If you’ve ever wondered what a dove tattoo means, look no further! In this article, we’ll explore the cultural meanings of these birds and consider some of the most popular turtle dove tattoo designs, along with their symbolic significance.
Birds have always been a popular choice for tattoo subjects. Doves, in particular, appear very often in tattoo designs, thanks to both their graceful looks and the long history of symbolic meanings they hold.
What are doves?
First things first: let’s consider what we mean by the term ‘dove’.
Technically, there is no difference between a dove and a pigeon – in everyday speech, though, we tend to treat them as separate. Doves appear as symbols and are imbued with cultural and religious significance when in fact, a dove is just a small, white pigeon.
Turtle doves are commonly featured in tattoos. These are a separate species (European turtle dove, to be precise), though they still belong to the pigeon bird family. They’re characterized by their size, smaller than the common pigeon, and the distinctive markings on their necks.
The meaning of turtle dove tattoos is the same as any other kind of dove.
Doves in religion
Within the subject of religion, doves are most readily associated with Christianity. Perhaps most importantly, a dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit – an aspect or agent of God allowing people to become his messengers.
A dove with an olive branch in its beak is used to symbolize peace and safety in Christian scripture and iconography, beginning with the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and the story of Noah’s Ark.
According to this tale, Noah released a dove after the flood in order to find safe land. The dove came back carrying a fresh olive leaf, proving that land able to support life was close by.
This symbolic meaning of a dove and olive branch was not invented by Christianity, though – it originates in the Ancient Greek culture.
In Ancient Greek religious mythology, doves were associated with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. During Aphrodite’s main festival, the altars dedicated to her were ‘cleansed’ with the blood of a sacrificial dove. This later influenced Roman beliefs – Venus, the Roman equivalent to Aphrodite, also became associated with doves.
The association of doves with religion reaches even further back than Ancient Greece, though – Inanna-Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, sexuality, and war, was symbolized by a dove. The goddess herself was believed to sometimes appear in the form of a dove.
Doves as cultural and political symbols
Symbolically, doves most often represent pacifism. They often appear in the insignia and materials used by organizations and events that aim to promote world peace – for instance, The World Peace Council uses Picasso’s drawing of a dove as its emblem.
Classic white doves are also often used to represent true love – in recent years, the custom of releasing white doves at weddings has contributed to this notion. This idea likely comes from the Greek connection between the goddess of love and these birds.
Doves also appear in some military insignia, the best known of which is the crest of the Tactical Communications Wing of the Royal Air Force. The bird in the crest is in fact meant to be a rock dove – a type of bird most commonly used as a messenger pigeon.
Messenger, or homing, pigeons were used across many centuries to carry letters. They were used extensively during World War I (hence the Royal Air Force connection), though the history of using pigeons for communication goes back much further.
Dove tattoo meaning
The meanings associated with doves in tattoo art all draw on the spiritual and cultural significance of these birds. There are several possible symbolic meanings to dove tattoos, including:
- Peace – if peace is a value you find personally important, a dove tattoo can be a great way to express it. As we’ve already mentioned, doves have a long history of being used as symbols of pacifism. Because doves are not aggressive creatures and can live peacefully in large groups, they’re often considered symbolic of harmony.
- Love – there is a popular belief that doves mate for life – they find one partner and stay with them for the duration of their lifetime, building a family and taking care of their young together. While this is not strictly true of all species of pigeons, they do tend to bond for a long time. Interestingly, William Shakespeare used a turtle dove as a symbol of true love in one of his more obscure works, The Phoenix and the Turtle.
- Religion – as symbols of the Holy Spirit, doves make for popular Christian-themed tattoos.
- New beginnings – in reference to the dove in the Noah’s Ark biblical tale described above, doves are sometimes used in tattoos to represent searching for a new beginning, finding new opportunities, and starting anew after a difficult period in one’s life.
Overall, doves are exclusively positive symbols – there aren’t any negative associations in any major culture or religion. They therefore make for inoffensive tattoos that won’t be met with any controversy.
Popular dove tattoo designs
Owing to the popularity of doves in tattoo art, there is a lot of variety in how these birds can be represented in tattoo designs. Some of the most popular choices include:
- Dove and olive branch – a white dove carrying an olive branch in its beak (less commonly in its talons) is perhaps the most common way to represent this bird. As we’ve already touched on, this is a reference to the Christian Bible, but also to the preceding beliefs of Ancient Greece. The olive branch in itself is also a symbol of peace, mercy, and victory. This design can also signify a new beginning.
- Dove and key tattoo – in tattoo art, doves are often combined with keys in a single design. Most often, this involves the dove carrying one or more keys in its talons. The meaning of this type of design is highly complex – it tends to be very personal. The keys can signify freedom, or they can have the spiritual meaning of unlocking the gates of Heaven. For some, individual keys are meant to symbolize particular people or memories. As doves can be symbolic of true love, the key can also be understood in the context of a key to someone’s heart.
- Dove and flower tattoo – in larger tattoo designs, doves are often accompanied by flowers – typically roses. Visually, these two elements fit together really well, and symbolically they make a cohesive whole – signifying beauty, harmony, life, and love. This kind of design looks great both in color and all-black, depending on personal preference.
- Dove and writing tattoo – whether it’s the name of a loved one, one word symbolizing your guiding value, or a full sentence, writing is a great addition to a dove tattoo. The quote can be placed either freely alongside the bird. For a more creative approach, consider placing the writing on a ribbon held in the dove’s beak or talons.
- Dove and heart tattoo – if love is the primary meaning you wish your dove tattoo to express, consider adding a heart to highlight your design’s significance. Common designs of this type include a minimalistic outline of a dove appearing to carry a small heart in its beak, and a design of two doves facing each other, with a heart in the middle.
- Watercolor dove tattoo – the watercolor technique is a relatively new addition to tattoo art, and involves using bright colors in broad strokes to imitate the appearance of a watercolor painting. Consider this style for a colorful, bold, semi-abstract representation of a dove.
- Tribal dove tattoo – basic tribal tattoos involve creating images out of curved black lines, tapered to a point at both ends. They make for abstract, all-black designs suitable for almost any scale, from very small to full-back tattoos.
- Matching dove tattoos – small dove designs are a common choice for newlyweds – they symbolize both true love and new beginnings. Since most people wish for their matching tattoos to be identical, simple, minimalistic designs that are bound to end up looking the same on both people are the most popular choice.
Dove tattoo placement
Since doves make for such easily recognizable symbols, they can be scaled down to a truly miniscule size and still retain their meaning, remaining identifiable for what they are.
The smallest dove tattoos will be very simple, usually either just a basic black outline or a black-filled dove shape. They can be small enough to fit in even the tiniest of placements, such as behind the ear or on the finger.
Larger dove tattoos will look great just about anywhere – from your wrist to your shoulder and both upper and lower back. The top of the chest and the ankle are also popular placements for medium-sized dove tattoos.
The largest pieces will usually involve other elements, with the dove as part of a broader thematic tattoo – for instance a religious image. These will best be suited for your back, chest, or as a sleeve tattoo.