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Dragons are prominent mythological creatures in many cultures across the world. These mighty beings have been feared and admired for thousands of years.
They’re portrayed as either good or evil, but always as titans of great authority, strength, and power, representing freedom and chaos at the same time.
These breathtaking creatures play an essential role in Japanese and Chinese mythologies and are becoming increasingly prominent in European and American cultures as well.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the most common dragon tattoos and their meanings.
When it comes to dragon depictions in tattoos, there are two main types:
- Long, serpent-like dragons with whiskers, influenced by Chinese tradition. They sometimes have horns and small wings. These tend to be benevolent beings.
- Large, heavier fire-breathing dragon, with massive wings. These are common in European tradition. These tend to be malevolent creatures that need to be killed.
Of these two types, the Asian dragons appear to be more popular in tattoos, as they represent many positive traits.
Dragons in Chinese Tradition
In China, it was believed that dragons created bolts of lightning, thunder, and rain, and symbolized supernatural power controlling natural phenomena. They’ve become so prevalent in Chinese myths and legends that it’s often said that dragons are the ancestors of the Chinese people.
Dragons are deeply rooted in Chinese mythology and are associated with the following concepts:
- Health, prosperity, good fortune, and luck. They were regarded with the utmost respect and were thought to have the supreme power and ability to control harvest, weather, seasons, and time.
- The Chinese also believed dragons represent a perfect combination of the good and the bad, the kind and the evil, and therefore are the symbols of harmony and balance.
- Chinese style dragon tattoos usually portray these creatures with a serpent-like body, with no wings and four short legs with claws, most commonly representing power, fear, and strength.
Let’s break down some of the most common Chinese tattoos and their meanings.
- Spiritual Dragon
The spiritual dragon tattoo, or Shenlong tattoo, is often blue, the color of sea and the sky. It’s believed that this dragon has power over the wind and rain, symbolizing stability, faith, holiness, and truth.
- Winged Dragon
It’s uncommon for Chinese dragon tattoos to have wings incorporated in their design, but this is an exception. It’s believed that the winged dragon symbolizes rains and floods and has control over them.
- Celestial Dragon
It’s thought that the celestial dragon, or Tianlong, lives in the sky, protecting the gods from falling to earth. As the guardian in the heavens, it’s seen as a symbol of shelter and protection from evil.
- Coiling Dragon
The dragon of the oceans, or Panlong, who is not allowed to ascend into the sky. He is bound to live in the earth’s waters, in the seas and oceans, and is considered to have control over time.
- Treasure Dragon
According to the Chinese beliefs, the treasure dragon, or Fuzanglong, is a protector of this world’s treasures and valuable elements, including hidden gems, precious metals, and personal wealth.
- Horned Dragon
The most powerful of all the Chinese dragons is the horned dragon. It’s believed that he’s responsible for rain and symbolizes wisdom and imperial power.
- Earth Dragon
The Earth dragon, or Dilong, refers to the Zodiac sign of dragon in Chinese astrology. It’s thought to represent the greatest achievements, capacity, dignity.
- Dragon King
The ruler of all dragons, the dragon king, or Longwang, symbolizes authority, royalty, nobility, and dominance. He is often portrayed as human and is thought to govern China’s seas in the North, South, East, and West.
- Yellow Dragon
As a symbol of empire, the yellow dragon, or Huanglong, is one of the most revered. Huanglong is most commonly associated with wisdom, warmth, and wealth, and represents knowledge, awareness, and good fortune.
- Red Dragon
Red is the color of good fortune. Therefore, the red dragon is seen as a symbol of prosperity, happiness, and good luck.
- White Dragon
The white dragon is associated with purity. On the other hand, some still believe that it represents a bad omen, mourning, and death.
Dragons in Japanese Tradition
There are a lot of similarities between Japanese and Chinese dragon symbolism since the Japanese dragon mythology stems to a large extent from that of the Chinese.
Although still regarded as the forces of good, the Japanese dragons are slightly more human-like and sometimes more vicious than their Chinese rivals.
In Japanese tradition, dragons are generally seen as protectors of humankind and benefactors. They usually symbolize strength, wisdom, bravery, protection, family, and longevity.
Since Japan is an island, its extremely vibrant and colorful dragon tattoos are usually depicting sea creatures or serpents. Their design is almost the same as the Chinese, except that they are much slenderer and have three claws. In contrast, Chinese tattoos depict dragons as five or four-clawed creatures.
Additionally, they usually have a pearl or jewel incorporated in the design, representing wealth, good luck, and prosperity, long whiskers and beard, and are typically depicted facing the sky.
Han-Riu is one of the biggest Japanese dragons with stripes on his body. It’s known as the dragon who never reached the heavens and is usually inked with several different colors.
Ri-Riu is a very rare dragon that is hard to find. It’s known to have excellent eyesight and therefore symbolizes awareness and wisdom.
Sui-Riu, the ruler of all dragons, is in charge of water and rain. It’s usually depicted spitting huge amounts of water instead of fire. Since it controls the rain, it’s seen as a symbol of fruitful harvests and good future prospects.
This beautiful red-colored creature is usually smaller than other dragons. The tattoo is usually designed with flames around the dragon and fiery red ink, symbolizing energy, power, and vitality.
This is the most loved dragon since it’s believed that it brings good fortune and financial prosperity.
Hai-Riyo is known as a bird dragon. It’s usually tattooed together with the phoenix bird and symbolizes harmony, love, and prosperity.
- Koi Dragon
As the koi fish legend says, it takes a lot of courage and power to swim up the river’s stream and rapids. The fish teaches us humbleness and determination; it symbolizes the courage facing life’s biggest challenges.
The colors of the dragons in Japanese motifs also have specific meanings. Each color represents different traits:
- Gold Dragons: Gold dragons are associated with special virtues such as courage, wisdom, and kindness.
- Green Dragons: Green is the color of nature. Therefore, green dragons symbolize the earth and life.
- Blue Dragons: These gentle blue dragons are usually associated with benevolence and forgiveness.
Dragons in European Mythology
European mythology and folklore generally portray dragons as violent and evil creatures. These winged giants are depicted as scaly, horned, and fire-breathing dinosaur-like creatures, with four muscular legs and long and pointy tails. It was believed that they live in underground caves and lairs, hoarding stolen treasures.
The European folklore and legends are full of tales about heroic warriors and saints slaying these giants to complete their quests and save the people from danger.
Although depicted as ferocious, mystical, and sometimes, evil creatures, the European dragons are still unquestionably symbolic of bravery and strength to overcome challenges with a hint of darkness.
- Celtic Dragons
Celtic dragons are pictured in a more positive light. They are usually seen in tandem with gods and are depicted as rulers standing close to the thrones and with crowns on their heads.
Celtic dragon tattoos are often drawn with wings and sometimes depicted swallowing their tails, making a continuous line design representing the infinite nature of life cycle, like the Ouroboros. They are seen as symbols of prosperity and immortality.
- The Welsh Dragon
The Red Dragon is an established symbol of Wales appearing on its national flag. It’s believed that the dragon is the pagan god, Dewi, and was the official emblem among leaders. King Arthur proudly wore a helmet featuring the dragon, and it was a symbol of wisdom and power.
- The Dragon Slayer
In Christianity, dragons were seen as symbols of sin. The most popular dragon slayer is Saint George, who famously defeated the beast and became the most celebrated Christian faith symbol.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the dragon-killing saint appeared on military emblems such as seals and banners and represented might and authority. Saint George and the dragon is still quite a popular concept, often seen in tattoos portraying strength and Christian values.
In European legends and tales, the Basilisk was a giant dragon-like serpent who was also known as the King of Serpents. He was usually described as a giant lizard with a crown on his head and the power to kill a human with only one glance.
Other Popular Dragon Tattoo Variations
A plethora of different dragon tattoo styles can be chosen for their specific meanings and aesthetics. As the most vibrant and lively, the Asian dragons are usually the ones that serve as an inspiration for these tattoo designs incorporating various symbolic elements.
- The Dragon’s Claw
The Dragon’s claw tattoos represent triumph over evil. The number of claws can vary. A five-clawed dragon is the imperial emblem of China. Japanese dragons are usually three-clawed. This tattoo is usually very small, but it’s a sign of fearlessness and symbolizes strength, power, and dominance.
- The Dragon’s Pearl
Sometimes the dragon’s claw is depicted holding a pearl. Another variation of this tattoo is a dragon fighting over the jewel – the dragon’s most precious treasure. The pearl or jewel is a symbol of wisdom, but it can also represent prosperity, spirituality, and power.
- The Dragon’s Skull
The skull is a universal symbol of mortality, death, and past lives. In contrast, dragons represent the creative forces of nature. Therefore, the dragon’s skull could have a variety of meanings. It could represent the wearer’s conquering of past struggles such as a death of a loved one or overcoming detrimental habits, such as addiction.
- The Dragon Ball
For all the anime series fans, this subtle but vibrant tattoo has a specific meaning. The idea comes from The Dragon Ball Z cartoon, where collecting all the seven crystal dragon balls will summon the Eternal Dragon, who will grant you a wish.
- Yin-Yang Dragon
Besides the dragon, this tattoo usually includes the phoenix as well. In this context, the dragon is yang representing masculinity, while the phoenix is its female counterpart represented by the yin. These two joined together are the symbols of duality, harmony, and balance.
- Ouroboros Tattoo
The Ouroboros is the ancient Egyptian symbol depicting a serpent-like dragon (or snake) eating it own tail. It appears in the ancient funerary texts and can be found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It represents the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and is a symbol of renewal and the ability to recover after a tragic loss or a disease.
- The Sleeping Dragon
There are times when it’s best not to disturb a sleeping beast. This tattoo represents the dormant power and strength of the wearer, and the message to the world that they are the force not to be trifled and to be reckoned with.
- Tribal Dragon Tattoo
Tribal dragon tattoos usually consist of simplified curving lines surrounding the dragon. The style of the lines depends on a particular tribal community that is depicted in the tattoo. Although minimalist in the design, these tattoos are still very impressive and impactful with a deep spiritual significance.
They symbolize the fierceness of the wearer as well as their connection with nature and ties to the original community or region of the tribal design.
- The Rising Dragon
The tattoos depicting a dragon reaching the sky and raising towards the sun have profound spiritual meaning. They symbolize awareness and progress and can represent the wearer’s overcoming a challenge or adversity.
- The Flaming Dragon
The Asian dragons are usually associated with water. However, these tattoos are an exception and symbolize passion, love, and sexuality.
- Dragon and Tiger
There are several variations of this tattoo. In the eastern cultures, dragons are seen as protectors, while tigers often symbolize aggression and attackers. These two opposites are incorporated in one tattoo as either fighting each other, placed over each other, or facing each other on the same level.
Dragon and tiger fighting and wrestling symbolize the individual’s duality and balancing between right and wrong. If the dragon is placed in the foreground, it means the triumph over the darknessand evil spirits. And finally, when they are on the same level, the design resembles Yin-Yang, and the tattoo represents the harmony between the two conflicting forces.
- Dragon and Snake
While dragons represent fire and passion, snakes represent a more quiet and calm side of nature. When they are joined in a tattoo, it could be a symbol of balance.
Also, snakes are often seen as a symbol of health and regenerative power. In comparison, dragons personify the fundamental natural forces and have power over water, earth, wind, and fire. In this context, they represent the balance between intellect and intuition, the modern over traditional, and science over superstition.
- Dragon Butterfly
This tattoo is a favorite among women. The masculine power and strength of the dragon is mixed with the feminine innocence and beauty of the butterfly. This combination is a representation of a perfect balance between the two forces.
- Dragon and Moon
Both these symbols are associated with water. The moon influences the oceans’ tides and ebbs, while the dragon represents primal natural forces controlling waters, rains, and floods. Since water is also associated with the subconscious mind and meditation, this tattoo portrays how the individual’s spirit is connected with nature.
- Dragon and Flower
It’s not uncommon for Asian tattoos to integrate flowers, most often the lotus flower. The lotus is associated with wisdom, enlightenment, and purity in the Buddhist tradition. Sometimes, a pearl is added to the tattoo design to illustrate the person’s intention to realize their full awareness and generosity.
- Dragon and Heart
The heart is the prevalent symbol of love, compassion, and joy. The dragon and heart tattoos are the symbols of guardianship, protecting everything and everyone you hold dear to your heart.
History of Dragons Across Cultures
Today, a dragon is a popular tattoo motif with both men and women, and Asian cultures profoundly influence its design. It’s not quite clear where the idea of dragons was born. Some believe that their myth is greatly influenced by discovering fossil remains of dinosaurs and other giant reptiles since their appearance resembled these prehistoric creatures.
However, their rich history spans across many cultures’ legends and myths.
In Asia, dragons represent the four elements – earth, fire, wind, and water, and are seen as symbols of both the heaven and underground having potent power over water, floods, rainfall, and typhoons. The Chinese believed that their people come from the dragon’s lineage. In Japan, a similar claim was made by an emperor who declared that he was a direct descendant of a strong and immortal dragon. Dragons often appeared on the emperor’s coat, symbolizing his protective and secular power.
The Japanese legends of koi and carp say that if they succeeded in climbing the Yellow River’s rapids, they would be turned into dragons. In this context, dragons were seen as symbols of achieving absolute success and overcoming life’s challenges and difficulties.
Dragons are also present in the mythology of ancient Egypt. Apep, the dragon-like giant serpent, was the evil deity and the archenemy of the sun god, Ra. For this reason, dragons are associated with destruction, chaos, and the underworld in ancient Egypt.
In Western cultures, dragons were evil and had to be slain. In battles throughout the Roman and Greek empires as well as on the Viking ships, the dragon emblem was a symbol of terror. In Celtic cultures, the dragon was a symbol of sovereign power. Today, the red dragon is the national symbol of Wales and is believed to be a relic of Roman times in ancient Britain.
Greek myths say that the heroes fought with various dragons that guarded the lakes, gates, and swamps. In his search for the stolen golden fleece, the Greek hero Jason defeated the dragon that can now be seen depicted by the Ljubljana Castle’s tower in Slovenia. This is why Ljubljana is known as the Dragon City.
To Wrap It Up
The beauty of the dragon tattoo design has no limits. It can be created in countless different styles and combinations, from realistic to conceptual, from simple to dramatic, from silly and cartoonish to serious and profound.
Besides its diverse styles and designs, the dragon tattoo also has a wide array of symbolic meanings. But with all these meanings blended, we can get one unique message, which is bravery, strength, freedom, and conquering all the challenges life can present.