Paper Boat Tattoos: Symbolism, Meanings & More

Paper Boat Tattoos: Symbolism, Meanings & More

Many of us would have fond childhood memories of making little paper boats that we would gently set sail in the bath, swimming pool, or nearby pond. As such, they are poignant symbols of the innocence of childhood play.

Boats themselves are also strongly connected to notions of freedom and travel and a paper boat tattoo is an excellent choice for those of us imbued with wanderlust or are nostalgic for our long-lost childhoods.

This article lists everything you need to know about paper boat tattoos, especially if you’re considering getting one inked on your skin. This includes an examination of their links to traditional Japanese paper folding, symbolism, characteristic styles, and where people usually get them placed on their bodies.


What is the history of the paper boat tattoo?

Paper boats, like paper airplanes, have their origins in the traditional Japanese art of paper folding. Known by the Japanese word origami, from ori meaning ‘folding’ and kami meaning ‘paper’, today it can refer to any type of paper folding technique where the aim is to fold and transform a square sheet of paper into a finished object.

The earliest known example of paper folding outside Japan comes from Europe in the form of a picture of a small paper boat. Dated to 1498, it was published in the French edition of Johannes de Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphaera Mundi, a document detailing basic elements of astronomy.

There is archaeological evidence that humans all over the world have practiced tattooing; however, it has only become commonplace during the early 21st century. This is because having a tattoo is no longer seen as a taboo or radical act but is more like a fashion statement.


What does the paper boat symbolize?

The paper boat is a curious symbol that can be used to represent:

The innocence of childhood play

There are few toys as simple as a sheet of paper that can be folded into a boat and sailed on a body of water. Evoking the long-lost summer days of our childhood, paper boats represent the innocence and beauty of childhood play, as seen through the lens of an adult who can appreciate how wonderful that time was.

Discovery and travel

Boats, by and large, are wonderful symbols of freedom, travel, and the discovery that comes with it. With only the power of wind and the sun on your face, a sailboat can take you anywhere in the world.


A journey into the afterlife

In the ancient Egyptian culture, the boat was a symbol of the transition between life and death where it took you from the land of the living into the afterlife.

In ancient Greek culture, a boat in the form of a ferry is used in the underworld to transport the souls of the dead from one side of the River Styx River to the other.

The impermanence of life

Paper boats symbolize life, specifically its fragile and impermanent nature. Like life, the paper boat won’t last forever, nor is it designed to. Eventually, the boat will break apart and sink, just as we grow old and ultimately die.

The story of Noah’s Ark

The story of Noah’s Ark comes from the Old Testament of the Christian bible. It tells the tale of a man named Noah who builds a huge boat – the ark – to survive a worldwide flood created by an unhappy and vengeful god. As a popular tale at the heart of Christian mythology, it is also a story that represents the hopefulness of renewal, cleansing, and piety.


What do paper boat tattoos mean?

Paper boat tattoos can mean different things to different people, such as:


Wanderlust is the desire to travel. For some people, life would not be as exciting, enriching, and rewarding without the ability to travel. A paper boat, with its connection to the symbolism of travel, represents the innocent and unfiltered desire for the freedom that travel provides.

The human condition

The human condition encompasses the common stages of human existence from birth to growth, maturity, and eventually death. This includes the emotions of love, conflict, aspiration, and mortality. As something that is made, exists for a short time and then succumbs into the water, there are few items that embody the fragility of the human condition as much as a paper boat.


Once set down on the water, the paper boat cannot dictate which direction it will travel. Rather than being a symbol of directionless wandering, it represents the freedom that comes from not knowing where you are going but enjoying the ride while it lasts.


Origami is a traditional Japanese art that requires precision, patience, and artistic ability. It can also be therapeutic, meditative, and relaxing.


What are the most popular types of paper boat tattoos?

Paper boats are revered for their simplicity and paper boat tattoos are no different. You are likely to see paper boat tattoos drawn with simple straight lines, often in monochrome or black and white. Sometimes there will be a splash of color to highlight the water or surrounding landscape.

They can be on their own or part of a larger motif such as:

  • With an anchor dragging the boat under the water
  • On a tranquil pond
  • In turbulent water or going over dangerous rapids

Where do people usually get these tattoos on their bodies?

Paper boat tattoos are by their nature unassuming and delicate. They are usually drawn quite small and can be placed on any part of the body such as the inside of the ankle, elbow, shoulder blade, and the hop of the hand.

Thanks to their simplistic nature, they can also be inked onto your fingers.

The final word on paper boat tattoos

The paper boat tattoo is a simple yet meaningful symbol that can represent your love of travel, nostalgia for childhood innocence, and freedom from limitations. It is also a potent symbol of the frailties of life and our transition to another type of existence after we die.  

Leave a Reply