For most people, when they think about tattoo imagery, the subject matter of insects probably does not spring immediately to mind. In fact, it’s probably not even a close second. Yet one of the most popular designs being done today, probably ranking right at the top of those being done on women, and a symbol that has even come to typify the tattoos of the 90s, is the butterfly. While tattoos that use butterflies surely do capitalize on their great beauty and diversity, they are also highly symbolic creatures in many cultures, including our own.
Beginning in the east though, in Japan, one butterfly stands for young womanhood while two symbolize marital bliss. To the Aztecs of ancient Mexico however, the butterfly stood both for the souls of dead warriors who had fallen on the battlefield and the souls of women who had died in childbirth – the two most noble deaths of which an Aztec could conceive. In Christianity it likewise stands for the soul which has escaped the confines of the flesh. In the west, as elsewhere, the symbolism of the butterfly centers upon its unique transformation. From one existence as the slow and crawling caterpillar, then to the dormant and captive chrysalis or cocoon, and finally the rebirth into a light and airy winged creature, the metamorphosis of the butterfly is one of its most powerful and uplifting meanings. Accordingly, over time, the butterfly has also come to represent not only beauty itself but also the transitory nature of that beauty and indeed of all life. Despite their enormous variety and their delicate and detailed coloring, their embellishment in tattoo art may well rival that found in nature.