Tattooing has been practiced for centuries in many cultures and as long as there has been tattooing, there have been dragon tattoos. Since the very first time that man made his mark by hand-tapping pigment into the skin using sharpened animal bones, mythical creatures have been a popular choice. But the reason for that choice varies from culture to culture, and from century to century.
Today, dragon tattoos come in all shapes and sizes, from cute little Puff the Magic Dragon ankle tats to the intricate full body, Samurai dragon tattoos of the Yakuza.
To some they are a bit of fun; to others they have a deeply spiritual meaning.
The word ‘dragon’ is derived from a Greek word which literally translates into 'huge serpent' – like the Latin word draconem (huge serpent).
In European folklore dragons were seen as evil creatures that had to be slain by a noble knight. But in Asian culture the dragon is a water animal that symbolises the subconscious and mediation, as well as being a symbol of masculinity, strength and power.
In fact, the dragon is a creature that has featured throughout the world, in thousands of different forms, portrayed in myriad mediums, from paintings to stories to sculpture to tattooing and more.
These stunning creatures, sometimes mystical, sometimes terrifying, have been and remain important symbols for some cultures. For example, the Vikings had dragon heads carved on their ships because they believed that they will bring an acuteness of the sight and more bravery to the warriors. Chinese emperors pictured themselves as dragons, surrounded by furniture and clothing carrying images of dragons.
It is said that dragons first appeared in stories in Mesopotamia, an ancient territory which was then inhabited by the Sumerian civilisation and now hosts the countries of Iran and Iraq. This dragon was a guardian of treasures, a hero that prevented floods and a wise advisor.
The Babylonians had different, higher beliefs about dragons, involving them in the genesis process along with the Gods.
Some of most popular dragon tattoos are Asian in origin. But can you tell the difference? The distinguishing mark between dragons in Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cultures is the number of claws on the dragons’ feet. A Chinese dragon has five claws, Japanese four and Vietnamese three.
The dragon is a very important symbol for the Chinese people, as they consider themselves to be descended from dragons and fill up their lives with its symbol. They hold special celebrations in their honour every year and will soon be seen as part of the Chinese New Year festivities on February 19.
Artist: Remis Tattoo
So getting a dragon tattoo is not a meaningless act. There is so much symbolism behind it that you have to decide which one best represents you.
There is pride in wearing the dragon. Many Asian warriors would wait until they felt they had earned the right to wear the serpent tattoo, proving that the dragon inside had been properly tamed.
As society accepts that tattoos are here to stay and that they deserve to be openly displayed, we may see even more dragons materialising on the skin of our fellow men and women.
But remember, while to some it is just ink and colour, to those who hold the dragon as sacred, it is both a symbol and a way of life.
Writer: Izzy C