Crane Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Crane Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

When it comes to bird tattoos, the crane has a long and celebrated history of symbolic meanings. If you’re looking for a bird known worldwide for its grace and elegance to add to your personal imagery, this has the potential to be an excellent choice for you.

Cranes have been a source of positive imagery and symbolism since ancient times, in both Eastern and Western cultures. Historically, they’re considered a source of wisdom and longevity, among other things.

This article explores the history, symbolism and potential meanings of crane tattoos.

What is the History Behind Crane Tattoos?

It’s not clear when exactly these birds entered the world of tattoo artistry, though there are tribal style designs that suggest they may have a longer history in that area than many animals.

As an image, the crane has been represented in Asian cultures for centuries. In China, it was once the symbol of the highest ranking individuals, those who were thought to be divinely blessed.

It is quite possible that this was one of many images to make the leap to tattooing, when tattoos became more popular worldwide in the 1930s.

In the aftermath of WWII, the crane image in particular gained new popularity as a symbol of hope, due to the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who folded 1,000 paper cranes with her family and friends, in a prayer to be well again after being affected by leukemia  due to radiation exposure in the wake of the Hiroshima Bombing.


Historical Representations of Crane Imagery and Meaning:

Cranes carry a great deal of symbolism in several cultures.

In Japan, these magnificent birds were considered an inspiration to many samurai, with their graceful movements and their incredible balance. At one point, they were even called ‘The Sage On One Leg’.

After the story of Sadako Sasaki became widespread, the paper crane became a symbol of hope to many, and the meaning became part of both traditional and paper crane imagery.

In China, martial artists studied the movements of the crane for inspiration. Whole styles of martial arts were created based on their movements, including Yong Chun White Crane Boxing, among others.

The Shaolin Monks include this bird as one of the 5 Animals of Shaolin Kempo.

Egyptians considered the crane a messenger of the gods, and a harbinger of peace and prosperity, though they often depicted the bird with two heads.

In ancient times, it was also considered a protector in both Eastern and Western cultures, due to its omnivorous diet. Cranes often eat snakes, frogs, and toads, which often cause difficulties for agricultural communities, to the point of being seen as a plague of sorts.

Because of their tendency to eat such pesky creatures, European cultures often considered a crane in the area to be a sign that the harvest would be good. It also meant there was less likely to be a drought or a shortage of water, since these birds prefer to nest in marshy, shallow-water areas.

India is one of the few cultures where the bird was not considered a positive omen. Instead, it was seen as something of a trickster.


What is the Symbolism Behind Crane Tattoos?

The symbolism of the crane varies from culture to culture, but the image of the crane holds meaning in many different parts of the world, and draws even greater symbolism from historical meanings of cultures and ages past.

Examples of symbolism attributed to the crane in different cultures Include:

– Japan: Wisdom and longevity

– Japanese Paper Crane: Hope, and Prayers carried to Heaven

– China: Immortality, especially two birds flying together.

– In India: A trickster.

– In Medieval Europe: Good fortune and Prosperity.

– Greeks and Celts: Domesticity, independence, spiritual cleansing, and courage

– In Africa: Divinity, and Messages conveyed to or from Divine sources

– In Egypt: Prosperity and peace

Other associated symbolism includes:

– A Protector and  guardian (for its pest control, but also it’s watchful stance, even when sleeping)

– Strength and patience (For its ability to stand for long periods of time in one place)

– Youth and beauty (For its appearance and elegance)

– Balance and Grace (For the way it moves, and its one-legged stance)

– Fidelity In Marriage (For their long lifespan)

– Two Cranes Flying Together: Purity and Cleanliness


What Possible Meanings Are Attached to Crane Tattoos?

There are several possible meanings attached to crane imagery.

Symbolism of Paired Crane Tattoos:

In older cultures, a man and a woman might get a paired set of crane tattoos. In part, this could represent a pledge of fidelity, as well as the desire for a long and happy marriage.

Paired Masculine/Feminine Crane tattoos can also represent a sort of yin-yang balance, though the practice is somewhat less common today.

Traditionally, this usually involved a woman with a standing crane tattoo to symbolize Beauty, Grace, Patience, and Feminine Sensuality, and a man with a Flying Crane tattoo to represent his Courage, Strength and Wisdom.

In a more modern interpretation, or with paired images for a single person, two birds can represent a sense of purity and rejuvenation, as an indication that someone has found their own wings – their own wisdom and strength.


Common Meanings Represented By Crane Tattoos:

– As with the popular story ‘Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes’, a tattoo of a paper crane is likely to represent hope, and the desire to convey a prayer or a wish to heaven.

– A bird in flight may represent a search for peace, wisdom, or prosperity in one’s life.

– A bird at rest may represent a person who is considered a source of wisdom, a teacher or a mentor, either living or passed on. It may also serve as a reminder or a symbol for a person’s own inner strength, and their ability to stand strong.

– A crane with wings outspread, but not necessarily in flight might represent a protector, either as a reminder of someone who serves as a protector, or as a symbol of a person’s own determination to be a protector or mentor to others.

– As a simpler meaning, any of these images may also represent a person’s belief in their own beauty and strength, as a reminder of self-confidence and their own self-worth.

Symbolism of Crane Tattoos Paired With Other Images:

Paired with other images, the meaning of the crane can change in hundreds, if not thousands, of ways.

For example, in traditional tattoos, a crane depicted with a stone in its beak or tied to its neck or leg represented vigilance and concentration, and a determination to remain watchful and steadfast.

The most common representation of a bird in flight against a rising or setting sun, displays an image of majesty and beauty. In ancient times, this was a symbol of divine authority and power, but today it might also represent a person’s strength of character, or a source of inspiration.

Paired with sakura blossoms, it can represent an appreciation for the beauty of life, and a delicate balance between longevity and an ephemeral existence. It might also represent a person’s inner beauty and passion.

When depicted with words or traditional kanji, the meaning of the tattoo can be as subtle and as diverse as the words themselves, or the crane might represent a messenger, and the words a message to be carried, similar to a prayer.


Where Are Crane Tattoos Usually Placed?

In flight or at rest, these birds have an elegant, streamlined appearance that can be adapted to form a breathtaking image in just about any location you choose.

The forearms or upper arms are an excellent location for a bird in flight, especially if it’s a solo image without a lot of background attached.

Calves are an excellent choice for Standing Crane tattoos, though a bird in flight can be here as well.

Shoulders, Wrists, and Ankles can be good choices for miniature images, though the shoulders have plenty of room if you want to display a larger or more detailed picture.

Back and shoulders are a great place if you want a highly detailed image, especially if you’ve got an idea for background designs. These are the best choices for images with a scenic flair to them.

Ribcage and abdomen are less common choices, but there’s plenty of room to put just about any style of crane you want.

For very daring individuals, flying cranes on either side of the neck are also an option, though it isn’t one that’s commonly used.


Styles and Characteristics of Crane Tattoos:

– These tattoos are almost always designed to display the entire bird.

– You can choose an image of a bird in flight, or a bird at rest in the iconic one-legged standing position, also sometimes called ‘The Dancing Crane’.

– Paper Crane tattoos are an option, and can be amazingly done in geometric or watercolor designs.

– Realistic or illustrated designs are an excellent choice for highly detailed artwork, or images done in color.

– Tribal, Geometric, Abstract or even Surrealist style designs are an option for solid, one-color tattoos.

– Traditional Eastern Style designs are also a popular option, especially when paired with other images such as a Rising Sun, Sakura Blossoms, or Kanji. Traditional crane images with color are usually accented with red on the bird’s crest.

– They can also be done in a style reminiscent of ink paintings.

– Single birds and Paired Cranes are both popular choices.

– Both pen-and-ink images and color images are equally popular.

– Crane images in flight are sometimes done with a background of clouds, wind, flowers or trees.

– The common background for cranes at rest is usually a pool of water, or a marshland style background.

Cranes are a striking bird, and make for a dynamic and impressive image as a tattoo. Wherever and however you choose to wear your crane tattoo, you’ll find yourself with an image full of meaning and symbolism with a link to several cultures around the world.


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