It seems that every continent and every culture had their own particular ideas about dragons and where they come from as well as the legends that include them. So, it makes sense that so many people around the world resonate with dragon tattoos and would like to be inked with one of their own.
Below we give you not only some serious visual inspiration for your next dragon tattoo but we also go through many cultural meanings, symbolism, and metaphors from across the ages to help you pinpoint exactly what you want your dragon to be.
The symbolic meaning behind dragon tattoos
Dragon tattoos often hint at the underlying cultural and historical meaning attached to the mythical creature itself. Stemming from the Ancient Greek word “drákōn” which means “a serpent of huge size, a python, a dragon”, the etymology of “dragon” only goes to show how the legend itself spanned many different countries.
Due to this being a cross-cultural creature, there are many different metaphors, powers, and symbolism attributed to it.
Most people will agree that dragon tattoos are certainly images denoting strength and power, but while some think dragons illustrate protection, others will say they illustrate destruction. It all sort of depends on you, and the imagery that you’d like to carry with you.
There are some differences between meaning for dragon tattoos that are depicted through color, size, details within the tattoo, as well as the number of toes your dragon may have.
Your best bet, if you’re super serious about ancient meaning, is to choose an artist who is well-versed on the symbolism of dragon tattoos.
The most popular styles for dragon tattoos
Here we’ll discuss, and give you examples of some of the most popular styles for dragon tattoos.
Of course, Irezumi is probably the king of dragon tattoo depictions, but there are tons of other aesthetics and styles that people really adore.
Again, when planning any piece, it’s totally up to you and what you are most attracted to. We’d say, go with your gut reaction. You’ll know if you love a certain image right away, and hopefully, these examples of the most popular styles for dragon tattoos will help inspire your decision.
Japanese dragon tattoo
As we said above, one of the most beloved dragon tattoo designs is surely from the tradition of Irezumi.
A Japanese dragon tattoo is iconic, and there are many artists out there who devote their lives to learning this style through and through.
Japanese dragon tattoos have many interesting features: they do not have wings, and, unlike their Chinese counterparts, they only have three toes.
Many Japanese dragon tattoos are part of a larger piece that can cover the entire body, but don’t fret..there are still many tattooists out there who will work with you on a size you feel comfortable with.
Chinese dragon tattoo
A Chinese dragon tattoo is another homage to ancient culture, iconography, and symbolism.
The fifth of all the Chinese Zodiac animals, this creature is highly revered. It is considered to be half of the Yin Yang, with the Phoenix being the other half.
You may be aware that there are many festivals in China celebrating dragons, including New Years.
Unlike a Japanese dragon tattoo, a Chinese dragon tattoo usually has four or five toes. It’s a really good idea to find a tattoo artist who knows Chinese iconography very well if this is the dragon tattoo you’d like to receive.
Traditional dragon tattoo
As you may know, American Traditional tattoos were highly influenced by sailors who traveled the world to far off places that many people still had yet to experience.
With this cross-cultural exchange came influence within many art forms, including tattooing.
A perfect example of this is the American Traditional dragon tattoo. Sailors, soldiers, and artists brought back many fine examples of Asiatic designs, including dragons, which you’ll see highlighted within many classic Traditional tattoo flash designs.
Read also: 18 Vibrant Traditional Dragon Tattoos
Celtic dragon tattoo
During the high time of their rule, Celts covered much of Europe, so it’s no surprise that their symbols and iconography has held true through the ages.
In fact, even Caesar wrote about the power of their pieces: “As Caesar wrote in his account of the Gallic Wars, “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.” Such was the effect of their appearance that they became known throughout Europe as the Pretani, a Celtic word meaning the ‘painted’ or the ‘tattooed’ ones.”
For the Celts, a Celtic dragon tattoo symbolized their most powerful ally, a gatekeeper, and guardian for the gods.
Tribal dragon tattoo
Tribal tattoos take much of their inspiration from ancient tattoo imagery and style, the most widely known being Polynesian.
Many tribal dragon tattoos may take their inspiration from Polynesian creatures called “taniwha” which may look similar to either a whale or an alligator.
Hawaiians also have a similar creature called “mo’o”, a supernatural lizard. Even further, some tribal tattooists take inspiration from mummies, like that of the Siberian Princess Ukok and mummies from the Pazyryk nomads, who have mystical animals swirling around their limbs.
Read also: 11 Top-Class Blackwork Dragon Tattoos
Popular dragon tattoo motifs
Getting a dragon tattoo means also examine other pieces of the picture that could enhance the beauty of your design.
In this section, we take a look at some of the most popular dragon tattoo motifs that people have been drawn to for various reasons. Dragon tattoo ideas can include bold patterns, other important icons from the natural world, or pop-culture references from films and books.
Shenron dragon tattoo
A favorite character of many from the well-known anime and manga Dragon Ball Z, Shenron dragon tattoos are usually done in the New School style, especially since they stem from Japanese pop-culture.
But you’ll also notice that Japanese dragons, like Shenron, look much like flying serpents. It’s a very specific stylistic approach to this mythical creature.
Haku dragon tattoo
Another Japanese dragon tattoo this is very popular is derived from the anime film “Spirited Away” produced by Studio Ghibli.
Like Shenron, Haku looks much like a flying serpent. These dragons do not have wings, but rather fly through the air with magic and the rippling movements of their long bodies.
Many Haku dragon tattoos will often have other characters from the same film or beloved figures from other various Studio Ghibli films.
Koi dragon tattoo
Because these famous fish are also classic icons within Japanese designs, you will often find koi and dragons together.
Koi dragon tattoos usually represent new beginnings, and strength of will, due to each animals personal symbolism. Together they make an unstoppable and powerful duo.
Smaug dragon tattoo
A favorite dragon pulled from the pages of classic literature, a Smaug dragon tattoo can say much about a person.
The Lord of the Rings and other books by J. R. R. Tolkien have been the basis for many films, animations, comic books, and, of course, tattoos. Smaug dragon tattoos pay homage to one of the most powerful and feared characters that Tolkien produced.
Flower dragon tattoo
Giving a softer side to the usual stereotypical dragon tattoo, flower dragon tattoos blend power and poetry.
For those who love to endow their pieces with meaning, decorating your dragon with specific types of flowers or blooms can enhance the symbolism behind it. This is also a perfect option and inspiration for dragon tattoos for women.
Fire dragon tattoo
Of course, what would a dragon be without the breath of fire? Fire dragon tattoos are absolutely classic and can be depicted in any style you prefer.
Pieces that take advantage of this well-known dragon attribute are usually embracing dragons as the magnificent and all-powerful destroyers.
Top body placements for dragon tattoo
So many body parts, so many options to start with...but maybe we can make it a bit easier for you with this list of the top body placements for dragon tattoos.
Keep in mind that this definitely will depend on how much room you have, how big of a commitment you want to make to your piece, along with a whole lotta other inputs from your artist. There are so many different ways to create cool dragon tattoos...but body placement will definitely be a part of the process.
Dragon arm tattoo
If you’re going for a serpent-like Japanese dragon then an arm might be the best spot.
Think of it this way: a really high-quality piece will always take the natural curves of the body into consideration...it will flow with the natural movement and musculature, which is why a dragon arm tattoo may be a good way to go depending on the type of dragon, and the overall design.
Dragon sleeve tattoo
Much like above, but taking up even more room, a dragon sleeve tattoo is perfect for someone who wants to dedicate a larger space to their dragon tattoo.
Usually, for people who really resonate with a certain design or iconography, and find themselves returning to it again and again, this is the perfect time to take advantage of that and go big with the design.
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Dragon thigh tattoo
A dragon thigh tattoo can be very dynamic as well. For women, this can be a highly provocative tattoo, but it can also be an homage to the symbolic power of the dragon itself.
The quadriceps femoris is a group of muscles that includes the frontal workings of your thigh; they hold a lot of strength and partly give you the ability to do all those crazy squats at the gym.
Dragon forearm tattoo
For those of you who are piecing together a full sleeve, a dragon forearm tattoo may be perfect.
Keep in mind, as well, that depending on the type of dragon you want, this may be a great filler piece….a lean serpent-like dragon tattoo may be able to bend into spots you otherwise thought couldn’t be filled!
Dragon chest tattoo
A powerful statement piece, and one of the most popular dragon tattoos for men, a dragon chest tattoo devotes a large area of skin to this iconic design.
This also gives you a lot of space to work with, meaning you can either have a huge dragon or blend it with other really cool motifs like the ones described above.
Dragon shoulder tattoo
Like we mentioned with the forearm, a dragon shoulder tattoo is perfect for those of you trying to fill in some odd shapes.
The shoulder can also be a difficult area to design for but dragons can beautifully bend around the natural curves of your body, making the shoulder a prime spot for this mystical creature.
Small dragon tattoos
We know that many of these designs may look totally overwhelming to some of you...but no fear will you find here: not all dragons are giants and size does not equate power.
Perhaps our favorite inspo for small dragon tattoos is the small wrist design that the Mother of Dragons herself, Emilia Clarke, got from famed tattooist Dr. Woo. A testament to her love of Game of Thrones, the piece is also totally gorgeous...proof that a well-versed artist can create anything you can think of.
Take it from us: if you’re looking to get a small or simple dragon tattoo, it can help to find an artist who either specializes in small work, fine line tattooing, or similar. Of course, it always depends on what tattoo style you’d like to get, but finding the right artist, and knowing your body placement choice from the get-go, can really help you in designing the tiny tattoo of your dreams.
More dragon tattoo inspiration
We’ll start specific...just to prove a point: Tales From Earthsea is this really awesome book full of essays and fantasy stories by Ursula K Le Guin...an incredibly rad sci-fi writer who was also an anarchist and badass feminist. Basically, she's one of our heroes.
Then, Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the beloved Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli mentioned a few times above, made a really sweet movie out of it that we totally adore.
What the heck does all of this have to do with these dragon tattoos? Not much really, except that Tales From Earthsea is all about a world where dragons exist and magic is the norm, making it perfect inspo for fantasy and dragon lovers everywhere.
These dragon tattoo images could easily be from fantasy worlds like that of Earthsea, but really there are so many legends, fairy tales, and folklore surrounding dragons that they could be coming from anywhere.
They also span literally every culture in every era of human life...which is cool, since, if you think about it, the people with these dragon tattoos could either be heavy into Mulan or Merlin. Who the heck knows or cares?
These pieces are totally awesome...there’s something about dragon tattoos that just spells out cool. They're just so freakin brutal and badass. So, excuse us while we binge watch the Mists of Avalon and pretend to live in a world where these mighty beasts still rule the sky, seas, and mountain peaks.
Our point? Movies like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or Spirited Away, TV shows like Game of Thrones or Puff the Magic Dragon, books like The Neverending Story or Beowulf and even famous paintings by William Blake or Raphael of the Renaissance...all of these things, and more, are available to you for in-depth inspiration for your dragon tattoo.
Honestly, you could also look to real life to inspire your dragon tattoo design. “Are dragons real?” Well, not as we see them in blockbusters like The Hobbit.
Smaug was one gigantic dragon...however, "real" dragons can only get up to be about 200 pounds and 8 feet long. We speak of Komodo dragon's, of course. They may not be able to breathe fire, but they can "consume up to 80 percent of its own body weight in a single meal..." and on top of all that, they also carry a venom gland in their lower jaw. Definitely not something we want to go in a fight within the middle of the jungle...
Scientists also haven't come across any fire breathers either. Which is interesting...considering there are lizards who spray blood from their eyes.
There is, however, a beetle who can send tiny explosions flying through the air.
"The most famous is the bombardier beetle. These hot little bugs mix hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone in special insulated chambers inside their abdomens. The chemical reaction releases so much heat that the liquid nearly reaches the boiling point, and a series of tiny explosions—yes, actual explosions—sends noxious, hot liquid spraying out of the beetle’s abdomen." Brutal little beetle.
So, no, dragons aren't "real"...but in an existential sense, they totally are. Especially when you take into account the many people who get dragon tattoos to signify the spirit animal within.
It may also be interesting to find out that although some people believe dragons were the creation of misinformed fossil hunters sensationalizing/mislabeling dinosaur bones, others think that evolution is to blame!
Humans made them up themselves because, back in the primitive days, you had to be ready for whatever shit was about to hit the fan...including fire breathing, meat craving monsters with wings.
We know if this majestic creature resonates with you, that you’ll have done the leg work to find the perfect match to help your artist understand either the aesthetic, style or design that will bring your dragon to life. Hopefully, this in-depth article just gives you further inspiration and ideas.