The symbolism and subject of sea life is a broad one and its representation in tattoo imagery is effectively as infinite as the variety of creatures. They are, of course, symbols of water, evocative of the sea, rivers and lakes. They have been sacred symbols in some cultures and also fertility symbols as well, owing partly to the vast numbers of eggs that they will lay. A particularly interesting fish tattoo, that has proved perenially popular in tattoo culture, is that of the Japanese koi, which symbolizes achievement and perserverance. And, although whales and dolphins could also be part of the mammal category, these are creatures most typically associated with their ocean environment and not necessarily their biology. It’s not unusual for seafaring people across the globe to have mythology and symbolism centered around both of these creatures, such as the Haida killer whale. Despite many variants in both legend and ritual practice, sea creatures were generally ambiguous, silent and mysterious, hidden but glistening.
The intelligent and friendly dolphin, a mammal and not a fish, has long attracted interest from mariners and perhaps no more so than in the Mediterranean area. For the ancient Greeks, dolphins were symbols of both the divine and of wisdom. Apollo himself at times took the form of a dolphin. No doubt the occasional interaction that takes place between humans and dolphins contributed to the depiction of men riding dolphins in Greek art. Indeed the Cretans believed that the dead withdrew to the ends of the Earth and that dolphins carried them there. For mariners worldwide, the dolphin was seen as a protector and guide, again likely owing to accounts of dolphins attacking sharks to protect sailors who had fallen overboard plus their tendency to play in the wake of the bow of ships, as in this example. It is also not uncommon to see dolphin tattoos that are either arm bands or anklets, with a repeating motif of animals that seem to circle.
While many fish in the sea are predators, the shark stands out as particularly fascinating for humans, perhaps because they are a threat to us. Shark tattoos emphasize their rows of razor sharp teeth and the dorsal fin that signals their presence when they are just below the surface. They are vicious when attacking and can be thrown into a frenzy with the scent of blood. Both feared and worshipped in sea-fairing societies the world over, the shark has inspired tattoo artwork in many abstract and realistic forms.
The sea horse, like other creatures of the sea, symbolizes the life of the ocean. Many sea horses are of diminutive size and tend to live among plants near shore, grasping them with their tails. In heraldry, the sea horse symbolized the power of the sea or bravery at sea, a cross between the sea environment and the strength of actual horses. In tattoo symbolism, they can resemble the tiny and delicate varieties popular in fish tanks or they can even take on some of the aspects of large serpents and even dragons.