The guardian lions popular in Chinese architecture go by many names, including foo dogs, komainu, fu dogs, shi shi, or imperial lions. These lions with their curly mane, intense stare, and snarl guard the entrances to buildings to protect against people with ill intentions.
As with many cultural symbols, the guardian lions are being created with tattoo ink as well as bronze and stone. Guardian lion tattoos are a popular choice for those wanting a permanent symbol of protection and luck, and one that represents ancient Buddhist and Chinese philosophy.
So, when did guardian lions first appear, and what is the symbolism behind their tattoo depictions?
The History Of Guardian Lions
While lions are often seen as a dangerous predator, in Buddhism, this big cat represents strength and protection. The Buddha himself has a lion moniker.
“…the lion symbolizes the royal origins of Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as his courage in challenging injustice and alleviating human suffering. He is referred to as ‘Lion of the Shakyas,’ an acknowledgment of the power of his teachings,”Buddhist Symbols
The Buddha’s voice is also referred to as,
“The Lion’s Roar”.
Due to the flourishing trade along the ancient Silk Road, Buddhist symbols and other central Asian cultural ideas flowed into China and influenced architecture. These large lions became known as symbols of security with protective energies.
Initially guards at the gates of the Imperial Palace, as more families increased their wealth, guardian lions became more prevalent outside of well-to-do homes.
In modern times, guardian lions aren’t reserved for only the uber wealthy.
“Stone Lions are believed to bring prosperity and good fortune while keeping ‘troublemakers’ or difficult patrons at bay. In a residential setting, Foo Dogs are talismans that ward off evil and bad luck, fortifying the home as a safe haven,”Tat Ring
Also, they are depicted on skin in the form of tattoos all over the world.
Meaning Of Guardian Lion Tattoos
Guardian lions have cultural and religious significance, so it’s important that you treat this symbol with the respect that it deserves.
A tattoo of guardian lions can represent the protection of the Dharma, or doctrine, of the Buddhist belief system. There is a 16th century Tibetan statue named Dharmapala Standing on a Lion.
“Dharmapalas, defenders of the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, represent a category of wrathful guardians essential to the Tibetan system of Buddhism. They are understood to be enlightened beings. This fearsome protector stands astride an equally expressive lion, warding off spiritual dangers,”The Met Museum
Guardian lions are always seen as a pair, one being male and the other female, and each has its specific meaning as Tatt Mag points out,
“Foo dog male tattoos represent power, strength, authority, and courage. On the other hand, the female foo dogs are guardians of the soul and the female foo dog tattoo symbolizes support, have a nurturing spirit, are wise, and project goodness to others.”
However, if you only want one guardian lion tattoo, how can you tell the difference?
From the view of the lion, the male is on the left and the female is on the right. In some depictions of the lions, the male can be seen holding an orb, while the female holds a cub.
“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,”Chronic Ink Tattoo
Whether the lion has an open or closed mouth also has an impact on the meaning of the tattoo.
“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.”
So, if you want your tattoo to welcome in good luck and repel bad luck, think about getting the complete pair of guardian lions.
Guardian lions also made their way to Japan in ancient times.
Japanese foo dog tattoos can represent strength and protection the same as Chinese guardian lions, but they can also have a third meaning: Reincarnation, which is a main theme in Buddhism.
If you want a Japanese komainu tattoo, you can bring other cultural symbols into your design, such as cherry blossoms. In many traditional Japanese komainu designs, depictions of wind and chrysanthemum flowers are also incorporated.
Guardian Lion Tattoo Placement Ideas
The placement of your tattoo is as important as the design that you choose. When thinking about where you want to get your guardian lion tattoo, think about:
- Whether you want your tattoo to be easy to cover up.
- How much pain you’re okay with enduring, as some areas of the body are more painful to get tattooed than others.
- The aftercare involved with different placement options. For example, reaching a back tattoo for aftercare can be a lot more difficult than taking care of a forearm tattoo.
- What placement options will suit the size of your tattoo.
Traditionally, guardian lions come in pairs, so consider getting two tattoos. If you’re opting for this, the arms are great placement options. Plus, the bicep and forearm are generally on the lower end of the scale when it comes to pain, a huge plus if you’re worried about the tattoo process.
You could also opt for leg guardian lion tattoos, with one on each calf.
If you’re unperturbed with having your tattoos on permanent display, you could consider hand tattoos. However, hand tattoos come with their own specific challenges in terms of pain and aftercare.
Click here for six essential facts you should know before getting a hand tattoo.
Getting a tattoo can be a form of courage and can even have an impact on your mental health. If you want a design that represents strength and brings in good luck, guardian lions may be for you. Remember, they are historical symbols steeped in cultural significance, so treat them with respect.
For more on other types of lion tattoos, click here.