Octopuses make for truly unique tattoos, with plenty of flexibility and scope for creativity in design and placement.
If you’re looking to find out more about the meaning of octopus tattoos and explore some great octopus tattoo ideas, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ve also got a massive gallery of octopus tattoos to guide and inspire you as you plan your next piece of gorgeous body art!
Octopus tattoo meaning
The octopus is not immediately clear as a symbol. While for most people, it’s obvious that a lion stands for strength and a fox for cleverness, for instance, the octopus presents much more of a challenge.
Perhaps fittingly, then, one of the key symbolic meanings of the octopus is that of mystery.
Part of the reason behind this association is sure to be the fact that they live at the bottom of the sea – a space few of us will ever see first-hand.
Much of the Earth’s oceans remain completely unexplored, and we tend to associate anything that lives far in beneath the waves with being elusive and enigmatic.
This must have been all the more true hundreds of years ago, when even less was known about underwater creatures.
Another reason why we think of octopuses as mysterious is that they’re so completely different from us and the creatures with which we’re familiar.
They have eight arms (sometimes called tentacles, though apparently this is technically an inaccuracy), three hearts, blue heart, and camouflaging skin. Not exactly what we’re used to here on firm ground.
An octopus tattoo, then, can express a fascination with the unknown and mysterious. It can mean a drive towards learning and exploration, or simply a liking for the enigmatic and unexplored.
Speaking of mysteries and legends, there is a mythical octopus-like creature known as the Kraken. In Scandinavian folklore, this legendary giant octopus dwelled in the waters off the coast of Norway and Greenland, terrorizing sailors with the threat of pulling their ships under the waves.
It’s now thought that the myth of the Kraken originated with sightings of giant squids – cephalopods that really exist, and grow to even 15 meters (50 feet). Of course, we know the Kraken to be nothing more than a legend, but for centuries the Kraken was a very real part of sailors’ superstitions.
Tattoos of the Kraken, usually seen with its arms wrapped around a ship, are still a popular choice and evoke notions of mystery, legend, and the unknown.
Most octopuses have no skeletons or protective shells – their bodies are soft and squishy. This enables them to squeeze through cracks and holes that look way too small for them.
They also developed some impressive offensive and defensive techniques to hunt and to elude predators, respectively. Many octopuses have venomous saliva, and most are able to shoot out a burst of dark ink when threatened, to confuse an attacker.
These characteristics have led to octopuses being symbolic of adaptability. An octopus tattoo can mean that you consider yourself adaptable, tough, and able to come up with useful coping mechanisms – or that you think of these values as important in general.
Though they might not look it, octopuses are strong creatures, able to withstand extensive damage and survive. They are symbolic of resilience partly because they live in an environment that we, humans, couldn’t dream of surviving for any length of time.
Interestingly, octopuses are able to regrow a lost arm – so even when their strength and their defensive mechanisms fail them, they can overcome even major injuries.
In this context, an octopus tattoo can mean the ability to overcome obstacles and setbacks.
As we’ve already found out, octopuses are large creatures capable of squeezing through the smallest cracks. When they push themselves through a small opening, it looks as if they are ‘pouring out’ – expanding in a seemingly impossible way.
Combined with their ability to regrow lost limbs, this gives rise to the association between octopuses and growth.
Octopuses often feature in the art of the Minoan civilization – inhabiting Crete and other Aegean islands during the Bronze Age. Octopuses appeared on Minoan bowls and vases, which usually depicted these creatures unfurling their arms. It’s believed that to the Minoans, this was a symbol of growth and the expansion of the universe.
A tattoo featuring an unfurling octopus can mean growth in any sense, but since tattoos are highly individual and a means of self-expression, this is likely to be personal growth.
Octopuses have eight long arms, each capable of doing a different thing independent of the rest. This means that while one arm of the octopus is busy, say, cracking open a shell, another could be simultaneously feeling the ocean floor for more food.
This led to the usually negative association between octopuses and control. The long arms extending in different directions, doing different things, from one central point suggest the idea of an entity or organization surreptitiously exerting influence and control over others.
Octopus tattoo ideas
There are plenty of options to choose from when planning an octopus tattoo. In addition to some of the most popular octopus designs are described below, it’s always worth discussing your ideas with a tattoo artist to create a suitable, unique tattoo.
3D octopus tattoo
Though 3D tattoos are a relatively recent trend, they shot to popularity with astounding speed. Experienced tattoo artists use careful shading to create the illusion of depth and perspective, aiming for full photo-realism.
Looking great both in color and in grayscale, 3D octopus tattoos will require a fair amount of space to be rendered correctly. This is a tough tattoo to get right and a complex bit of work for the artist, so the larger the space they have to work with, the easier it will be to tattoo the design accurately.
It’s always important to exert care and caution when choosing a tattooist, but 3D tattoos are particularly difficult. Even a small mistake will likely diminish the visual illusion effect and will be difficult to put right. Try to find tattoo artists with proven experience in this style, preferably with at least several 3D tattoos in their portfolio.
Tribal octopus tattoo
Tribal tattoos are going through something of a revival currently, with more intricate designs inspired directly by the tattoos of various tribal cultures.
Octopuses appear often in the legends and mythology of Polynesian tribes, usually in reference to migration, commerce, and family connections. One tale has an octopus unifying Polynesia, connecting the farthest reaches of the Polynesian triangle with its long arms.
Tribal tattoos are highly customizable in terms of meaning. Ideas are expressed not only through the object being depicted by the tattoo – in this case, an octopus – but also through the patterns and symbols used in the design.
For instance, in Polynesian tattoos, a linear pattern of interlocking spearheads represents strength and courage, while a line of shark teeth symbolizes protection and adaptability.
Tribal designs are a common choice for octopus shoulder tattoos. The reason behind this is that the top of the shoulder and upper arm constitute a popular location for tribal tattoos in general, since the curvature of this space compliments the flow of the designs.
Black octopus tattoo
With a modern, sophisticated look, this type of design involves a detailed outline of a relatively realistic-looking octopus. The outline is done in black ink, with lines of varying thickness, making it appear somewhat similar to a Victorian-era sketch.
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This design is suitable for tattoos ranging in size from fairly small to large, with advantages to both. When scaled up to a large size, the lack of a color fill prevents the tattoo from becoming too overwhelming, enabling even a big tattoo to look modern and minimal.
When rendered on a small space, the outline-only technique results in a clearer design, immediately recognizable as an octopus.
Watercolor octopus tattoo
Watercolor tattoos aim to mimic the look of watercolor paintings, often complemented by a black outline for definition. The result is an interesting fusion between realism and abstraction, with vivid colors and a ‘light’ look.
The specific color scheme will need to be decided between you and the tattoo artist, though in general, bright colors work best for the watercolor technique. Light, gentle tones might make the tattoo appear faded and, from a purely practical standpoint, might not age as well as clear, vivid colors.
Octopus and anchor tattoo
The octopus and the anchor are an obvious pairing – we associate both with sailing and with the depths of the sea. Often, this combination of elements is the result of purely aesthetic choices. In most of these designs, the arms of the octopus are wrapped around the anchor.
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In terms of meaning, the anchor is generally a symbol of a steadfast, stable person, true to their values and confident in their self-image. It can also represent safety, since its function in sailing is to prevent the ship from being swept up by the sea.
As we’ve already discussed, the Kraken is a monster of Scandinavian myth, threatening to drag ships to the bottom of the sea.
Since the Kraken is meant to look indistinguishable from an octopus, it’s necessary to include other elements for scale in this design. This way, the true size of the Kraken will be distinguishable by comparison.
A full-rigged ship is one of the best choices, with the Kraken either wrapping its arms around it, or lying in wait under the surface of the water, below the vessel.
Since this makes for a fairly complex, intricate design – even when done in the outline-only style – a suitably large placement will be needed. Your back, ribs, chest, or thigh will be among the best options.
Cartoon octopus tattoo
For a light-hearted look, choose a cartoon-style octopus design. Usually done in the traditional tattoo style – black outline and solid color fill – this will be a friendlier rendition of the sea creature that’s not particularly cute when shown realistically.
One major advantage of this idea is scalability – the design will be much simpler and less intricate than realistic octopus tattoos, and can therefore fit in a much smaller space – such as behind your ear or on the back of your neck.
Octopus arm tattoo
Why not get a tattoo of an octopus’ arm on your… arm? With an ironic, amusing feel, this design involves tattooing an octopus’ arm down the length of a person’s arm, either as part of a larger sleeve tattoo or on its own.
Some people opt for the arm only, while others extend the tattoo to their back, where the rest of the octopus is depicted.
Octopus tattoo placement
The general rule of thumb with tattoo placements is that the more detailed the design, the larger the space required. This is because when planning a tattoo, we need to take into account not only how it will look immediately after inking, but also how it will age.
When intricate designs are scaled down to a size that’s too small, individual lines end up running too close together. With time, tattoos lose some of their crispness and definition, and lines begin to blur slightly. When they’re in close proximity to each other, they might end up blending into one, distorting the image.
For large octopus designs, then, consider bigger placements – such as the back, chest, stomach, ribs, or thigh. Depending on the design itself, it might also work as a sleeve or half-sleeve tattoo.
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Medium designs can be placed on the shoulder, arm, calf, and in some cases the back of the neck – so long as you don’t mind the tattoo wrapping around the neck a bit on either side or extending partly onto the top of the back.
Popular placements for small octopus tattoos, meanwhile, include the wrist, foot, and – for the smallest designs – the side of the finger or the space behind the ear. Keep in mind that in order to fit in such small spaces, the design will have to be truly minimalistic.
Violet Octopus with Green Tentacles
Tribal Octopus on Half Back Tattoo
Skull with Octopus Tentacles Tattoo
Octopus with Ship Tattoo