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. Discover these symbols and designs in order to understand where they came from and how they are used today.
Dragon Tattoos: Owned By None, Used by All
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.
Or, in other words, 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.
From those two events, we can see that 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.
Dragon Tattoos in Asia
“Asian culture” isn’t a great term to use when talking about art and its history, mostly because the various cultures within Asia are quite different from one another, especially when it comes to dragon tattoos. There is no monolithic “Asian-styled” dragon, but there are various depictions that are more common than others.
Maybe the most famous dragon tattoo depictions are Chinese and Japanese in origin, although Korean, Vietnamese, and other nearby cultures also have unique depictions and associations. Chinese culture is extremely reverent when it comes to dragons and almost always displays them in positions of ascension (it’s a bad omen to see a dragon facing downwards). Both Chinese and Japanese cultures use dragons as a way to symbolize strength, protection, wealth, and wisdom.
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.
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.
No single story or symbol fully encompasses what a dragon tattoo means. For anyone interested in getting some designs, doing some research on the culture and style you come from or are inspired by is a great way to decide what your ink should look like and what it could represent. Even within certain cultures, various colors can be used to represent different types of dragons (green Japanese dragons are often a reference to nature, for example).
We've also got you covered if you’re an artist looking to start tattooing some dragons. Our Young Bloods artist collection includes portrait realism, fine line, neo-Japanese, and Chinese watercolor styles, all of which are perfect for different types of dragon depictions. Their hand-selected ink collections are a great place to start if you have a specific style in mind for your future designs.