Second only to butterflies in terms of popularity as far as insect-themed tattoos go, dragonflies make for interesting, vibrant, and eye-catching designs.
A dragonfly may seem like an odd choice – perhaps because the symbolism associated with it is not widely known or immediately understood, particularly in Western culture. Dragonflies do hold a range of hidden meanings, though – in addition to looking great, dragonfly tattoos can help you express yourself and your values.
Dragonflies in different cultures
The name of the order of species to which dragonflies belong, ‘Odantes’, comes from the Greek word for ‘tooth’. This is because it was once believed that dragonflies have teeth (they don’t).
The English name, ‘dragonfly’, comes from the ancient belief that dragonflies were once dragons. Of course, this is just a myth: dragonflies have been around for millions of years and have remained virtually unchanged. The only difference between today’s dragonflies and those of eons ago is that they’ve become smaller.
With the exception of Antarctica, every continent is inhabited by some species of dragonfly. It’s therefore not surprising that the insect appears in most major cultures of the world. Dragonflies held the most significance in Japanese, Native American, and Medieval European cultures. They also appear in Buddhist cosmology, where they usually represent the joining of Heaven and Earth. This is likely because dragonflies live both in water (Earth) and in the air (Heaven).
Dragonflies in Japanese culture
Dragonflies are an important element of Japanese culture and appear often in Japanese art. In ancient times, Japan was known as ‘Akitsu shima’ – ‘Dragonfly’s Island’. The main reason for this is… rice. Rice fields, which are very wet, are the perfect environment for nymph-state dragonflies to live in. Since there were many rice fields in Japan, it followed that there was an uncommonly high number of dragonflies, too. Rice and dragonflies became inextricably connected in Japanese culture – and since rice is an important part of the culture, so are dragonflies!
Broadly speaking, the dragonfly represents power, victory, and agility in Japan. They are also associated particularly with autumn and summer. Interestingly, samurai kimonos often featured dragonfly designs. These were intended to show strength and authority.
Dragonflies in Native American culture
Although specific meanings of the dragonfly vary between tribes, in general these insects symbolize happiness, purity, and speed in Native American culture. They also represent change and transformation, likely because they start their lives in the water as nymphs before changing into the insect we recognize as the dragonfly.
There was a legend among Southwest Indian tribes that dragonflies would follow snakes and stitch them back together if they were injured. For this reason, dragonflies were referred to as ‘snake doctors’. Meanwhile, in Plains Indian cultures, dragonflies are associated with protection and invincibility – they often featured on war shirts and tepees as protection from danger and injury.
Dragonflies in Europe
Dragonflies had a tough go of it in Western Europe during the Dark Ages and the Medieval Era. They were associated with the devil and with hell. Known as ‘the Devil’s Needle’, they were believed to be sent by Lucifer to bring evil and chaos into the world. This resulted in massive numbers of these insects being killed.
During the period between the 13th and 17th centuries, there was a belief in Europe that dragonflies would grasp the souls of people dying in or near water. The myth went that once a dragonfly picked up a soul, it would weigh it to measure the proportions of good and evil. If the dragonfly found the soul to be mostly evil, it would report back to Lucifer in order to begin preparations for receiving the soul in hell.
Spiritual meanings of dragonflies
Dragonflies also have a place in spirituality – were they are most often perceived as symbols of change, especially a change in perspective towards personal growth. As such, they are associated with maturity and grace: maturity is required to accept change, and change should be accepted with grace and poise.
The dragonfly is considered to be one of the spirit animals, or spirit guides. As a spirit guide, the dragonfly is believed to enter your life when you start taking things too seriously – it reminds you to lighten your thoughts and change your perspective.
Dragonfly tattoo meanings
As you can see, the dragonfly as a symbol can mean a whole range of things. For most people, though, the meaning of their dragonfly tattoo is closest to the spiritual one: a reminder to be adaptable and joyful.
In tattoo art, dragonflies are also commonly used as a reference to living in the moment. Though vibrant and quick enough to be considered a symbol of invincibility in some cultures, dragonflies have very short lives. Not only that – only a small portion of their already short lives is spent in the flying form. They therefore serve as reminders to live while you can and make the most of every moment.
Ultimately, though, your dragonfly tattoo will mean whatever you want it to mean – these are just suggestions on how it can be understood as a symbol.
Dragonfly tattoo design ideas
Since dragonflies can symbolize adaptability, it’s fitting that as a design element, they’re also very adaptable – dragonflies will suit most tattoo styles in some form. Some design ideas involving dragonflies include:
- Japanese-style dragonfly tattoo – as we’ve already seen, dragonflies are a very important element of Japanese culture. Luckily for Japanese tattoo enthusiasts, this means that there is plenty of dragonfly-related Japanese art to take inspiration from. There, dragonflies mostly appear in simple outline form. They can be combined with other elements – for instance, a quote written in kanji (Japanese symbols). This will make the design appear fuller and more complete, while also highlighting its Japanese-inspired style.
- Dragonfly with cherry blossom tattoo – similar to the idea described above, this is a combination of two traditional Japanese art elements. Cherry blossoms are an important feature of Japanese culture, where they have a range of symbolic meanings. One of those is that of living in the moment and appreciating life, since cherry blossoms flower for only a short period and are very fragile. You’ll recognize this meaning as one similar to that of the dragonfly in certain cultures. This combination of elements in a tattoo makes for a cohesive and meaningful design – and visually fits in together really well. Like dragonflies, cherry blossoms are delicate, intricate and colorful.
- Dragonfly with a dreamcatcher tattoo – just as combining the dragonfly with cherry blossom results in a Japanese-themed tattoo, the combination with a dreamcatcher identifies the design as Native American-inspired. Dreamcatchers are hoops with a network of threads woven inside, decorated with feathers and beads. Their purpose was to act as talismans to protect a sleeping person from nightmares. In terms of coming up with a specific design, there are several ways in which a dreamcatcher could be combined with a dragonfly in a single tattoo. For instance, the pattern inside the dreamcatcher could include the shape of a dragonfly, or the dragonfly could be featured as one of the decorative beads on a large dreamcatcher.
- 3D dragonfly tattoo – the top choice in recent years where dragonfly tattoos are concerned. These are hyper-realistic dragonfly tattoos, either all-black or in vibrant color. To fully achieve the 3D effect, a realistic shadow of the dragonfly is included in the design. These look particularly appealing because with enough realism, the tattoo appears as if it’s a real dragonfly that perched on your skin. Interestingly, in Imperial China people believed that if a dragonfly landed on you, you could make a whispered wish to the heavens and the gods would hear it.
- Minimalistic dragonfly tattoo – the dragonfly is unique enough in its appearance that even restricted to a few simple lines in drawing, it’s still recognizable as a dragonfly. This makes it a great choice for a minimalistic tattoo, composed only of a simple black outline.
- Watercolor dragonfly tattoo – associated both with water and with vibrant colors, dragonflies are the obvious choice for a watercolor tattoo! Among the most popular designs in this style is a black dragonfly outline with messy watercolor fill, and a dragonfly on a colorful watercolor background.
- Tribal dragonfly tattoo – tribal tattoos never go out of style and blend well with a range of symbols and objects – dragonflies included. Combining the image of the dragonfly with a tribal style can take several forms and will be up to your creativity to figure out! One popular option is a design involving the outline of a dragonfly drawn in thick, curved lines coming to a pointy end – the distinguishing feature of the tribal style. Another design idea is to have a stylized dragonfly image with an abstract tribal pattern as background.
Dragonfly build and coloring references
Naturally, tattoos are a means of expression – with total freedom over how designs interpret symbols, images, and shapes. But if you’re considering a hyper-realistic tattoo, you may want to do some research on the different species of dragonflies and choose one you think will be most suitable as a reference for your realistic tattoo.
Every species of dragonfly has the same build: a thin, elongated body, large eyes, and two sets of wings. The wings are usually transparent, though can have colored patches or reflect light in a way that makes them appear colorful.
The body of a dragonfly can be virtually any color, depending on the species – and there’s over 3,000 of those! If you’re after a specific color and total realism, check out this list of colorful species you can use as reference for your design:
- Black – the Onychargia atrocyana species is all black and has a particularly thin body that looks a bit like a bamboo stick. This is a common choice of reference for both black 3D tattoos and stylized designs
- Grey – the Lestes dissimulans species makes a great realistic reference for grey-colored tattoos.
- White – the Platycnemis pennipes species is an off-white, slightly beige color.
- Yellow – the Gomphus flavipes species has an interesting yellow and black pattern all along its body.
- Orange – the Enallagma signatum species has an orange and brown striped pattern.
- Red – the Trithemis arteriosa species is all-red, including the eyes and a red tint on the semi-transparent wings.
- Pink – the Orthemis discolor species has a relatively short body for a dragonfly, in a bright pink color. The wings are broader than in most other species.
- Purple – the Argia fumipennis species is bright purple with some black accents.
- Blue – the Rhyothemis resplendens species is a vivid blue. Interestingly, it’s relatively broad wings are also brightly colored, in reflective blue with black accents and transparent tips.
- Green – the Erythemis simplicicollis species is mostly leaf-green.
- Brown – the Boyeria vinosa species is brown with an intricate beige and black pattern.
If you’re after the ultimate level of realism in your dragonfly tattoo, looking up these species will provide you with plenty of reference images.
Dragonfly tattoo placements
A dragonfly tattoo can be done virtually anywhere on the body – even in areas as small as the side of the finger or the earlobe. Naturally, only the smallest and most minimalistic designs will suit such limited areas. More complex and intricate tattoos will require a larger space: how large is entirely up to you. There are even some full-back dragonfly tattoos out there! The thin, elongated shape of the dragonfly’s body makes it a perfect choice for a spine tattoo.
When thinking about the best placement for your dragonfly tattoo, consider whether you might need to conceal it. Though tattoos are relatively socially acceptable in most Western cultures, there may still be situations where you’d rather you tattoo didn’t show. If you think this may be the case, consider placements such as your back, shoulder, stomach, or thigh. These places are usually covered up even by casual clothing.
Another important thing to note is that the placement of 3D dragonfly tattoos can make or break the realism of the tattoo. If you’re going for the hyper-realistic ‘dragonfly perching on your skin’ look, consider where it would make the most sense and look most convincing. The top of the shoulder is one of the most popular placement choices for this type of tattoo. It can also look great on the top of your hand or on your forearm.
For tattoos that are both small and highly intricate, remember that it may be necessary to go in for a touch-up every now and again. The thin lines may become blurred and distorted, particularly if they are close together. Your chosen tattoo artist will be able to advise you whether the design and placement you’re considering will make for a lasting and easy-maintenance tattoo.
Dragonflies make for awesome-looking designs that are also rich in symbolic and spiritual meaning. They’re suitable for a whole range of styles and placements, so you’re bound to find a dragonfly design to suit your expectations! Have a browse through our huge gallery of dragonfly tattoo designs below for ideas and inspiration.