From the 15th century work Le Morte d’Arthur to Disney’s depiction of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, fairies have been present in our literature and popular culture for a long time. It’s therefore hardly surprising that they’ve found their way into tattoo designs, too!
This article explores fairies as subjects for tattoo art – we’re going to take a brief look at what fairies are in mythology and folklore, how they are represented in fairy tattoo designs, and their symbolic meaning.
What are fairies?
The word ‘fairy’ comes from faierie in Old French, which in turn was derived from Latin. In Old French romance, a faie or fee was a word used to describe a woman with magical skills.
Fairies have appeared in local folklore, particularly in European countries, virtually since times immemorial. Although they take on different roles, characteristics, and appearances across cultures and history, generally they are known to be human-like magical beings with powers and knowledge beyond ours.
In modern culture, fairies are generally represented as miniature humans, usually slim women, endowed with butterfly-like wings that highlight their magical nature.
Fairies in folklore
German, Slavic, Celtic, English, and French folklores are rich in tales of fairies – usually as supernatural spirits. They’ve been ascribed with various characteristics, often contradictory – for instance, where in one culture they may be helpful magical guides, in another they were greatly feared.
One of the common features of fairies across cultures has been their intelligence, wit, and penchant for trickery and light-heartedness.
In some areas, fairies were believed to use these abilities and talents for good. They would guide lost travelers, clean households, sometimes even lead people to treasures or share their mystical knowledge. Some fairies were able to cast lucky charms on people, granting wishes or prosperity.
On the other hand, some legends tell of fairies that were downright dangerous. They would mislead travelers and lure them into bogs, bring disease and chaos, steal household items, and even take babies from cradles.
This negative aspect to fairy legends has now been largely forgotten – we tend to think of fairies as friendly, amusing, helpful little creatures that use their magic for good.
Fairies in modern popular culture
Many of today’s fairy tattoos draw on representations of these creatures in pop culture, all of which are associated with all things positive. Popular characters such as the Fairy Godmother, Tinkerbell, or Thumbelina all have highly positive associations of cheerfulness, happiness, and wishes magically coming true.
Fairies in modern pop culture are most closely associated with helpfulness. They are either helpful of their own initiative, or they serve (help) another key character in achieving that character’s aim. Even in darker productions, their primary aim is to help – for instance in the Spanish horror film Pan’s Labyrinth.
Fairy tattoo meaning
As we’ve seen, fairies as symbols have complex origins and often downright contradictory meanings. What could a fairy tattoo mean, then?
Although the fairies of Old European folklore were represented as both female and male, the modern take on fairies almost always depicts them as clearly female.
Additionally, fairies are always seen to be helping young women in fairy-tales (not coincidental!), stories for children and Disney films.
For these reasons, tattoos of fairies often carry meanings of femininity and feminine energy in general.
Wishes and desires
Fairies in both some folklore elements and modern fantasy stories are often seen helping humans to achieve their dreams and/or magically making their wishes come true.
Hence, fairy tattoos can mean the fulfillment of wishes and desires. As such, these tattoos can either serve as a reminder of a dream that came true or signify a good luck charm and the hopes of achieving one’s wishes.
In the modern version, fairies are nimble, graceful, and beautiful. This ties in to some extent with their associations with femininity. Fairy tattoos, then, can signify beauty and visual appeal.
Fairies draw on their magical powers and knowledge to make our wishes come true. A fairy tattoo can mean a belief – or the wish for a belief – in magic, the supernatural, or simply something beyond our rational understanding of the world.
There’s an appeal in believing in something more than our senses let us perceive, and a fairy tattoo can be an expression of this belief in the extraordinary and magical.
Although this is not always the case with modern representations of fairies, in folklore tales these little creatures were often known to be playful and mischievous, either in an innocent or a more sinister way. They would often play little tricks on humans.
A fairy tattoo can be an expression of the playful side of your personality, of not taking everything too seriously, and of being easy-going and always up for a laugh.
Popular fairy tattoo designs
One of the greatest things about fairy tattoos is the amount of creative freedom that you and your tattoo artist have where it comes to coming up with a design. This concept works great in bold colors and in all black, small and large, complex and simple.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, consider the following popular choices of fairy tattoo design.
Watercolor fairy tattoo
Watercolor tattoos use gentle strokes of color meant to resemble watercolor paintings. They’re a trend that emerged around a decade ago and has gained in popularity in recent years. Making for striking, feminine tattoos best suited for lots of color, this style is a great choice for fairy tattoos. Either the entire tattoo is done in the mild colorful strokes, or it’s complimented with a black outline with the watercolor acting as the fill.
Butterfly fairy tattoo
Particularly popular in the last couple of years, this design involves a fairy with the wings of a butterfly. There are various takes on this idea – for instance, a colorful set of a butterfly’s wings with the ballerina-like, outline-only figure of the fairy.
These designs work best in high color, with a lot of contrast. Watercolor-style coloring is a great option, combined and contrasted with black sketch outlines.
Fairy and flowers tattoo
Among other things, fairies are closely associated with nature – they were believed to dwell in forests or under lakes, in wild areas that humans haven’t explored. As such, it makes perfect sense to combine a fairy with flowers in a single tattoo design.
Color works to this design’s advantage, too – flowers are generally colorful, as are a fairy’s wings, so this gives the artist plenty of scope for creating eye-catching palettes. The flower you choose for your design can add further meaning to the tattoo, as well, since certain flowers have specific symbolic meanings associated with them in tattoo art.
Fairy and stars tattoo
Stars are complex and powerful symbols that can greatly enhance both the look and the meaning of your fairy tattoo.
Interestingly, fairies share a lot of the same symbolic meaning with stars – for instance, associations with magic and the supernatural, with wishes and desires (think about ‘wishing upon a star’, for instance), and with the mysterious and unknown.
To find out more about specific star shapes and their meanings in tattoo art, check out our article on the subject.
Gothic fairy tattoo
Fairies have their place within the gothic aesthetic, since the subculture is generally rich in references to folk tales, mythology, and the supernatural realm.
Gothic-style fairy tattoos are usually done in all black, often involving tree branches or the moon for added complexity and symbolism.
Gothic fairies can be tattooed either in an ‘innocent’ aesthetic – relating primarily to magic – or with a more sinister take, suggesting trickery and mischief.
Pop culture fairy tattoo
Fairy tattoo designs that are literal depictions of popular characters such as Tinkerbell or Thumbelina are another great choice.
These characters are highly distinctive, and thanks to them being hand-drawn in the first place, easy to translate into a tattoo design. The resulting tattoo will usually therefore be in the traditional style – involving a thin black outline and solid colors for the fill, with little shading.
Minimalistic fairy tattoo
For a more discrete option, consider an all-black, small fairy tattoo in the minimalist style. This type of design will typically be either a solid black design in the shape of a fairy – kind of like a shadow – or, for an even simpler tattoo, the basic outline only.
A minimalistic fairy design would be the best choice for someone looking for a tattoo that’s as small as possible. By removing most of the detail, the coloring, and the shading, we end up with a design that can fit in a smaller space than the others without sacrificing meaning or quality.
A fairy tattoo is a great choice for anyone looking for a playful design that can either be innocent or more suggestive, and that expresses a lot of personal meaning – all while looking awesome and eye-catching.
Our gallery includes examples of all of the types of fairy tattoo designs described above, and much more. Happy browsing and let us know your favorites in the comment section below!