Owl Tattoo Meanings
If there’s one bird that everyone seems to love, it’s definitely the owl. These majestic birds of prey can somehow pull off being badass, wise, spooky, and adorable all at the same time. Owls have been featured frequently as characters in pop culture, and have strong ties to mythology in just about every corner of the world. And they look great in tattoos… they are naturally beautiful creatures, and their delicate feathers make colored owl tattoos especially appealing (though black and white pieces also tend to be stunningly detailed). Since owls are flush with symbolism and lore- and therefore make excellent subjects for ink- we’ve decided to explore what different owl tattoos mean.
What Does an Owl Represent?
Owl symbolism is richly varied and is present in both Eastern and Western cultures. For example, in European lore, to see an owl meant bad luck, as they were often taken to be harbingers of doom and death (Shakespeare, for instance, used owls to foreshadow the deaths of both Macbeth and Julius Caesar). Even in contemporary times, you can still see owls associated with the creepy and the macabre; they’re a mainstay in every set of Halloween decorations, and still provide a spooky ambiance to horror stories. This mostly arises from their enigmatic and traditionally shy nature; being largely nocturnal, owls don’t care much for light and noise, preferring the quiet comfort of shadows. Owls are also often seen during what has traditionally been considered the “Witching Hour” (between about 2 – 4 a.m.), and because of this have been considered to be witches’ familiars or demonic companions.
Not every culture has viewed owls as ominous, though. The Ancient Greeks associated owls with the goddess Athena (who represented wisdom), and seeing one was thought to bring good luck. Since Athena was also the goddess of military victory, seeing an owl on the battlefield was thought to be a sure sign of victory. In many Native American cultures, owls’ spiritual meaning was one of wisdom and prophecy. Multiple other societies- such as the ancient Celts, the Egyptians, etc.- thought of owls as protectors of lost souls, and spirit guides who helped guide the dead into the afterlife.
Types of Owls and Their Meanings
Barn Owl Tattoo Meaning
There is perhaps no other species of owl that is better at navigating the darkness of the night than the barn owl. Barn owls actually belong to a different family than most of their other relatives in North America… specifically, the family Tytondiae, which means “night owl.” While many owl species are capable of being active during the day or night, barn owls are strictly nocturnal, and because of this their hearing and night vision are exceptionally advanced.
Barn owls can be found all across the world, and their ghostly pale appearance (combined with their raspy, hissing calls) make them heavily associated with superstition and the occult.
Because barn owls are monogamous, they are occasionally used to represent couples or commitment in tattoos. Their excellent predation skills (and links to the god Ares, the Greek god of war) make them good choices for military or hunting designs. And of course, you could always use a barn owl as a tribute piece for Jim Henson’s classic, Labyrinth!
Great Horned Owl Tattoo Meaning
Most people tend to picture the Great Horned Owl when they think of these birds of prey. Great Horned Owls are ferocious creatures who are extremely territorial and protective of their home and their young. They are very powerful, and can take down prey as big as foxes. It is also the only species of predatory bird known to have fatally attacked a human. These qualities make them easily associated with the notions of strength and battle prowess.
Great Horned Owls in particular are associated with death and the spirit world in many Native American cultures. Because of this, Great Horned Owls make good choices for memorial tattoos to commemorate the loss of loved ones. Great Horned Owls are also heavily connected to the concepts of Wisdom and Intelligence. Their large, luminous orange eyes work well in tattoos meant to represent vision or looking forward.
Snowy Owl Tattoo Meaning
Few fowl are more beautiful or elegant than the Snowy Owl. Snowy owls are unique among owl species in that they hunt mostly during the day. Snowy owls are more frequently associated with magic and mystery than other owl species (just like Harry Potter’s loyal companion Hedwig!), and in some pagan and Native American cultures it is thought that snowy owls represent a higher consciousness or self-awareness. Snowy owls are fierce protectors of their nests, so they are great choices for tattoos representing mother- or fatherhood.
Alternate Owl Tattoo Meanings
White Owl Tattoo Meaning
Whether the subject of your tattoo is a barn owl, snowy owl, or another pale-feathered species, white owl symbolism is usually heavily connected to duality (darkness vs. light, good vs. evil, life vs. death, etc.). It is also possible for a white owl to symbolize purity.
Sugar Owl Tattoo Meaning
A lot of people choose to implement a sugar-skull style design in their owl tattoos. Not only is this art style beautiful, but it makes an excellent complement to the owls’ connection to death and the spirit world.
Flying Owl Tattoo Meaning
A tattoo of an owl in flight really shows off the bird’s proud nature, and evokes a sense of power and freedom. These tattoos are especially good for areas like the chest or back, where the artist can design a larger piece that gets all the intricate details of the feathers, etc.
Owl Feather Tattoo Meaning
Owl feathers can be an elegant addition to an existing design, or work well on their own. General, owl feathers take on the symbolism of the bird they come from, though there are several Native American cultures that believe that placing owl feathers in a person’s hands after they’ve passed on can help them navigate to the afterlife. (Read more about Feather Tattoos here)
Owl and Skull Tattoo Meaning
Just like with the sugar-skull design, many people combine owls and skulls in a tattoo to strengthen the reference to death and spirituality. Like we mentioned before, owls are considered guardians of spirits in the afterlife in many different cultures, so it is not uncommon to see tattoo designs with an owl perched on or carrying a skull. Owl and skull tattoos are a great choice for memorial tattoos, or as a representation of an important transition in your life (allowing an old part of yourself to die so something new can take its place).
Owl and Key Tattoo Meaning
Seeing an owl with a key clutched in its claws is generally representative of unlocking new knowledge or wisdom. A variant of this is the owl with a lock and key tattoo design, which has a greater sense of duality: there is new knowledge to obtain, but the owl is also guarding secrets (hence the lock).
Owls can represent many things in a tattoo, including:
- The night, darkness
- The occult, magic
- Prowess in battle or hunting
- Wisdom, intelligence
- Gathering or guarding knowledge
- Romantic Commitment
- Death and the afterlife
- Prophecy or foresight