People everywhere, in all times, have watched birds soaring and swooping through the air and marveled at their gracefulness. Tattoos of wings almost always refer somehow to this freedom from the earth. Wings are a timeless motif in tattoo art and are available in a huge range of designs that can be customized for your personal purposes. They are suitable for both men and women.
The symbolism of wings in history and culture
For obvious reasons, the symbolism of wings is closely linked to that of birds, and each species of bird has its own symbolism, with meanings varying from culture to culture. Winged creatures are also common in the mythology of many ancient civilizations, as well as in traditional societies and religious beliefs all around the world. Winged beings are regularly associated with heavenly realms, and are therefore often symbols of spirituality.
One of the most famous winged creatures of all time is Pegasus, the winged horse of Ancient Greek myth. Pegasus was the offspring of Poseidon, the sea god, and Medusa, a winged female monster. The pure white flying horse has been adopted as an inspirational emblem by dozens of corporations and businesses. Less well known is the lamassu, an ancient protector deity from Mesopotamia. This winged being had a human head and the body of a lion or bull.
Perhaps the most famous of all winged beings is the dragon, or its European counterpart, the wyvern, which features in modern heraldry. Their wings are less like the warm, feathered wings of birds, and more like those of a bat. This can have more sinister connotations, but in China bats are good luck symbols. The symbolism of wings is not uniform or straightforward.
In Christian iconography, wings are characteristic of angels, but also of devils. That devils are also winged creatures is not so surprising if you recall that Satan in Christian traditions was a fallen angel. Interestingly, Satan is also sometimes described in the bible as another winged creature, namely the dragon. The word ‘angel’ derives originally from the Greek word meaning ‘messenger’. In a way, angels are the Christian equivalent of the winged messenger of the gods in ancient mythology, known as Hermes to the Ancient Greeks and as Mercury to the Romans. Angels are not just a feature of Judaeo-Christian tradition, but also appear in Islamic belief.
Outside of religious contexts, perhaps the best known winged beings in European lore are fairies. Although today, and especially in children’s literature, fairies are ethereal and benevolent magical beings, originally the word referred to a wider range of creatures with the power to enchant, for good or for evil ends. Winged women are another notable category in ancient beliefs. They include the Valkyries of Norse mythology, who decided who would live or die on the battlefield, and the harpies of Greek myth, who were originally wind spirits.
Wings as a tattoo motif
Many of these traditional meanings associated with wings have carried over into contemporary consciousness, and wing tattoos may refer directly or obliquely to them. Wing tattoos can be broadly divided into two kinds: those where wings are a standalone motif, and those which represent winged beings. In the latter, the wings are usually emphasized, to make particular reference to the power of flight, with all its associated symbolism.
Angel wings are a popular tattoo, because of the motif’s strongly positive cultural associations. As mentioned, these may include purity of being and spirituality. This is partly why angels are traditionally depicted as beings of sublime beauty. The capacity for flight is also the ability to rise above the banality of earthly living and the evils of the human world. Because angels are the intermediaries between God and human beings, they are literally closer to God and to heaven. Another biblical meaning is that angels are God’s protectors of people, as expressed in the concept of the guardian angel. In Psalm 91, it is written that “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings, you will find refuge’ – as in the saying ‘to take someone under your wing’.
The most popular place for an angel wing is on the back or shoulder blades, as if they are real human appendages. These tattoos are often large and strikingly bold, although the motif can be scaled down for use on any part of the body. Monochrome black is a popular choice, which focuses attention on the graceful, curving form of a wing.
Angel wing tattoos are often customized to emphasize one or other dimension of their meaning. This is often done by adding another motif in the center, joining the two wings. The addition of a halo is often done for tattoos that are intended as a tribute to a departed loved one. A heart motif works in a similar way, to remember a deceased person, but it can also symbolize the love of freedom. To express religious devotion, a crucifix is sometimes used as the central motif.
A darker interpretation of the wing motif includes a central skull image, which uses contrasting symbols for life and death. A skull and wings tattoo can symbolize the idea that death brings freedom from the difficulties of life, or it can convey the idea that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ – and that we should make the most of life while being able to enjoy it. Wing tattoos can refer to the duality of human experience by breaking with the conventional symmetrical depiction and featuring one angel wing and one demon wing (typically resembling a bat’s wing). Another dark but poignant tattoo is the broken wing (or broken angel) motif. It can signify contrition or penance, the desire for redemption for past sins, or it can serve as a simple reminder of human frailty and weakness.
If these designs feel a bit too counter-cultural, or rather too disturbing for your taste, there are plenty of more whimsical alternatives. Tiny tattoos of fairies with delicate fluttering wings are a pretty and feminine choice. Birds with outspread wings can express a love for the natural world. An eagle or other raptor with outspread wings is a more traditionally masculine motif, symbolizing strength and the power of the predator. Valkyrie wing motifs are an alternative motif with similar connotations of female power, which will appeal to a woman who wants her ink to send a strong message. A phoenix about to take flight as it emerges from the flames symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings, and gives the tattoo artist plenty of scope for innovative use of color. Of course, wing tattoos can be of any flying creature, not just birds, but also insects such as butterflies and dragonflies.
Although many people opt for large wing tattoos, the design lends itself well to smaller scale versions that are suitable for the neck, wrist or other parts of the body. A small wing on each ankle evokes the symbolism of Hermes, fleet-footed messenger of the gods. Because of a wing’s easily recognizable form, it is easily visually stripped down in order to create a delicate minimalist tattoo.
Whichever design you choose, on some level, wing tattoos are almost always about transcendence, and achieving and celebrating freedom. That might be overcoming the many challenges of life, aspiring to a higher spiritual plane or ensuring protection from the dangers, threats and temptations that we all encounter in our experience of the modern world. Ultimately, wing tattoos are about personal liberation.