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What are foo dogs all about? In Toronto, you’ve seen them guarding the steps of the ROM. Foo dogs aren’t just statues, they’re also a popular Asian tattoo design. They’re impressive and detailed, but what is their significance?

Lion Statue ROM

We take a look at their meaning, symbolism, and tattoo designs.

Imperial Lion Tattoo

Despite their name, a foo dog is not a dog, but a lion tattoo. They are the Chinese guardian lions of Imperial China. Asiatic lions were once common throughout Central and Southwest Asia. Through the Silk Roads, lions became well-known in China. They were commonly given as tribute and became symbolic guardians, with their regal and powerful affiliation.

The confusion of foo dogs being misidentified as dogs isn’t just due to the name. They have also been mistaken as representing Chinese dog breeds like the Pekingese and chow chow. These breeds do have some resemblance, to the statues and with its “mane” the chow chow can even look a little lion-like.

Foo Dog Puppy

Imperial Guardians

Foo dog statues became a popular symbol outside of buildings. They were deemed Imperial guardian lions and decorated the entrances of temples, palaces and tombs. In years to come, they became common in front of homes, businesses, and government businesses as well.

In addition to offering protection, these Imperial guardians contain a lot of symbolism. They are as much a sign of luck as a form of protection. With their importance and meaning foo dogs are a popular Asian tattoo design.

We take a look at some of the symbolic meaning of foo dog tattoos:

Meaning & Symbolism of Foo Dog Tattoos

Positive Energy & Happiness

Foo dogs are more than simply protectors. They also bring happiness and positive energy. In the home, they are used with Feng Shui to harmonize individuals with their environment through their energy forces. On the body, they can also serve as a vessel for positive energy.

To achieve this positive energy, you must treat the foo dog(s) respectfully. For statues, it is common to pat them and thank them for watching your home. You should also treat your foo dog tattoo with respect, as it watches over you and blesses you with its mystical powers.

Peace

As a protector, a foo dog tattoo can help you achieve peace. Their colours and appearance can enhance their peaceful meaning. Golden foo dogs represent the essential elements of peace – wealth, power, and protection.

For a more “Zen” peace, you may want a different colour. Multicolour porcelain foo dogs provide peace and serenity.

Regardless of style, a foo dog tattoo is said to grant calmness and peace to anyone who wears it.

Back Foo Dog Tattoo

Luck

Luck is a popular symbol in Asian tattoos. For luck, foo dogs serve a dual purpose. They simultaneously invite good luck and repel bad luck. As well, they also serve to trap the good luck inside. They are especially effective working in pairs.

Protection

Foo dogs are chosen to guard homes and important buildings for good reason. They are powerful symbols that offer protection. However, it is said that they will only protect those who have complete faith in their power. For those who put their trust in this Chinese tattoo, it is a powerful protective charm.

To get the maximum protection out of these Chinese lions it is best to place them where you need maximum protection. It’s common to see these tattoos watching people backs or covering their chest.

Foo Dog Tattoo Designs

These Chinese tattoos typically have large and detailed designs. The specific details can alter the meanings of a foo dog’s design, so it helps to have a large tattoo, such as a back, chest, or Asian sleeve tattoo.

Pairs

Foo dogs are almost always in pairs. They are representative of duality, with a male and female Chinese lion. Together, the dual yin and yang parts form a more complete symbolism. Used in pairs they offer greater protection and energy. Each of the two has its own specific details that provide different elements of protection.

Generally, the male is on the left side (from the perspective of the foo dog) and the female on the right. So for someone looking at the tattoo, the male is on the viewers’ right side and the female on the viewers’ left side:

Foo Dog Tattoo Pair

The female (left) clutching the pup, the male (right) clutching an orb.

 

Whether you opt to get a pair or a single foo dog, it’s worthwhile to understand the difference between the two in their designs and meaning.

Male vs. Female Foo Dog Tattoo

There are two easy identifiers between male and female foo dogs. The first, is the above-mentioned positioning. When shown in pairs, their placement denotes their gender. But what about if there is only one?

At first glance, the male and female foo dogs are nearly identical. A good place to look is at their paws. Typically the female carries a cub in her paw, whereas the male holds an orb.

The cub is a symbol of the cycle of life, as well as nurturing and maternal protection. The orb, as with the pearl in Asian dragon tattoos, represents possessing wisdom and power.

Open vs. Closed Mouth

In a pair, there is usually one close-mouthed foo dog, and one open-mouthed one. It’s more common for the male to have the open mouth, but is not always the case. The symbolism of this is most significant in a pair.

The open mouth represents the Buddhist “a” sound. The closed mouth is the “un” sound. Together they form “a-un” which represents the sound of the vibration of the universe.

A Japanese foo dog with the open “a” expression may represent a beginning. Such a tattoo may represent a fresh start or a new journey/undertaking. Wheres as the closed “un” is for endings. This Japanese tattoo can represent overcoming an obstacle or successfully completing something.

In using a foo dog tattoo for luck, the mouth has other meaning. The open mouth faces outward, away from the core of the body. It invites new luck into the body. The close-mouthed Chinese lion faces towards the core. By closing its mouth it traps the bearer’s good luck inside their body. At the same time, it turns its back on bad luck, dissuading it from affecting the wearer.

The Background

Different backgrounds can hold different meanings, and there are a lot of options. Dating back to the Irezumi tattooing, it’s common for Asian tattoos to use elemental backgrounds featuring wind, waves, or fire.

These backgrounds add interesting detail and help to seamlessly combine tattoos and patterns into one larger picture. As well, they can include different meaning or sentiment. Some may even use their birth element, making it similar to a Chinese zodiac tattoo.

Paired With Other Objects

It’s not uncommon to pair foo dog tattoos with other images. Already stated, they often have a cub or an orb which represent, respectively, nurturing and wisdom. As well, it’s common to tattoo a temple behind or between them, showing them as protectors.

As with other creatures, pairing them with different plant life can change their meaning. Koi fish tattoos paired with a lotus flower represents growth or overcoming struggle. A common combination for foo dogs is to place them next to bamboo. This symbolizes good fortune.

Get a Foo Dog Tattoo in Downtown Toronto

Chronic Ink is Downtown Toronto’s go-to shop for Asian tattoos. Although we currently offer a variety of Toronto’s favourite tattoo styles, Asian ink is our bread and butter. We host some of the best artists in a shop that makes your safety and design our top priorities.

Book your next tattoo today at one of our three locations!