The dragon is a “classic” tattoo motif, popular with both men and women. As a tattoo design the dragon shows the profound influence that Japanese and Chinese culture have had in Western tattooing for nearly two centuries. In the Far East, the dragon represents the Four Elements – Earth, Wind, Fire and Water – and the four points of the compass – East, West, North and South – and dragons are simultaneously a symbol of Water, Earth, Underworld and Sky. The dragon is a culturally far-ranging character whose apparent bad temper should be interpreted as simply amoral, neither good nor evil. The forces of nature are not human-hearted, representing as they do the cycle of life and death, followed again by birth and renewal. Nature nurtures and nature destroys. So too, does the dragon.
By the looks of them, dragons have been around since the dawn of time. These giant, winged, fire-breathing lizards are reminiscent of the prehistoric creatures – dinosaurs, no less – that once roamed the earth millions of years ago, but the fact is, the dragon grew out of the human imagination. However, the genesis of the mighty dragon may have been helped in no small part by the discovery in China and other parts the world of the fossil remains of dinosaurs and other gigantic reptiles. The dragon came to represent both the beneficent and malevolent elements, depending on which part of the world it breathed its fiery breath.
In China, these mythological creatures were the symbol of both the supernatural and of imperial power, residing in the heavenly realms. They were often spotted looming around thunder clouds, and became the deities of rain, producing downpours when it suited them. As shape-shifting creatures, they became so embedded in the myths and legends of Chinese culture, that the dragon is said to be the ancestor of the Chinese people. In Japan, a similar claim was made when a certain emperor declared that he was a direct descendant, himself, of the powerful and immortal dragon. It’s not surprising then, that the image of the dragon appeared on the robes of the emperor, signifying the protective powers of the dragon as well as the temporal power of the emperor.
As Dragons were said to represent the Four Elements, so the stories and myths of dragons who had dominion over Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Each of these elemental dragons had unique characteristics that had to be taken into consideration. To the Chinese, the fire-spitting dragon was principally associated with lightning, and by extension to thunder and rainmaking, which made it a symbol of fertility. All this celestial activity was how Earth and Water elements were united. Water dragons were thought to protect and act as guardians of streams, lakes, rivers and even individual pools. It was thought that dragons were able to make springs bubble from the ground.
In addition to the elemental dragons there were also unique dragons of myth, legend and lore. There were dragons who guarded special treasures or dragons who were charged with special tasks, quests and responsibilities. Dragons often controlled or had in their possession Pearls of Wisdom and other jewels or items with magical properties that conveyed great power to those who possessed it. The rain bearing power of thunder was often depicted as a pearl held in the dragon’s mouth or throat. Over time, the dragon’s pearl also stood for the king’s purity of thought or the perfection of his commands. “You do not argue with the dragon’s pearl”, said Chairman Mao.
Both Japanese and Chinese lore are also filled with stories of creatures, who, through their special quests, at the end of their journeys, were transformed into dragons. In Japan, these were often the stories of Carp and Koi who through their perseverance, journeys and struggles, in the end were transformed into dragons.