Bear Tattoo Meanings
Bear Tattoo Meaning
"Bear lifted me up so I could see all the Earth. He said I may jump high among the cliffs, and live forever" - Full Mouth, Crow
No matter what the species, bears mean business. All bears, from the adorable panda bear to the massive polar bear, are powerfully built with deadly claws, sharp teeth, and immense strength. There are actually only eight bear species known in the world: the black bear, Asiatic black bear, brown bear, panda bear, sloth bear, spectacled bear, and the sun bear. These species are scattered throughout the world, from tropical climates (the preferred habitat of the sun bear), to the arctic (one guess which bear prefers the cold!), and everywhere in between.
Because of their great power and heavy symbolism throughout North America and beyond, bears are common subjects for tattoos. Bear tattoos carry many different meanings depending on the species, style, and other additional elements.
Bears and Spiritual Symbolism
Bears are spiritually significant in a number of cultures. In Norse culture, the god Odin was often depicted as a mighty bear; and as mentioned below, the polar bear is one of the forms of the most powerful spirit in Inuit mythology, Torngarsuk.
The various Native American cultures have long considered bears to be representative of great warriors, and the Sioux in particular connect bears to healing and medicine as well as skill in battle. There is also some small connection to the concept of resurrection, as most bears hibernate during the winter and reemerge in the Spring.
What Does a Bear Tattoo Mean?
Bears are very commonly associated with physical strength and power. Bears are also thought to represent bravery in the face of opposition, as a bear is more likely to stand and fight than run away. Bears are a common subject for maternity tattoos; the phrase “Mother Bear” is colloquially used throughout the world to describe a fiercely protective and strong mother.
Grizzly Bear Tattoos
Grizzly bears are technically brown bears; though they differ in size and color from the coastal and European brown bears, the species is all the same. The only brown bear that has a slightly different genetic makeup is the Kodiak bear, which strictly inhabit the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago in southwest Alaska. Grizzlies are perhaps the most famous brown bear, though, and they have strong roots in North American symbolism. Grizzly bear tattoos often mean strength or possessing a warrior spirit; skill in hunting; and are generally powerful symbols of the wild North American forests.
These great bears of North America have long held a deep symbolic meaning for the Native Americans and more recently for many of the people who live there today. To the Native American Indians the bear was a widely revered spirit animal who guided warriors through their lives and on into the afterlives. A spirit animal was a very personal thing believed to stand figuratively side by side with each person throughout their lives. Of these beasts, bears were one of the closest brother animals:
The bear, the deer, the great eagle. These are our brothers. - Chief Seattle, letter allegedly to the US Government
For this reason many Native American hunters and warriors adorned their bodies with tattoos of the naturally powerful hunters and warriors that they felt so much affinity to. Today a grizzly or brown bear tattoo can also be a mark of spiritual balance, and a connection with mother nature.
Black Bear Tattoos
Black bear tattoos mean similar things to those of the grizzly; both are extremely strong, and therefore have associations with warriors and skill in battle. Though black bears are a smaller species than brown bears, they are no less fierce, and also tend to be a popular representation of North American wilderness.
Panda Bear Tattoos
Panda bears have historically been associated with good luck, harmony, and balance. Though they are one of the rarest bear species in the world, they are also one of the most well-known, and their cuteness makes them a widely popular subject for tattooing and other artwork.
The panda is also seen as the living embodiment of the concept of yin and yang in Chinese culture. It shares its sharply defined black and white color with the yin-yang symbol and is seen to symbolize harmony in the world and balance in nature. Because of the bears symbolic importance and rarity throughout history, it has always been seen also as a vision of good luck, bringing fortune on those who see or even wear it.
Polar Bear Tattoos
Polar bears are a deeply spiritual symbol for the peoples of the Arctic. In Inuit mythology, the sky god Torngarsuk is sometimes depicted as a polar bear. Polar bear tattoos can be symbolic of a great hunter, and in some cultures are seen as symbols of protection.
Alternate Bear Tattoo Meanings
Bear Claw Tattoos
Bear claw tattoos can mean a number of things. Many cultures take bear claw symbols to mean good luck, power, and mobility. Occasionally, bear claws are incorporated with other elements as spiritual totem tattoos in Native American cultures. Many times mothers use bear claw tattoos to represent their maternity as well, as a bear claw is smaller and less work-intensive than a full-blown bear portrait.
Bear Paw Tattoos
Bear paw tattoo meanings are often related to maternity, as many see them as equally representative of gentleness of spirit and strength. Bear paws are a somewhat less violent or aggressive-looking tattoo than one that focuses primarily on the claws, which can be favored by someone looking for a maternity tattoo. Like the claws, bear paws can also mean mobility and moving forward in life.
Teddy Bear Tattoos
Teddy bears are one of the most classic childhood toys in existence. As a result, teddy bear tattoos most often relate to innocence, childhood memories, love and affection, and a fun-loving nature. Teddy bear tattoos can also be used as a memorial tattoo for those who have lost children.
In a fun-but-creepy trend, many people are tossing the concept of innocent teddy bear tattoos on its head by including elements like bloodied weapons, claws and fangs, skeletons, etc. These tattoos are an excellent tongue-in-cheek addition for horror fans, or for those who simply like the irony.
California Bear Tattoos
The current version of the California state flag featuring the famous brown bear first came into use around 1846. California bear tattoos represent everything about California culture: independence; freedom (especially social freedom); glamor and fame (California is after all a major hub of the music and film industries); and self-discovery. Generally, California bear tattoos are most common with residents (or past residents) of the state.
The brown bear used in the flag is actually the California grizzly, which is unfortunately now an extinct population in the U.S (though some conservationists are making efforts to reintroduce grizzlies to northern California forests). More information on the California grizzly and the history of the flag can be found at bearflagmuseum.org.
If you’re looking for a tattoo that represents strength of spirit and body, then a bear is going to be an excellent choice for you. In summary, bear tattoos can symbolize:
- Strength or physical power (especially with grizzlies, black bears, and polar bears)
- Skill in battle
- North America/ American values (Grizzlies, black bears)
- Good luck (Panda Bears, bear claws)
- Harmony (Panda Bears)
- Balance (Panda Bears)
- Protection (especially polar bears and grizzlies)
- Moving forward/ mobility (bear claws/ paws)
- Childhood innocence (teddy bears)
- Love and affection (teddy bears)
- Memorial for lost children (teddy bears)
- Healing (specific to Sioux culture)