In most times and places, the symbolic meaning of an animal tattoo tends to draw almost entirely on the actual physical and behavioral characteristics of the particular animal – the powerful and majestic eagle, for example, or the owl, who hunts at night and is also a conductor of souls to the afterlife. Occasionally, however, the meaning of a tattoo symbol has a much more accidental and fortuitous origin, as in the case of the Chinese bat. In China, the character for “bat” is fu. In a happy coincidence, the character for “good luck” is also fu. Thus, in the Far East, the bat is a symbol of good luck but the positive associations don’t stop there. In messages of good wishes, a bat is sometimes accompanied by the character for longevity. In this case, though, it is the creature’s attributes that make for the additional meaning, since bats dwell in caverns and such caverns are also the passageway to the realm of the Immortals.
From the symbolism of good fortune and long life, it is a just a small step to that for fertility as well. Crossing over into western culture, even Pliny the Elder, Roman natural historian of the first century, acknowledged that the blood of a bat , when placed under the pillow of a woman, acted as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps one of the most popular positive bat tattoo symbols, however, is the Chinese wu fu, or five bats. In this symbol, sometimes four bats are shown surrounding a fifth bat or five bats circulate around a stylized symbol for longevity. In both cases, the five bats stand for the Five Happinesses: wealth, long life, peace, cultivation of virtue (or sometimes good health), and a good death. Taking the symbolism one step further, a Chinese bat (or simply the character for fu) will sometimes be placed upside down. That orientation derives from the fact that the words for “upside down” and “to arrive” also sound the same in Chinese (dao), such that the upside down bat means that good luck has arrived. In our example, set against grey clouds, two colorful and playful bats (one upside down) encompass the boldly red symbol for wealth. Hopefully the gods of good fortune are watching.