The leopard, like the jaguar and cougar, are animal companions of shamans in both the western and eastern hemispheres. The leopard, also like the cheetah, another spotted great cat, was a symbol of aggressive warrior and kingly castes. Although the leopard skin was worn by the priests of ancient Egypt, warding off evil spirits, it is more the simple wild animal nature that permeates the images of this creature in tattoo. Sometimes set in jungle scenes and in the company of other wild animals, tattoo art capitalizes on the colorful nature of these images.
Despite the dominance of the lion is his domain, it is the leopard that has often been associated with kings. Of all the great cats throughout the world, it is the large spotted cats (the jaguar in the western hemisphere and the leopard in the eastern hemisphere) and their unique appearance that have been both feared and coveted.
In ancient Egypt, priests typically wore the skin of a leopard during funerary rites, particularly the “opening of the mouth” ceremony to ensure continued life to the deceased. The leopard skin, perhaps associated with Set, the trickster god and adversary of mankind and life, may have been worn to symbolize triumph over him at a crucial juncture in the afterlife.
Oddly enough, since the leopard is a solitary animal, it is a common animal helper in indigenous cultures of both the east and west, where shamans once held the power of life and death in their communities, obtained through vision quests in which they were guided or aided by their animal symbol. Perhaps the nocturnal nature of this large and powerful hunter, and hence its symbolic association with the moon, helped to ease its way into their visions.
The spots of the leopard, sometimes called a rosette for the way that they cluster together, differ from those of the New World’s jaguar since the jaguar spots have an additional black spot in the center of the rosette. Not only do the spots function as camouflage but they can also distract and confuse their prey. However, the size, spacing, and pattern of leopard spots is highly variable, so much so that no two are alike.
Tattoos of leopards capitalize on all of their distinct features. Whether done in color, black, or grey, the leopard always shows their spots. They might be part of a jungle or savannah scene, perhaps hunting or assuming a regal reclining pose, or menacingly stalking their prey. Like other animal tattoos, these images tend to capture the natural behavior of the leopard. Also, like many other tattoos of predators, they emphasize the power, ferocity, and swiftness of the animal. These are primal themes and ones that seem to have an enduring appeal in tattooing.
However, no discussion of leopard tattoos would be complete without at least a mention of Tom Leppard, of the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Tattooed with a leopard skin design, with all the skin between the dark spots tattooed saffron yellow, his body is 99.2% covered. Saying that he could not “mix with ordinary people” after 28 years in military service, he had himself tattooed as a leopard, admiring its aloofness, and lives in a remote location with only the occasional canoe trip for resupply.