For creatures that don’t exist, dragons sure get a lot of attention. These legendary creatures have fascinated humanity since times (nearly) immemorial.
In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about dragons as tattoo designs. From the symbolism and meanings behind dragons as viewed by different cultures, through the history of the dragon as a symbol, to the most popular dragon tattoo designs.
We also have a huge hand-picked gallery of dragon tattoos for you to browse – don’t forget to check it out!
Dragons in different cultures
In order to fully explore the meaning of dragon tattoos, it’s necessary to consider dragons through the prisms of different cultures. This is because as a symbol, the dragon does not have a singular, universal set of meanings.
In fact, various mythologies and cultural contexts have associated entirely opposite concepts with dragons – so while they may signify benevolence and protection in one culture, they can be the embodiment of pure evil in another.
And there have been countless appearances of dragons in just about every mythology in the world, so understandably the dragon as a symbol has become incredibly complex.
If you’re particularly drawn to a certain meaning that the dragon may be symbolic of in a specific culture, consider adopting a matching aesthetic for your tattoo to underline this connection with its context.
For instance, if the Chinese interpretation of the dragon symbol is what you’d like your tattoo to express, getting a distinctly Chinese-style design or complimenting the dragon with other appropriate, typically Chinese symbols can help to convey the intended meaning.
Origins of dragon myths
The history of dragon-like creatures in legends and myths reaches ancient Mesopotamia. These ‘early’ dragons were most often giant serpents, often able to fly and breathe fire. Many were ferocious, fearsome creatures, and some were attendants to the gods – such as the Mesopotamian mushussu dragon.
Ancient Egypt also had its dragon-like beings – for example Apep, the giant serpent that was considered to be the enemy of Ra, the sun god. Apep was an evil deity associated with the underworld, chaos, and destruction.
There’s no single, agreed upon explanation as to where the idea of dragons came from, and how come it appeared in so many cultures. One of the most convincing theories is that dragon myths originate in the discovery of dinosaur remains.
Stumbling upon dinosaur fossils must have been incredibly confusing for our ancestors, and it makes sense that this would give rise to fantastic legends and tales of huge, fearsome creatures.
Dragons in Chinese culture
The dragons appearing in Chinese mythology and art are highly distinctive in appearance. They have elongated, serpentine bodies, no wings, and four short, clawed legs. In a way, they are a combination of the features of several other creatures: snake (body), deer (antlers), eagle (talons), tiger (soles), carp (scales), and demon (eyes).
The traditional Chinese dragon is said to have exactly 117 scales and is usually depicted with four toes.
In Chinese culture, the dragon is a positive symbol and Chinese mythology generally portrays them as benevolent and kind creatures. Therefore, the Chinese dragon tattoo meaning is that of power, luck, and wisdom. Dragons are also seen as protectors, so another meaning to this tattoo could be as a good luck or protective charm.
The serpentine Chinese dragons feature heavily in Chinese art, architecture, and embroidery – and are a highly popular choice of dragon tattoo design.
They are often depicted against a backdrop of clouds – despite having no wings, they can fly. Sometimes, traditional Chinese art depicts dragons holding a flaming pearl – this is a mythical object believed to grant the dragon its power to ascend into heaven.
In Chinese mythology, there is the legend of the Dragon Kings – five powerful deities that controlled rain and water. They lived in crystal palaces under the sea, which could only be reached through secret entrances.
Four of the Dragon Kings were positioned at cardinal directions – North, South, East, and West – while the fifth, chief Dragon King lived in the middle.
Dragons in Europe
In general, European stories and imagery relating to dragons portrayed them as evil, violent creatures. Armed with huge teeth and talons and often able to breathe fire, in European myths dragons usually had to be defeated to reach treasure – either in the literal sense (gold) or metaphorical (wisdom).
In terms of appearance, the details about the dragon varied between mythologies of different countries. In England, for instance, they took on the appearance of wyverns – fire-breathing creatures with leathery wings – while in Germany they resembled giant serpents, not unlike the Eastern view of the dragon. In some regions/legends, dragons had more than one head.
Although European mythologies take a negative view of dragons, the idea of them acting as guardians persists – while in the East they were guardians of humanity and peace, in the West they are guardians of material and intellectual goods.
Many of the greatest heroes in European mythologies had to kill a dragon, either by force of strength or through cunning, to complete their various quests. Dragons were often mysterious creatures living in far-off, hard to reach locations.
As fierce, dangerous creatures, European dragons are also undeniably symbolic of strength and power, even if it’s tinted with a hint of evil. In this context, then, a dragon tattoo would represent ideas related to mystery, strength, and darkness. They can also stand for overcoming challenges and for bravery.
Dragons in Christianity
Part of the reason behind the depiction of dragons as evil and malicious in Europe is the influence of religion.
Although the Bible does not specifically reference dragons, it does mention creatures that match them in description.
The serpentine qualities of the dragon are what links it to ideas of the Devil and sin – the dragon’s appearance is reminiscent of the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve.
To early Christians, dragons were pagan symbols – they predated Christianity and were therefore more likely to be seen in a negative light. This ‘pagan’ quality contributed to the conflation of dragons with the devil.
In Christian religious iconography many saints have been depicted as slaying dragons to overcome sin and eradicate evil.
Eastern dragons vs Western dragons
The different ideas about dragons exemplified by the Chinese mythology and European legends are symptomatic of a broader trend. In general, in the East dragons are seen as benevolent, wise protectors, while in the West they’re associated with violence, ferocity, and often evil.
This doesn’t mean that getting a tattoo with a Western-looking dragon (less serpentine, leathery wings, breathing fire, etc.) necessarily relates to evil and darkness – although it can’t be denied these creatures are powerful gothic symbols. Nowadays, dragons in the West are associated more with power and mystery than with the forces of evil.
Dragons in popular culture
This brings us to the present day and the way in which dragons appear in modern popular culture. Most often, they are depicted in the Western style – think of the dragons in the Harry Potter series, for instance.
In modern fantasy, dragons are often either immortal or at least have very long life-spans. This lends them the quality of wisdom – we presume that since they’ve been around for so long, they must have learned more about this world than we can in our short lives.
Tattoos of modern representations of dragons can mean a number of things. Firstly, they are often purely decorative – it can’t be denied that a dragon poses a striking image. Let’s face it: dragon tattoos are cool. Sometimes cliché, but still cool.
Secondly, they are commonly symbolic of a powerful, unstoppable force. As such, they can mean concepts related to strength and magic.
Lastly, dragon tattoos can be an expression of the person’s affinity for the fantasy genre. That’s were dragons appear most often in popular culture and they are largely symbolic of fantasy, alongside magic and other mythical creatures.
Popular dragon tattoo designs
Since dragons have been a part of just about every culture for hundreds of years, there’s plenty of visual inspiration to pick from when considering the type of tattoo to get.
Some of the most popular choices include:
- Tribal dragon tattoo – a true classic. The tribal style – with patterns made of spiky, curved lines – hit the height of popularity in the 90s, and though it’s being gradually replaced with more complex tribal designs, it’s still a viable option. This is a good choice if you’re looking for a relatively small, all-black tattoo.
- 3D dragon tattoo – the 3D style relies on the careful use of shading to create photo-realistic tattoos. Naturally there are no actual photos of dragons to use as reference, but fantasy art – both from media franchises (see below) and individual artists – are more than up to the job. With 3D tattoos, especially of something as complex as a dragon, you should expect the design to be relatively large in order to reflect all the necessary details. It’s also important to choose the right tattoo artist – this style is incredibly hard to get right, and it has to be right – otherwise it’ll just look odd. So it’s best to go for artists that have proven experience in tattooing in 3D.
- Japanese dragon tattoo – Japanese tattoos are highly distinctive in style, using bright colors and large designs to create a unique aesthetic. Japanese dragons are almost the same in appearance as the Chinese dragon described above, and their meaning in Japanese culture is also similar – that of power, luck, longevity, and wisdom. Japanese tattoo designs tend to be very complex and large, and are best suited for full-back or sleeve tattoos.
- Dragon and tiger tattoo – a popular combination in Chinese tattoo art, these two creatures are both ferocious and powerful. In this context, the dragon usually represents wisdom, and the tiger represents physical strength. Some people interpret this design as symbolic of the struggle between the mind (dragon) and the body (tiger). The yin and yang symbol sometimes appears as background in this type of design. The yin and yang symbolizes balance, and the idea of contradictory forces eternally complimenting and completing each other, unable to exist without their opposite.
- Dragon breathing fire tattoo – this design looks best in the 3D style, making for a truly impressive piece of art. A large area of the body will be needed to hold this design, since there’s a lot of detail involved and the image won’t truly reach its full potential unless it’s big. A dark background is recommended, in order to lend contrast to the fire and make it appear bright in comparison. It’s also worth keeping in mind that traditionally, the oriental (Eastern) serpent-like dragon does not typically breathe fire – the winged, Western take on the creature will work best for this design.
- Dragon franchise fan tattoo – fans of the fantasy genre often opt for dragon tattoos that draw on specific dragons in their favorite works. Examples of books and films involving dragons include Harry Potter, Eragon, and for a more light-hearted option, How to Train Your Dragon. Games are a great source of inspiration, too – from the tabletop Dungeons and Dragons and its artwork to concept art in video games such as Skyrim, Dragon Age, or Dragon’s Dogma.
Dragon tattoo placements
Most dragon tattoos will be at least medium in size, since this creature makes for a complex and detailed image.
A dragon arm tattoo is one of the most popular options – and there’s an interesting connection between the meaning of the tattoo itself and the meaning of the placement. The arms are usually associated with strength and power, just like dragons.
Dragons are one of the top all-time favorites where it comes to tattoo art. The fascinating, complex symbolism of the dragon as a symbol, combined with the fact that the designs almost always look impressive, make the dragon tattoo a perfect choice for just about everyone.
For more inspiration, check out our gallery below – and let us know your favorites in the comments section!