Dragons are one of the most important symbols in East Asian culture and mythology. They are part of mythology all around the world, although these Dragons seem to have originated in Chinese culture over 6000 years ago.
Their ancient roots and cultural significance have made Asian dragon tattoos one of the most demanded styles from Asian tattoo artists. The aesthetics and meanings of Chinese dragon tattoos made them popular amongst cultures all around the globe.
What is the meaning of the Chinese Dragon Tattoo?
East Asian dragons (commonly known as Chinese dragons) carry a number of possible meanings. While they are most often symbols of wisdom, power, and good luck, the meaning of Chinese dragon tattoos depends on the style and the wearer. Other common meanings include:
In ancient China, dragons were loved and worshiped as gods. They were water-deities said to control rains and water – essential to early agricultural societies. During the wet growing seasons they were celebrated. During floods and storms the people would burn incense and offer food to appease them.
In Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism they were rainmakers and power sources. In addition to controlling waters, these religions attribute other powers to dragons. They breathe clouds and move the seasons. They also have the ability to transform, shrinking, growing, disappearing, and taking the form of a human or another animal.
Chinese Symbol Tattoos – Zodiac Dragon
In addition to these meanings, the dragon can be a sign of the zodiac. It is the 12th year Chinese calendar, with its next appearance in 2024. Those born in the year of the dragon often choose this tattoo to symbolize the virtues they are said to possess, including:
Chinese zodiac dragon tattoos may include the element attributed to their birth year, either an earth, metal, wood, water, or fire dragon.
Chinese Dragon Tattoo Designs
Chinese dragons can take on a variety of forms. They are almost always serpentine creatures, although they sometimes have other animalistic characters. Bixi, one of the nine sons of the dragon was turtle-shaped. Suanni was lion-shaped, and Yazi has the head of a leopard.
Although the Asian dragons traditionally have serpentine features, their appearance is a mishmash of other animals.
“The dragon’s horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.”
Wang Fu (Chinese scholar, Han Dynasty, 206 BC to 220 AD)
The nine creatures that make up the dragon are symbolic of the nine tribes defeated and united by the Emperor Huang Di.
Difference Between East Asian & Western Dragon Mythology Tattoos
Both Eastern and Western-style dragon tattoos depict wise, powerful, and dangerous creatures. Otherwise, they are very different in appearance and meaning. Simply put, the East Asian dragon is benevolent where the Western dragon is malevolent.
Asian dragons are worshiped in mythology, bringing prosperity and good fortune. Western dragons are aggressive creatures, often playing the villain in mythology.
They also differ in appearance. Chinese dragon tattoos are graceful, serpent-like creatures. Western dragon tattoos, however, depict giant lizards with bat-like wings. They have terrestrial characters, living in caves and mountains, and breathing fire. The water-based Asian dragons live in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Can I Have a Fire Breathing and/or Winged Asian Dragon Tattoo?
With Chinese Tattoos – dragons are only occasionally depicted with wings, although they are usually capable of flight. If they do breathe fire it’s usually because they are sent from the heavens as punishment.
Japanese Dragon Tattoo Art
Japanese dragons have a lot of similarities to Chinese dragons, as their dragon mythology appears to have stemmed from China. As a result of Japan being an island, Japanese dragon tattoos almost always depict the dragon as a sea serpent, and flight is rare.
As well, the Japanese dragon stories is more likely to depict them as monstrous than their Chinese counterpart. However, they are still normally forces of good.
The most consistent difference in the appearance of Japanese dragon tattoos is that their claws have three toes. Chinese dragons are usually five or four-toed creatures.
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Styles of East Asian Dragon Tattoos
Asian dragon tattoos come in all sorts of styles. These different styles are chosen for their aesthetics or specific meaning. These are a few of the common variations of East Asian dragon tattoos:
- Dragon Claw
- Dragon Pearl
- Koi Dragon
- Dragon & Snake
- Tiger & Dragon
- Dragon Skull
- Dragon Heart
- Flaming Dragon
- Dragon & Flower
Dragon Claw Tattoo
Dragon claws are symbols of power and fearlessness. They often connote the triumph over evil or a challenge in one’s life. These work well as large or even tiny tattoos.
The number of toes can also be significant. A five-toed dragon is a symbol of the Imperial family in China. Other Chinese dragons are usually have 4 toes, and Japanese dragons have 3.
The meaning of this tattoo can change if the claw is gripping a pearl.
Dragon Pearl Tattoo
Tattoos sometimes depict dragons carrying or fighting over a pearl. The pearl is the most prized treasure for a dragon. A common story is that the pearl grants the dragon total wisdom. It can also represent spiritual energy, prosperity, or power.
Most people are familiar with these pearls from the series Dragon Ball Z. They are the inspiration behind the titular dragon balls.
The dragon koi tattoo incorporates the iconic koi fish tattoo designs. They allude to the legend of the koi who transforms into a dragon as a reward for his struggles. It represents perseverance, strength of will, power, and ferocity.
Yin Yang Dragon Tattoo
A dragon yin yang tattoo usually consists of a dragon and a phoenix. While the dragon represents the masculine yang, the phoenix is the female equivalent which represents yin. It is symbolic of balance and duality.
Dragon & Snake
The snake is the arch enemy of the dragon. When a tattoo depicts a dragon fighting a snake, it represents the conflict between modern and traditional. The Chinese snake tattoo meaning is a symbol of healing and medicine is modern, where the Asian dragon represents tradition. The conflict can symbolize the need to preserve and honour the past, while moving forward.
Tiger & Dragon
The tiger is another mortal enemy of the dragon, so these tattoos usually depict them fighting. Although the dragon is powerful, in these conflicts, the dragon usually represents wisdom and the tiger represents strength.
The skull of a dragon represents mortality. The most common use of a dragon skull tattoo today is to symbolize overcoming or struggling to overcome addiction. But it can also symbolize a balance between creative and destructive forces.
Flaming Dragon Tattoo
Although Asian dragons rarely breathe fire, they may occasionally be depicted as on fire. In a tattoo, a flaming Chinese dragon usually represents sexuality and passion.
Dragon & Flower
Asian tattoos often incorporate flowers. They can add colour, style or significance. Adding a lotus in a dragon tattoo, for instance, represents wisdom. In Buddhist tradition, the lotus is a symbol of wisdom. The pearl found inside the flower is likely the inspiration for the dragon pearl.
Chinese calligraphy and characters are often sought after tattoos. They can carry a high degree of meaning and aesthetics. The form for “dragon” in different East Asian scripts makes for an appealing tattoo.
Getting an Asian Dragon Tattoo in Toronto & Vancouver
Toronto & Vancouver are home to some of the most long-standing and diverse cultures from around the globe. As a result, it harbours talents and creativity steeped in tradition from all over the world. Our own Toronto tattoo shop first made its mark doing traditional Asian tattoos.
Today, we’ve expanded our tattoo styles, but stay true to our roots with ink from some of the best Asian tattoo artists. You can explore some of the most recent work in our Asian colour and black & grey tattoo galleries.