Butterfly designs are among the most popular choices for tattoos. Below, you’ll find out everything there is to know about butterfly tattoos, including their symbolic meanings and ideas for some of the best butterfly tattoo designs.
Meaning of butterfly tattoos
The butterfly is a long-standing symbol in many cultures, representing a range of concepts and ideas.
Traditionally, butterflies have been associated with femininity – as the archaic gender conventions are becoming obsolete, though, this distinction is blurring, too. Contemporary tattoo art sees men with butterfly tattoos as well as women.
Quite apart from the visual aspects of butterfly tattoos, the symbolic meaning of butterflies is universal, not associated with any particular gender.
When thinking about what butterflies symbolize most broadly across cultures, metamorphosis is likely one of the first ideas that comes to mind.
The reason behind this is the butterfly’s fascinating life cycle. Butterflies start their lives as caterpillars. When the time comes, they build a cocoon. Within it, they practically disintegrate, only to reform into a beautiful, colorful butterfly.
Though this is a matter of opinion, caterpillars are usually considered ugly. Butterflies, therefore, transform from something slow, unappealing, and earth-bound, into flying, beautiful little creatures with multicolored wings.
The butterfly’s transformation is often seen as a metaphor for a person changing some aspect of themselves for the better. Butterflies therefore make common choices of tattoo for individuals who believe they’ve overcome something in their lives or something about themselves as a person and changed for the better.
The specifics of what exactly has been overcome or achieved will, of course, vary from person to person. This can range from surviving a particular hardship and emerging a better person to making conscious choices to live a healthier or otherwise ‘better’ life and following through.
Another meaning of a butterfly is that of change – a concept similar to transformation, though not exactly the same. Transformation implies a full turnaround, while change can apply to smaller alterations.
A butterfly tattoo can refer to a meaningful change that the person has gone through. In a broader sense, it can also simply mean being flexible, open-minded, and willing to change as life goes on.
Living in the moment
Most butterflies have a very short life-span in their winged form. They spend the majority of their lives as caterpillars or wrapped up in a cocoon, to take advantage of their beautiful, flying form only for a short time.
For this reason, butterfly tattoos often mean living in the moment. This can involve taking risks, focusing on the here and now, not dwelling too much on the past and not looking too far into the future.
Butterfly tattoos meant to symbolize this creature’s remarkably short life-span also sometimes mean focusing on appreciating what we have. A butterfly can remind us that rather than always wishing for more, we should stop every now and again to enjoy what we already have and what we’ve already accomplished.
At the same time, though, it’s interesting to note that in some cultures – particularly in Asia – butterflies have been known as symbols of longevity. For instance, the word for ‘butterfly’ in Mandarin is allegedly the same as the expression for ’70 years of age’.
As a matter of fact, the average lifespan of a butterfly is one month. The smallest garden-variety butterflies live around 2-7 days. There are, however, species that live much longer – even up to 9-12 months, provided their lives are not cut short by predators.
Butterflies in Chinese symbolism
Butterflies have particularly well-defined symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. In general, they are symbolic of beauty, elegance, and a long, full life.
More specific settings in which butterflies are depicted will have more narrowed-down meanings. The Chinese symbolism behind butterflies is a great source of inspiration for meaningful tattoo designs. Consider for example:
- A pair of butterflies – in Chinese beliefs and symbolism in decorative arts, a pair of butterflies is symbolic of love and a happy social life, particularly for young couples.
- Butterfly on a hand – symbolic of living happily to an old age. Naturally, in case of tattoos, this symbolism could be reflected by getting a butterfly tattoo on your hand, rather than an image of a hand and a butterfly.
- Butterfly with plum blossoms – symbolic of beauty and a long life. Plum blossoms are small, densely blossoming, pink flowers similar to cherry blossom.
Butterflies in yin and yang
Yin and yang is the Chinese philosophical concept of duality – representing two opposing yet complimentary forces, creating and driving the universe (for example, day and night are opposites but they complete each other to make a whole together).
Interestingly, butterflies symbolize the yang element of yin and yang. Yang is the side most strongly associated with the sun, positivity, and masculine energy. So although butterflies have traditionally seen more feminine associations in Western cultures, within the concept of yin and yang they are on the masculine side.
Butterflies as symbols of the soul
In several cultures, butterflies have associations with the soul – variously considered to be the spirit or the emotional energy of a living being.
In Ancient Greece, butterflies were believed to be physical manifestations of departed souls – the spirits of the dead. The belief was strong enough that in Ancient Greek, the word for ‘soul’ is the same as the word for ‘butterfly’ – psyche.
Similarly, in Russian and Irish lore, butterflies sometimes represented souls of the dead, awaiting entrance into purgatory. In fact, it’s said that in 17th century Ireland, it was prohibited to kill white butterflies – they were believed to be the soul of a dead child.
In many Native American tribes, butterflies are symbols of the human spirit. Even cultures as distant as the Aztecs held the belief that butterflies were really deceased relatives, visiting their families to assure them that everything was well.
The belief in butterflies as souls is also a part of Mexican culture. There is a town in Mexico where the Monarch species of butterfly migrates, resulting in the appearance of thousands of these beautiful creatures. Local communities celebrate this as the Day of the Dead.
Butterflies, therefore, make a relatively common choice of tattoo to commemorate the death of a loved one. In this case, the butterfly design is often accompanied by the person’s name and sometimes the date of their passing.
Butterfly vs moth tattoos
As you’re browsing our gallery and other collections of butterfly tattoos, you’re likely to come across a fair amount of butterflies there that resemble moths more closely.
Put very simply, moths are nocturnal butterflies. They belong to the same family and go through the same transformation from caterpillar to flying insect.
Being nocturnal and associated with darkness, moths have slightly different symbolic meanings. Like most night-time creatures, they’re sometimes associated with death – particularly because we see them die so often as they fly into the lights in our houses and on our porches.
This tendency to be drawn towards the light – be it a flame or a light bulb – has caused moths to be associated with both faith and vulnerability. Faith – because they ‘blindly’ follow the light, and vulnerability – because they risk their lives in doing so.
Darker in color and more aggressive in appearance, moths are a common choice for mens’ butterfly tattoos.
Butterfly tattoo designs
Although butterflies make for rather simple images, there’s an astonishing variety of options and ideas when it comes to choosing a butterfly tattoo design.
One of the most popular choices in the past few years, this design involves rendering an image of a butterfly into a 3D, hyper-realistic tattoo. Careful shading and precise contouring are used to create the optical illusion of a real butterfly having just landed on your skin.
The 3D style requires a great amount of skill from the tattoo artist, so it’s good to make sure that your tattooist has proven experience in 3D rendition.
The arms and shoulders are the most common placement for this tattoo, and proportions of a real butterfly are usually preserved – so expect this design to be around 2-3 inches in width.
Color tattoos work best for this design since the color is needed to achieve a fully realistic look – though all black 3D butterflies look great too, of course.
3D butterfly tattoos with names, quotes, dates, and other additional elements are also a highly popular choice.
Black butterfly tattoo
Pretty much the direct opposite of the hyper-realistic 3D butterfly tattoo, this type of design involves a simple, flat, black shape of a butterfly. This thorough simplification makes for a minimalistic, elegant tattoo. It also allows for it to be scaled down to the smallest sizes possible since there will be minimal amounts of detail involved with this style.
This is, therefore, the perfect choice for those looking for a very small tattoo – tiny enough to fit on your finger or on or around your ear. If you don’t need to go as small as that, consider a tattoo of several all-black butterflies, arranged in a line or a curve.
The tribal design is made up of a number of black, curved lines, thicker in the middle and tapering to a point on both ends. It’s been one of the most popular tattoo styles over the past few decades, although in recent years it’s gradually being replaced by more intricate tribal designs, genuinely inspired by tribal art.
Tribal butterfly tattoos can be any size, from relatively small to quite large. They’re far from realistic, with a semi-abstract quality.
Geometric tattoos are based on symmetry and proportions, incorporating mostly straight lines. The geometric style results in simple yet captivating tattoos, usually all-black and with a fair amount of blank space.
Butterflies make excellent subject matter for geometric designs – particularly butterflies with their wings open, seen directly from above.
This is a great choice for an understated, elegant, modern-looking butterfly tattoo in a relatively small size.
Traditional butterfly tattoo
Traditional tattoos involve the use of black outlines with mostly flat, colorful fill and little to no shading. In their colorful simplicity, they resemble a cartoon style of drawing.
Traditional butterfly tattoos will be highly colorful, usually with a lot of contrast. A tattoo of a solitary butterfly in this style will look good, although, for best results, larger designs are recommended. For instance, consider several butterflies in flight or a butterfly against a backdrop, for example, flowers.
The watercolor style in tattoo art does exactly what the name implies – it emulates the look of a watercolor painting. Through the skilled application of the ink by the tattooist, the vivid colors are made to look ‘liquid’, they run into each other, and are often semi-transparent in places to successfully capture the appearance of watercolor paint.
Usually, a watercolor tattoo will involve a solid black outline, with watercolor-style coloring ‘behind’ and around the lines.
When thinking about getting a watercolor butterfly tattoo, it’s a good idea to make sure your chosen tattoo artist has some experience in this style. Like 3D tattoos, watercolor is tricky to get right and requires a high amount of skill, experience, and precision.
Butterfly and flowers tattoo
For those looking for a more elaborate image for their tattoo design, the addition of flowers can be a great idea. Combining a colorful butterfly with brightly-colored flowers results in an eye-catching, vivid design – one that’s best done over a relatively large area.
The specific flowers you choose could be of purely aesthetic consideration, although it’s good to know that certain flowers of specific colors have symbolic meanings attached to them. For example, a white rose symbolizes innocence, a red rose – love, daisy – hope, and lotus – purity and enlightenment.
The combination of the symbolic significance of a butterfly and a specific flower can therefore be used to create a design that’s richer in meaning and depth.
Writing is a great addition to any tattoo design, and butterflies are no exception. Consider adding your favorite quote, the name of a loved one, or a single word that embodies a value that’s important to you.
The writing can be added beside the butterfly or can be incorporated more creatively into the image. For instance, for a single word or a name, the body of the butterfly (between the wings) can be replaced with the writing.
Owing to the fact that they can be small and that they are generally positive symbols, butterflies make popular matching tattoos, usually for friends or family.
The wrist and the ankle are the most common placements for matching tattoos – areas where the tattoo can easily be exposed and where it’s not overly challenging for the tattoo artist to get the exact placement precisely the same for every person.
Sleeve tattoos extend all the way from the wrist to the top of the shoulder. The shorter variation – a half-sleeve – covers either only the forearm or the upper arm.
Butterflies make an interesting choice for a sleeve – typically, the design involves several butterflies, wrapping around the person’s arm against some kind of backdrop. The background is most often a floral theme.
A sleeve is among the most common choices of butterfly tattoo for men.
Butterfly colors and their meanings
If you’ve already picked out a type of butterfly to use as inspiration for your tattoo, the species will, of course, pre-determine the color and appearance. If you’d prefer for meaning to dictate the appearance of your tattoo, though, it might be useful to know that certain colors of butterflies have additional meanings associated with them.
- Blue butterfly tattoo – blue butterflies are believed to provide protection from evil spirits and misfortune, as well as to grant wishes and help to make your dreams come true.
- Orange butterfly tattoo – in line with the general symbolic meaning of the color orange, an orange butterfly represents the need to stay positive and stay active. Some also believe that orange butterflies appear when a big, positive change is about to happen in one’s life.
- Yellow butterfly tattoo – yellow butterflies symbolize a sudden change and the need to be alert and ready to make the most of what life brings us.
- Green butterfly tattoo – green butterflies are believed to be omens of growth, good luck, and abundance, as well as harbingers of sudden, good news.
- Purple butterfly tattoo – purple butterflies are sometimes thought to represent divine intervention. They can also be a sign that a powerful, influential person is about to enter your life.
- Red butterfly tattoo – red butterflies, particularly in some Native American tribes, are omens of life-changing, crucially important news. Some also believe them to be particularly strong, powerful spirits – in the context of the belief that butterflies are the souls of the departed.
- Black butterfly tattoo – black butterflies, as you’ve probably already guessed, are often considered negative omens. However, they also symbolize magic and spiritual energy.
- White butterfly tattoo – omens of independence and good luck, white butterflies are also symbolic of the presence of the spirit of a deceased loved one, who’s here to support and guide you.
Butterfly tattoo sizing and placement
If you’re thinking about a butterfly as your first tattoo, one of the most important things to be aware of this that not all images and designs can simply be scaled down to any size tattoo.
If a small tattoo involves too much detail and lines that run too closely together, it will likely not come out looking great. As time goes on, the lines will blur and run into each other, resulting in an incoherent mess.
Therefore, if a very small tattoo is what you’re after, remember you’ll need to sacrifice a lot of the detail. The simplest images are the best choice for small tattoos – in the case of butterflies, all-black, flat shapes.
For sleeves and other large pieces – such as the back, thigh, or chest tattoos – it’ll likely be necessary to plan a design involving several butterflies. Since butterflies are usually quite small in nature, one butterfly scaled up onto a very large tattoo is likely to look somewhat odd. This is unless the butterfly shape is used as a canvas for other designs – with the wings as ‘panels’ within which other images or patterns are placed.
Properly-sized butterfly tattoos look great just about anywhere on the body. The main consideration will be whether you wish the tattoo to be on display at all times – as will be the case with hand and forearm tattoos, as well as the neck and upper chest. If you’d prefer to keep the tattoo private, the back, upper thighs, stomach, and lower chest are all great options.
Celebrities with butterfly tattoos
Butterfly tattoos are a popular choice among celebrities. Prominent examples include:
- Lea Michele – the Broadway actress, singer, and star of Glee has two butterfly tattoos. The first is a blue butterfly on the right side of her lower back. The second is a design involving several blue butterflies on her right foot and is a cover-up of a previous tattoo.
- Mariah Carey – the singer has a light-colored butterfly in the center of her lower back.
- Drew Barrymore – the actress has a small butterfly on her stomach, just below her navel.
- Cheryl Cole – the Girls Aloud singer has an all-black, complex butterfly tattoo on her lower back.
- Queen Latifah – the singer and actress has two butterfly-themed tattoos – the first is on her right hand, in the space between the thumb and forefinger; the second involves two butterflies and is located behind her right ear.
Butterfly tattoos are a great, versatile choice for both men and women. Looking gorgeous both on their own and as part of a larger design, they’re as rich in meaning as they are in color and design ideas.
For tons of examples and visual inspiration, check out our gallery below. Don’t forget to let us know your favorites in the comments!