for the word butterfly has a similar sound to the character for good fortune, associating the symbol with good luck. It’s also said that the second character has the same sound as the word for elders, and can also mean 70 years. This links butterflies with long life. Little wonder that butterfly motifs are popular in Chinese paintings, artwork and crafts.

Types of Butterfly Tattoos

Butterfly tattoos are extremely versatile. They can be dramatic and bold, or subtle and understated. You can have them in black ink, watercolor designs or even in abstract art. These winged creatures might be alluring and feminine, but they can also be perfect for men. Here are some of the designs that might inspire you for your next tattoo:

An Open-Winged Butterfly

Butterfly tattoo

Whether you like something colorful or black and white, an open-winged butterfly tattoo can showcase the creature’s beautiful and striking patterns. An open-winged butterfly symbolizes freedom, movement, and positive change. It’s also symmetrical in design.

You can get your design inspiration from real types of butterflies, such as Gatekeepers to Red Admirals, Purple Emperors and Tiger Swallowtails. Other popular options include the best-known butterfly in North America, the monarch, which has bright orange and black wings. For a more colorful option, consider the vivid, iridescent blue coloring of Morpho butterflies. Peacock butterflies also have spectacular eyespot patterns, making them eye-catching for body art.

Flying Butterflies

Butterfly tattoo woman's back
Butterfly tattoo hand

If you find the graceful movements if butterflies fascinating, consider depicting them as being free or even flying together. Butterflies are associated with freedom, so a tattoo might inspire you to let go of your past and move forward. Just like the winged creature, you’ll be ready for great things ahead.

Colorful Butterfly Tattoo

Colorful butterfly tattoos
Butterfly tattoo colorful

Some butterfly designs are depicted in the colors of the rainbow, watercolor art, or tie dye, reminding us of the hippie styles of the 1960s. You can also sport them in pride colors, since rainbow flags have become an enduring symbol for the LGBTQ rights movement.

Abstract Butterfly Designs

Abstract butterfly tattoo peace symbol
Abstract butterfly tattoo

Butterfly tattoos don’t always have to look like real butterflies. They can be stylized to represent any number of things long as it’s personal to the wearer. Some of the designs aren’t easy to recognize from a distance, but a closer look will reveal artistic butterfly. These types of tattoos feature butterflies with wings depicted in exaggerated curling lines, as well as with various symbols and images within them, adding more symbolism to the design.

Butterfly Tattoo Placement

Because butterfly tattoos are highly versatile, they can be placed on pretty much any part of the body. Smaller tattoos can go on all the usual places, including behind the ear, on a finger, on the wrist, by the ankle, and on your neck.

For mid-sized tattoos, consider the shoulder, arms or legs. Butterfly tattoos also go well together with other symbols and are perfect for tattoo sleeves.

If you’re looking for a statement tattoo design featuring a butterfly, your back and chest are two of the best places to feature such a design.

Butterfly tattoo placement

Symbolism of Butterfly in Different Cultures

We’ve already discussed the general meanings of the butterfly, but here’s a quick look at specific cultural meanings and symbolism.

In Native American Culture

According to the Native Americans, a wish whispered to a butterfly will come true when it flies up to the heavens. There’s even a Hopi ceremony called the The Butterfly Dance, where people ask for rain, good health and long life. Another dance, known as the Fancy Shawl Dance, is performed with brightly colored shawls mimicking the wings of butterflies, where Native Americans celebrate renewal and new beginnings.

Different butterfly colors tend to mean different things to Native Americans. For instance, a white butterfly is seen as a symbol of good luck, while a black variety represents bad news or illness. Red butterflies are associated with important occasions, while brown ones signify important news. It’s also believed that yellow butterflies are a great source of hope and guidance.

In European Culture

In Europe, the belief in butterflies as a symbol of the souls prevails. In Russian language, they’re referred to as dushichka, which is derived from the term dusha or soul. In some regions in Spain, it’s a tradition to throw some wine over the ashes of the deceased as a toast to the winged creature that will fly with the soul. In Germany, butterflies have been seen as souls of children. In an old Irish lore, it was believed that the butterflies were the souls waiting to pass through Purgatory.

In Christianity

While many view the butterfly as a symbol of transformation, some Christians see them as a symbol of resurrection. It’s easy to see the connection – the caterpillar begins its life as a crawling creature, buries itself in a cocoon like a tomb and then a miraculous resurrection takes place and the insect emerges in the form of a winged creature. This symbolism makes the butterfly a meaningful Christian symbol.

Due to this symbolism, butterfly symbols are often used during Easter, which celebrates the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Some also see the butterfly’s metamorphosis as a form of spiritual transformation, as well as a representation of rebirth after death.

Celebrities with Butterfly Tattoos

So many celebrities are rocking butterfly tattoos, a testament to the ever-increasing popularity of the butterfly tattoo.

  • If you’re a minimalist, you’ll be inspired by Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott’s matching tattoos, featuring the outline of a butterfly on the back of their ankles. Some believe that their matching tattoos are linked to Scott’s single, Butterfly Effect, while others say it’s to celebrate the birth of their baby girl. Those tattoos were the works of their friend and tattoo artist Jon Boy.
  • Ariana Grande has several tattoos on her body, including two butterfly tattoos in black ink featured on her right arm. The celebrity rocked the first butterfly at the 2020 GRAMMYs and later got the second butterfly underneath.
  • High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens sports a butterfly on left side of her neck. It has a subtle blue, green and purple color that looks playful and carefree. The meaning behind this choice might come from the story that a butterfly landed landed on her mother’s stomach a week before she was born, which was why the actress was given the name Vanessa, which has a connection to butterflies.
  • It’s no doubt that butterflies have a great significance for Mariah Carey, as she even used the term as the title of her 1997 album. The singer sports an orange butterfly tattoo on her lower back.
  • Harry Styles had a huge butterfly inked on his chest in 2013, while Shawn Mendes and Halsey rock butterfly tattoos on their arms.

In Brief

As a symbol of change and transformation, butterflies are a popular choice in tattoos. Whether you’re enchanted by their vibrant colors and graceful movement, or simply view them as your spirit animal, these winged creatures will remain a powerful representation of life, a positive omen, and a symbol of hope.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.