From mighty beasts to cute teddies, a bear tattoo is capable of expressing a range of meanings and ideas.
Just as the lion is known as the king of the beasts, the bear is known as the king of the forest. These immense, majestic beasts have given rise to tons of beautiful, meaningful tattoo designs.
Cultural significance of bears
Various species of bears appear in most areas of the world, including the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. This widespread prevalence of bears means that they appear in a number of mythologies, usually as peaceful creatures treated with respect and even reverence.
Perhaps the most famous bear-related myth is that of Callisto, in Greek mythology. Callisto was Zeus’ lover who gave birth to his child, Arcas. When Zeus’ wife Hera found out, she transformed Callisto into a bear in a fit of jealous rage.
One day Arcas, who was unaware of his mother’s fate, came upon Callisto the bear and shot at her. Zeus intervened, turning both of them into constellations – Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
The idea of humans taking on the shape of bears – or the other way around – is surprisingly prevalent across cultures. The Ostyak people of Siberia even allegedly referred to bears as ‘four-legged man’ and ‘fur man’.
Perhaps our ancestors had been inspired by the bear’s surprising agility and intellect, or maybe it’s just the fact that bears sometimes stand upright, on their back legs.
Bear tattoo meaning
Bears have long been believed, by various cultures, to be symbols of power, strength, and to some extent, magic. Let’s face it – few creatures would be foolish enough to mess with a bear!
In Scandinavia, there was once a belief that warriors could transform into bears, or at least assume their characteristics.
The legend goes that if a warrior wore a shirt made out of bear skin, treated with specific oils and herbs, he or she would gain the strength, power, and stamina of a bear.
Incidentally, that’s where the English word beserk comes from – the bear skin shirts were called bear-sark.
Bear tattoos, particularly dark, realistic designs, can symbolize the spirit of a warrior and mean raw strength, power, and endurance.
Peace and wisdom
Bears are known as creatures of contrast and juxtaposition – they have enormous physical strength, yet they rarely resort to using it to hunt other animals.
Out of the eight species of bear in the world, only the Polar bear is carnivorous – a predator hunting seals and other animals for food.
The other species are omnivorous, eating more plant matter and insects than meat. Their diets are mostly berries, leaves, roots, insects, honey, and termites, topped-up with meat from fish and small animals. In fact, giant pandas are almost completely herbivorous – meaning they will usually eat only plant matter, specifically bamboo.
For this reason, bears are symbolic of strength and power but also peace and wisdom. They rarely use their strength for violence and they don’t attack unless provoked. The Cree people of Canada even referred to bears as the ‘good-tempered beasts’.
Bear tattoos can mean a quiet, inner strength combined with the self-control needed not to use it to violent ends.
Many cultures associate bears with the idea of resurrection, or coming back to life. This stems from the fact that bears hibernate. They sleep through the winter months, in order to become active again in spring. From spring through to fall they build up their body mass, accumulating fat to keep them alive through the winter, and they hibernate again.
This cycle makes it appear as if bears ‘come back to life’ in spring. A bear tattoo can therefore be a reference to life cycles and resurrection. This can be understood in a highly symbolic sense – for instance, a bear tattoo can mark a moment in a person’s experience where they made a big change and ‘started a new life’.
Bears are sometimes understood as symbols of maternal love, care, and affection. This comes from the behavior of the animals themselves – at huge cost to themselves, bear mothers take great care of their cubs. Mother bears look after their cubs for a relatively long time, until the young are ready to fend for themselves.
Though they’re typically very peaceful creatures, bears will become aggressive and fight to the death if they’re defending their young.
This connection to maternal love is underlined by the implications of the teddy bear. Teddy bears are associated with a happy childhood, so the two concepts blend together well.
Teddy bear tattoo meaning
When we think of bears, the huge, honey-loving animals aren’t the only thing that comes to mind. Teddy bears, the default go-to stuffed animals of our childhoods and beyond, also hold an important place in many cultures.
History of teddy bears
It may come as a surprise that the first teddy bear was invented only 120 years ago or so. Even more interestingly, the toy is named after Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States.
The story goes that in 1902, Roosevelt was on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi. Intending to make sure the President would get to shoot a bear, Roosevelt’s attendants captured one, clubbed it, and tied it to a willow tree.
Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear, (rightly, as most will agree) claiming that it was unsportsmanlike to claim a hunting trophy for shooting a bound, semi-conscious animal. Still, Roosevelt gave instructions for the bear to be killed in order to end its suffering.
This incident gave rise to a famous political cartoon in The Washington Post, drawn by Clifford Berryman, depicting Roosevelt walking away from a captured bear.
It was this cartoon that inspired Morris Michtom, a Russian-born inventor, to create a stuffed bear cub toy and put it in the shop window, accompanied by a sign reading ‘Teddy’s bear’. Roosevelt, apparently, had given Michtom permission to use his name.
The toys were an immediate success – and as we all know, are still popular to this day. At the same time as when Michtom was making the first teddy bear, the Steiff firm in Germany also began producing stuffed bears, unaware of the American teddy bear trend.
Significance of teddy bear tattoos
Teddy bears are popular children’s toys, for obvious reasons – they’re soft, cute, and cuddly, with friendly expressions. The same characteristics make it a common gift for adults, too. Teddy bears are given as an expression of love, caring, and affection.
Teddy bear tattoo designs can have several meanings. They might be a reference to a specific bear that was significant in the person’s life. A treasured childhood toy, for instance, or a teddy bear gift received as an adult from someone important.
In general, teddy bear tattoos are light-hearted, sweet reminders of the importance of love and affection, and of the people in our lives who care about us.
Most teddy bear tattoo designs are done in the traditional style, resembling a cute cartoon. A black outline is filled with mostly solid colors, with little shading.
Bear tattoo ideas
Tribal bear tattoo
The popularity of tribal art in tattoo designs is on the rise again, so it’s a perfect time for a tribal bear tattoo.
When designed by a professional artist with experience in this style, tribal bear tattoos will be completely unique both in appearance and meaning. Depending on the specific type of tribal art you wish to emulate – and there are plenty of options, from Polynesian to Maori and Aztec – specific elements of the design will have additional symbolic meaning.
For example, a linear pattern of spearheads in Polynesian art represents strength and courage – when incorporated into a bear design, this symbolism fits in really well with that of the animal.
Geometric bear tattoo
The geometric tattoo style is one of the best choices for a simple bear tattoo. Geometric tattoos make use of straight lines and geometric shapes to create a simplified, usually symmetrical rendition of an object or animal.
Geometric bear tattoos might just be ‘blocky’ outlines, done in thin black lines for a simple, elegant look. The dotwork technique is sometimes used to add shading and depth to the design. Dotwork involves placing tiny dots in varying proximity to each other – the closer the dots, the darker the area appears from a distance.
For a more striking appearance, consider adding a color fill or background. Remember that geometric tattoos are not aiming for realism in any case, so there’s no need to limit yourself to natural bear colors such as brown and black.
Cute bear tattoo
Though bears are fearsome, immensely strong creatures, there’s a tendency – particularly in the West – to think of bears as cute and cuddly.
Part of this idea is bound to come from our affinity for teddy bears. But anyone who’s ever seen a bear cub will be hard pushed to tell you that they’re not the cutest thing alive!
Cute bear designs might draw on teddy bears, for a cartoon-like appearance. A bear cub tattoo will also be light-hearted and sweet, expressing innocence.
Panda bear tattoo
With their black and white fur and penchant for bamboo, giant pandas are perhaps the most distinctive representatives of the bear family – alongside polar bears.
Pandas are known for their peaceful disposition and their plant-based diet. In spiritual terms, pandas are believed to mean encouragement to slow down, take things easy for a while, and stop multi-tasking and draining too much of our energy.
While the primary meaning of black or brown bear tattoos is that of strength and power, panda tattoos express peace and taking things at your own pace in life.
Bear paw tattoo
An interesting alternative to an image of a bear is the bear paw design. This kind of tattoo involves the shape of a bear paw print, with or without fill.
Rather than filling in the print with solid black or another color, you could get creative and place tribal patterns or an image inside the outline.
The most common placements for the bear paw tattoo include the chest and the shoulder.
Bear tattoo sizes
Bears are immense creatures – polar bears, the largest of the lot, can reach a height of over a meter (3.3 ft) at the shoulder.
The key to designing a suitable small bear tattoo is cutting out unnecessary detail. The more simplistic the design, the smaller the tattoo can be.
The reason for this is that there is a limit to how thin the lines produced by a tattoo gun or needle can get. If an intricate design is squeezed into a space that’s too small for it, a lot of the detail will be lost and the design will become messy and distorted in the process.
So for small spaces, go for simple designs. An outline of a bear or a solid black shape are the safest options, and ones that can fit even in the smallest of spaces. Teddy bear tattoos, cartoon bears, and bear cubs can also be great alternatives for small placements.
One would think that the bear paw design would be easy to make into a very small tattoo, but the issue with this idea is that when scaled down, the paw print won’t be immediately distinguishable as belonging to a bear.
That being said, bear paws differ from the prints of most other animals in that bears have five digits (toes). Canine species, meanwhile, such as wolves or dogs, have four.
If you’re open to the idea of getting a larger bear tattoo, there are more options available. One thing to keep in mind is that when getting a large design tattooed in a curved area of the body – such as the arm or leg – care will need to be taken that the design is not distorted.
The largest tattoos will work best in flat areas, such as the back, chest, stomach, ribs, or thigh. Sleeves and other arm tattoos will need to be designed in a way that doesn’t ‘stretch’ the bear around the arm too much.