HISTORY OF INK: Dragons
Dragon Tattoos: Owned By None, Used by All
It’s almost impossible to engage with tattoo culture without seeing dragon iconography at some point. Whether it’s through traditional Japanese designs or Western Celtic symbolism, dragons have played an important role in tattooing for centuries. In order to understand the usage of dragons in tattooing, it’s important to understand that, quite truthfully, almost every culture in human history has its own versions of dragons, all of which have their own nuance and traditions associated with them.
Humans have been in awe of dragons for a long time; it’s only natural that our art (and, by way, our tattoos) also include that awe. The first official record of a real tattoo is from Otzi the Iceman, a man that died and was frozen in ice in the Alps roughly 3300 B.C. The first records we have of humans talking about dragons in myths include the Sumerian god-mother Tiamat who transforms herself into a “horned serpent with legs”, the creation myth from Egypt about the dragon Apep, and of course, ancient legends from China and India.
The earliest written record of dragons in Asia may be attributed to oracle bone inscriptions from around 3,000 BC, which described their features and appearance. The Shan Hai Jing is a Chinese classic of geography and mythology that also includes legends of various mythical creatures, including dragons. Humans have been tattooing for a long time, but they’ve been talking about dragons for almost equally as long. With so much time to talk and tattoo about dragons, each culture has also developed its own style of tattooing them and has given them their own meanings. Let’s go over a few of the big ones.
Dragons in Tattoos
Dragon Tattoos in Asia
Dragons in Tattoos
Dragon Tattoos in the West
While dragons generally symbolize positive traits in the East, dragons in the West are often depicted as evil, conniving, and powerful creatures that must be conquered. Additionally, the physical descriptions of dragons in the West are of large intimidating monsters, not the flowing and serpentine descriptions from the East.
In stark contrast to the Asian cultures, ancient Greek culture viewed dragons as evil creatures and were often depicted as giant serpents that preyed on humans and guarded treasures. Dragons appear frequently in Greek mythology, such as the legendary Typhon, who was a giant dragon believed to be a guardian of the god Apollo. Other famous dragons in Greek myths include the Hydra, a multi-headed serpent that grew two heads for each that was cut off; the Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides; and the Python, a huge serpent that was slain by Apollo.
Some of the most notable examples of dragons in the West include the Welsh Red Dragon (which is still on their flag), Slavic dragons, Norse dragons (Nidhogg), and Armenian dragons. The exact meaning of Western dragons will depend on the culture and mythology it is based on. Nidhogg the Norse dragon, for example, symbolized a loss of honor, while Celtic dragons were viewed as powerful guardians. Geography has a lot to say about how cultures view and revere dragons, which in turn impacts how they are inked.