Today’s tattoo guide focuses on a creature as beautiful as it is terrifying: the wolf.
In the article below you’ll find information on the meaning of wolf tattoos, the place these animals have occupied in various cultures and mythologies, and plenty of tattoo design and style ideas – with some fascinating wolf trivia thrown in!
Meaning of wolf tattoos
Just like any other symbol, a wolf can have a wide array of meanings when incorporated into a tattoo design. The main thing to keep in mind is that your wolf tattoo meaning is exactly that: yours. A wolf in your tattoo can mean anything you intend it to.
Generally, though, there are some notions and concepts strongly associated with these animals.
Loyalty and family
The primary meaning of wolves is that of loyalty. Wolves tend to live in packs – groups, usually families. A female and male wolf mate for life, which means that once they become a pair, they stay together until death. Their children stay with them for a remarkably long time compared to many other representatives of the animal kingdom.
Members of a wolf pack look after each other, sometimes even to the point of an individual wolf sacrificing their life to save the rest of the group. They provide food for each other, hunt together, live in close quarters, and share the territory. When there are wolf cubs in the group, the whole pack looks after them and helps to raise them.
It’s due to this behavior that we’ve come to associate wolves with loyalty, friendship, and family. A wolf tattoo could therefore symbolize the importance of family or friendship ties and the high significance our loved ones hold in our lives.
This may seem contradictory to the above meaning, but wolves are also often associated with independence and acting alone. This idea comes from the concept of a lone wolf. While wolves are generally pack animals, sometimes individual wolves are left behind – either because the rest of the group hasn’t survived or because they’ve been excluded from their pack for some reason.
In popular parlance, a person can sometimes be described as a ‘lone wolf’. This means that they tend to prefer being and doing most things alone, that they’re independent and apparently don’t need the support of a group to live a satisfactory life or accomplish goals. A wolf tattoo could, therefore, mean that you consider yourself completely self-sufficient.
This one’s fairly self-explanatory: wolves are strong, fierce animals that nevertheless usually keep at a distance and act only when necessary. They represent a calm, quiet sort of strength, resilience, and resourcefulness.
As we’ve already seen, wolf pairs stay together for life. As such, a tattoo of a pair of wolves can hold a romantic meaning of eternal love and life-long faithfulness to your partner. To further accentuate this particular meaning, some people opt for a tattoo of two wolves facing each other, forming the shape of a heart.
Wolves across cultures
Back in the tribal and ancient times, humans came into contact with wild wolves far more often than nowadays. For many cultures, the creatures constituted a constant threat to the community.
It’s therefore unsurprising that wolves feature heavily in the mythology and symbolism of every culture that co-existed and shared their land with these animals.
Perhaps the most prominent example of wolves in mythology is the story of the foundation of Rome, involving a she-wolf raising the brothers who, according to legend, were the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus.
Wolves appeared frequently in Roman art and on Roman coins, as they symbolized the power of the Roman Empire. The wolf was also the sacred animal of the god Mars (Roman equivalent of the Greek god Apollo).
Wolves had so many meanings and appeared in so many legends in Ancient Greece that it would be impossible to cover them all here. Some of the most important roles of wolves in Greek mythology include being the animal associated with the gods Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, and Leto, and acting as divine messengers of the gods.
There was also a cult dedicated to wolves in Ancient Greece, centered in the Arcadia region. Greek mythology and ancient Greek texts furthermore point to the idea of men and gods being able to change into wolves – though this shouldn’t be confused with our modern pop-culture notion of a werewolf.
The most prominent mention of wolves in Norse mythology is the role they play in the cosmology of that culture. The wolves Skalli and Hati were believed to be responsible for chasing the sun and the moon across the heavens, causing the day to change into the night and vice versa. At the end of the world, these wolves would devour the sun and the moon, ending the day-night cycle forever.
Interestingly, the mythical wolf Tiangou has a similar role in Chinese mythology – he chases the sun across the sky and devours it during an eclipse.
In a number of Irish and Welsh myths, wolves play the role of helpers and guides. The Celts also had a legend somewhat similar to that of the founders of Rome – it was said that one of the Irish kings, Cormac mac Airt, was reared by a she-wolf.
The goddess Morrigana was believed to sometimes appear in wolf form.
Native American culture
Wolves held particular importance to Native Americans. Wolves were seen to embody a lot of the values that people should strive to achieve, such as devotion to the family and group, the ability to cooperate while hunting, and the fierce defense of territory against outsiders.
Each Native American tribe had slightly different legends and meanings associated with wolves. Perhaps the tribe with the closest ties to this animal is the Pawnee – from the region now covered by the states of Nebraska and Kansas. In the Pawnee hand-signals, the sign for wolf is the same as the sign for Pawnee, suggesting the tribe identified strongly with the animal.
The Pawnee were known as Wolf People by neighboring tribes, and even their view of the cosmos featured wolves heavily. They believed that the appearance of the star Sirius (also known as the Wolf Star) indicated a mythical wolf’s coming and going from the spirit world. The cosmic wolf would be running down the Wolf Road – or, as we know it, the Milky Way.
Types of wolves
There are numerous species and types of wolves, each inhabiting a different region and differing slightly in appearance. Knowing some basic facts about these can help with the research for your tattoo, particularly if you’re going for a realistic look and need a photo reference.
- Gray wolf – or the Common wolf, this is the type most people are familiar with – mostly gray in coloring, although there’s some variety in fur shades. In addition to being the most numerous, this is also the largest type of wolf.
- Arctic wolf – this species is almost completely white, with dark eyes. The majority of these wolves live in Alaska, with some appearing in Greenland and Canada.
- Red wolf – native to North America, these wolves appear in South and North Carolina, and in the past have been known to live in Texas and Louisiana. They take their name from the reddish, cinnamon shade of their fur.
- Black wolf – the black wolf is not actually a separate species, but a coat color variation of the Gray wolf.
Wolves in tattoo designs
Blue-eyed wolf portrait
This type of design is usually done in a realistic style, in the form of a black-and-white image of a wolf with bright blue eyes reminiscent of a husky being the only splashes of color. In nature, adult wolves never have blue eyes. The image is therefore often meant to mean being unique, extraordinary, or exceptional, sometimes with references to magic and/or the supernatural.
Like dogs, wolves snarl when angry or threatened, and their snarl is a sure sign of the danger they pose. A snarling wolf tattoo can mean ferocity, determination, and strength – as well as looking badass.
We’re all familiar with the image of a wolf howling at a full moon. In popular culture, the howling of a wolf at nighttime usually implies and foreshadows danger. As a tattoo design, however, it can mean anything you want it to – a popular interpretation is that of transformation and awakening.
Wolf symbol tattoo, such as paw prints
Your wolf tattoo doesn’t necessarily need to feature an image of a wolf. Symbolic elements, such as a paw print, can be used to imply the same meaning without depicting a wolf in full.
This kind of tattoo can be made more complex through inserting an image into the paw – that of a wolf, the moon, or any symbol you like, really. Some people opt for writing, for instance, a name written in each part of the paw. This is usually in reference to the pack mentality of wolves and the notions of family or friendships, loyalty, and the importance of being part of a tight-knit group of people you trust.
Fun fact: the paw of an adult Gray wolf is about the size of an average human hand.
Styles of wolf tattoos
Hyper-realistic tattoos are sometimes referred to as 3D tattoos. Artists use carefully blended shadows and highlights to create an illusion of photo-realism in a design.
High levels of expertise and experience are required to ensure a perfect realistic tattoo. Anything short of perfection is likely to look odd and unpleasant, to it’s important to choose your tattoo artist very carefully if you’re planning on opting for this style. This is especially true with wolf tattoos and animal tattoos in general, as they make for complex tattoo subjects.
When done well, realistic wolf tattoos are truly remarkable and sure to be unique and eye-catching.
Geometric tattoos use mostly straight lines and strategically placed dots to create a semi-abstract image out of geometric shapes. They are sometimes founded in the notion of ‘sacred geometry’ – the long-standing belief that geometric shapes and proportions have a symbolic, often spiritual, meaning.
A geometric wolf tattoo will usually involve just the wolf’s head, seen face-on. This style relies heavily on symmetry, so it’s important to plan the design well and to choose a trusted tattoo artist –deviation from the symmetrical pattern or an unnecessary curve to any of the lines can lead to the tattoo looking odd and out of shape.
Essentially the opposite of a realistic wolf tattoo. This style does not aim to emulate the look of a wolf exactly but to represent it in cartoon form. The cartoon style sometimes serves to soften the dangerous appearance of a wolf, turning it into a more friendly-looking creature.
Wolf symbol tattoos in the tribal style make for striking, distinctive pieces. The basic tribal style involves tracing a semi-abstract design using bold, curved black lines, tapered to a sharp point at both ends.
In addition to this modern take on the tribal style, there are traditional tribal tattoo designs that can be adapted into a wolf image. Maori or Polynesian tattoos are two examples of more elaborate and specific tribal styles.
The Celtic style is characterized by the use of curved, interlocking lines, reminiscent of those seen in the Celtic knot and Celtic cross symbols.
Since wolves held a high significance in Native American culture, they make for excellent tattoo subjects in the Native American style.
To give a wolf tattoo a Native American aesthetic, the image of the creature generally needs to be combined with symbols of this culture. When planning this kind of design, consider visual elements unique to the culture – such as feathered headdresses, dreamcatchers, Native American warriors and clan chiefs, and stylized arrows.
A common choice of design for this style is a portrait of a young woman wearing a wolf skin – with a ‘hood’ of a wolf’s head.
Tattoos in the gothic style are generally all black, sometimes with a splash of vivid color for contrast. Gothic-style designs with abstract red elements are often a trademark feature of the trash polka style.
Since wolves have often been associated with darkness, the night, and the occult, they’re well-suited for the gothic aesthetic. In these designs, wolves are often combined with other elements such as crows, the moon, outlines of bare trees, and dark landscapes. This makes for a rather intricate image, so these are best suited for relatively large areas, like the forearm, upper arm, back, or chest.