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Owl Tattoos: Interpreting Their Symbolism and Significance

Owls are mysterious, elegant birds with rich, symbolic value. They’re known for their brilliant hunting abilities and large eyes which are designed to see best in less light, which is why they’re nocturnal birds. As a tattoo choice, they’re meaningful, beautiful and are popular among both men and women.

Today, we’re going to take a quick look at various owl tattoo designs and what they symbolize in different cultures around the world.

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What Do Owl Tattoos Mean?

Woman with owl tattoo

Owl tattoos can be done in various shapes and sizes and are known to fascinate their observers. These majestic birds carry a lot of symbolism including birth, death, medicine and witchcraft. Here are some of the most common and well-known meanings of owl tattoos.

1- Wisdom

Owls are generally considered to be the wisest of all creatures, which is how the term ‘wise as an owl’ came into use. Most people prefer to get owl tattoos since they understand and are attracted to its symbolism of wisdom. The owl’s ability to see in the dark represents seeing past deceptions and illusion. It can see what others cannot and there is no fooling it. The owl also has large, staring eyes that appear thoughtful, wise and contemplative.

2- Mystery

Owls are often thought of as mysterious birds because of their nocturnal lifestyles and night is often associated with mystery and magic. These majestic birds also have a close connection with the moon which is why they’re considered birds of intuition. They’re called the guardians of the sacred and can symbolize purity of the soul.

Arm owl tattoo
Arm owl tattoo

3- Transition

In some cultures, owls are symbolic of life transitions and many believe that they’re strongly associated with clairvoyance, magic and astral projection. Many tattoo enthusiasts who prefer to have an owl tattoo believe that this bird symbolizes light shining through even during the darkest times in one’s life.

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4- Protection and Magic

Throughout history, owls have been strongly associated with mystery and magic, featuring in numerous old illustrations of wizards and witches. In the Harry Potter film series, owls aren’t seen as mysterious birds, however. They play an important role delivering packages and letters as part of the postal service. In addition to this, they also serve as companions and protectors.

Types of Owl Tattoos

Owl tattoos look great in black ink or vibrant colors. Some designs have realistic, intricate detail whereas others are more abstract or cartoon-like. They can be small or large and the owl can be depicted either sitting or flying which makes them easy to place almost anywhere on the body. If you’re considering getting an owl tattoo, here are some of the most common and popular designs you could choose from.

Barn Owl Tattoo

Owl tattoo on shoulder

This tattoo is a great option if you want something that communicates mystery, since barn owls are hardly ever seen when we try looking for them. Barn owl tattoos also symbolize the nocturnal lifestyle, coolness and calmness of the barn owl.

Snowy Owl Tattoo

Snow owl tattoos symbolize elegance and class, especially when depicted flying among mountains and treetops. These birds are considered one of the most majestic species of owl, mainly because of their pure white color. They’re seen as symbols of dignity and class. The key to getting an excellent snowy owl tattoo is to have it looking as realistic as possible so that the bird will be displayed in all its glory.  

Colorful Owl Tattoo

Owl tattoo on woman ribs

Although owls aren’t colorful in real life, they’re a great tattoo choice when done in various contrasting, bold colors that make them stand out on your skin. Colorful owl tattoos look best in larger sizes since the colors and details can be seen clearly. If you’d like to make a statement with one of these tattoos, consider bigger placement options such as the leg or arm.

Simple Black/Grey Owl Tattoo

Owl tattoo on arm

If what you’re going for is a tattoo that represents darkness, evil or death, a simple black or grey owl tattoo would be perfect for you. However, you might want to give some thought into it before you go ahead and choose this tattoo design since it might convey a message to others that’s different from the one you want to convey.

The Great Horned Owl Tattoo

Horned owl

The great horned owl has unique features that make for an excellent tattoo. These birds are not only visually attractive but they also have meaningful symbolism associated with their tufts which look similar to ears. Owls in general are associated with intelligence and wisdom, but since the great horned owl is a member of a larger species, it signifies power and is often viewed as a protector.

Owl Eyes Tattoo

Owls have the ability to turn their heads at sharp angles so that they can see in almost all directions and they’re brilliant hunters with extremely keen vision. The bird symbolizes the ability to see everything which is why the owl eyes tattoo is often associated with thoughtfulness, alertness and observation. This is masculine design and a popular choice among men who are attracted not only by its symbolism but also its unique and striking imagery.

Small Owl Tattoo

Small owl tattoo on the back

Although many people tend to think that small owl tattoos are less meaningful than larger ones, this is far from the truth. They may be small but they’re just as meaningful and attractive as larger sized tattoos. They’re also easy to place almost anywhere on the body which is an added bonus.

Realistic Owl Tattoo

Realistic owl tattoos are increasing in popularity among tattoo enthusiasts who want their tattoos to look as life-like and realistic as possible. This tattoo has an intimidating, awe-inspiring look that will stand out on your skin with natural colors. For best results, it’s important to find a tattoo artist who specializes in this particular style of tattoo.

The Athena Owl Tattoo

Man with owl tattoo

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, is often represented by an owl. It was said that owls allowed her to see everything since they can turn their heads nearly 360 degrees and have the ability to see in the dark. This tattoo is a popular choice among those who favor logical reasoning and thinking.

Traditional Tribal Owl Tattoo

The owl was considered a symbol of protection by certain Native American tribes whereas for others it represented evil and was associated with death and the afterlife. Tribal owl tattoos have a very unique and distinct style and are either exquisitely detailed or simple, depending on the tribe you choose it from.

Symbolism of Owl Tattoos in Different Cultures

Man getting owl tattoo

Owl tattoos have various meanings in various culture. While owls are regarded as guardians and protectors in some cultures, in others they’re closely linked with the death and the underworld.

In Native American Culture

The Native Americans in general regarded the owl as a symbol of wisdom and believed it to be the guardian of knowledge. It was also symbolic of protection and most Native American would wear the tribal owl tattoo to protect themselves and their tribes.

However, some tribes considered the bird to be a symbol of afterlife and death. Hearing the hoot or screech of an owl was said to be an unlucky omen. Others believed that medicine men (who were known to be evil), practiced dangerous, hurtful medicine and could metamorphose into owls.

In Egyptian Culture

Owls have negative connotations in ancient Egyptian culture, but they were also revered. The ancient Egyptians associated these birds with death and mourning and believed the owl to be a gatekeeper to the realms of the afterlife. As people who died passed on to the next life, they were accompanied by an owl that guided them on their spiritual journey, protecting them and helping them to make the transition from their physical state to the spiritual state. Therefore, owls were considered key aspects of the process of transformation.

In Japanese Culture

In Japanese culture, the owl is a highly revered bird, believed to offer protection from suffering and bring luck. This is why it’s commonly used as a symbol for jewelry and lucky charms. Owl tattoos were said to protect the bearers from evil and harm, bringing them good luck for the future.

In Ancient Greece and Rome

Owls were revered as wise birds in ancient Greece. The owl was a tribute to the highly respected goddess Athena, who was believed to be the personification of wisdom. In ancient Rome, nailing a dead owl to the door was a way of warding off evil spirits. The Romans also believed that if you walked in circles around an owl perched in a tree, the bird would keep turning its head, watching you until it wrung its neck.

Since owls are only seen at night, it’s considered lucky to see one in the daytime. To the Romans, the owl was a sacred bird and it was an owl that warned the Roman Army of impending disaster before being defeated at Charrhea. Therefore, owls are regarded as guardians and having an owl tattoo is said to attract good luck.

Celebrities with Owl Tattoos

Since owl tattoos look good on anyone, regardless of age or gender, they’re highly popular among many celebrities. Here are some of our favorite celebrities, showing off their beautiful owl tattoos.

  • Canadian singer Justin Bieber has about forty tattoos all over his body including a full and half sleeve. Among all his tattoos is one of a large white and black owl on his left forearm. This tatoo is an exquisite work of art that’s symbolic of the link between wisdom and education.
  • Nikkie Tutorials shows off a realistic tattoo with four animals, a panda, wolf, penguin and an owl on her left forearm. The celebrity states that her owl tattoo was inspired by the owls in Harry Potter and the geometric symbol over its head resembles the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.
  • Toronto rapper Drake recently had a new tattoo added to his already extensive collection – a large owl on his chest with its wings spread wide. It’s the biggest tattoo on his body but it’s not the only owl tattoo he wears. In fact, he has another owl inked on his back, near the right shoulder. Drake says that the tattoos represent his dedication and love for the music industry.
  • Sara Paxton has a gorgeous colorful owl tattoo on her left arm, that can often be seen peering out from under her T-shirt sleeve. It’s more of a cartoon-style tattoo and looks adorable on her skin. 

In Brief

Although owl tattoos are popular among tattoo enthusiasts, this doesn’t mean that they’re a common motif. Those who choose owl tattoos do so because they want something unique that will make them stand out in a crowd. If you’re considering an owl tattoo, take time to look at as many designs as possible since this will give you a clear idea of what you want and what’s available.

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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.