Majestic and impressive, the deer is known as the king of the forest. This glorious animal is a popular choice for tattoo designs. In fact, deer tattoos have been going through something of a revival over the past few years, increasing in popularity as key elements in contemporary styles such as geometric and dotted tattoos.
Deer as a cultural symbol
Deer feature prominently in the mythologies and beliefs of a number of cultures. The impressive stature and appearance of this animal is bound to have something to do with it, as is the fact that throughout the entire history of humanity, deer have been living alongside us.
In many cultures, the deer is a symbol of spiritual superiority. This is likely due to the way in which the stag’s antlers grow beyond its body, reaching into the sky and evoking notions of being closer to the heavens.
In Native American culture, the deer was believed to be a messenger and a representation of power, fertility, sensitivity, gentleness, and intuition.
Deer hold high significance in Buddhism, due to the belief that Buddha was a golden deer in one of his former lives – spreading his wisdom in the animal form through talking to people. Perhaps for this reason, in several Tibetan legends deer appear to help people solve problems. Since deer are believed to be calm and timid animals, their presence is supposed to indicate purity and safety.
In Celtic culture, the meaning of deer was two-fold, split between the feminine and the masculine elements. The feminine, a female red deer known as Eilid, was believed to have the ability of taking on the appearance of a human woman in order to lead people out of this realm and into the world of magic. The masculine stag known as Damh was symbolic of independence, purification, and pride.
The meaning of deer tattoos
Apart from the meanings flowing form the myths, legends, and beliefs described above, deer have a set of general meanings in Western cultures and in tattoo art.
There’s an important distinction to be made between does and stags. Doe tattoos generally represent kindness, gentleness, and motherhood. Stag tattoo meanings, meanwhile, are those of strength and fertility.
Other associations with the general image of a deer in tattoos include nobility, peace, intelligence, and serenity. Regeneration is also a major symbolic meaning of the deer. This is because deer shed their antlers every year, only to grow them anew and drop them again next year, and so on. Interestingly, each year the antlers grow back slightly bigger than they had been the previous year, which can carry the metaphorical meaning of self-improvement with age.
Popular deer tattoo designs
There are practically no limits to how creative you could get with a deer tattoo design. Consider the following ideas for inspiration:
- Tribal deer tattoo – as we’ve already touched on above, deer held a significant role in various cultures, including tribal traditions. Images of deer woven from tribal patterns not only look great, but also pay homage to the cultural history of this animal in tribal contexts. The tribal patterns themselves often have a spiritual significance, so combining them with a powerful spiritual symbol such as the deer is a great way to highlight the meaning of your tattoo.
- Traditional style deer tattoo – the traditional style of tattooing involves bold black outlines and vibrant, flat colors. Deer images of various levels of realism can be rendered using this style.
- Geometric deer tattoo – a more modern take on tattoo styles, geometric tattoos rely on the use of symmetry, straight lines, and geometric shapes to create images and designs, and they’re usually done in black ink only. Many geometric tattoos are based in the notions of sacred geometry – ascribing spiritual meanings to certain shapes and proportions. Since the deer is a sacred animal in many cultures and has a strong spiritual significance, the use of this style can underline the meaning of the tattoo.
- Doe tattoo – if gentleness and kindness are the virtues you want your deer tattoo to focus on, a doe tattoo could be the perfect choice. Does look different to stags in that they are smaller and lighter in color, and do not have antlers. Does are often drawn with proportionately large eyes, which invoke a feeling of gentleness and timidity.
- Deer skull and antlers tattoo – although the skull might make us immediately think of death and demise, this design is actually usually intended to represent strength, fertility, and virility. In the Celtic tradition, there was a Pagan deity known as Cernunnos whose task it was to protect the forest. Cernunnos was believed to be a man wearing a deer skull with antlers on his head, and was the god of lust and fertility. Many old European cities and bloodlines adopted the image of antlers into their coats of arms to symbolise just that – strength and fertility. In tattoo art, this design is often done in a 3D or at least relatively realistic style, and usually in black ink.
Deer tattoo sizing and placements
Deer tattoo designs are likely to be sized from medium to large, since a relatively high level of detail is required to render the animal properly. As such, most deer tattoos will be best suited for larger areas of the body, such as arms, legs, or thighs.
Though not seen very often, minimalistic deer tattoos are also an option. A black outline of a deer or a schematic drawing of the animal can make for a great-looking smaller tattoo with an elegant, simple look. These can be placed just about anywhere, though common choices of placement include the back of the neck, shoulder, ankle, ribs, and the top of the hand.
As with any tattoo, the amount of detail involved in a design is going to be an indication of how large it’s going to be. Intricate tattoos can’t be scaled down to very small sizes without losing some of the detail – and without compromising the longevity of the tattoo, as small tattoos with too much detail don’t tend to age well and require touch-ups.
Talk through your ideas to a professional tattoo artist and you’re bound to find the perfect design for you.