What is the Symbolism of a Mermaid Tattoo?

Learn the basic history.

A white woman dressed as a mermaid with a gold sequin tail and pink bikini top


Audrey Simper Photography/Getty Images

Swimming through the Seven Seas and charming men with their siren songs, mermaids have long been a subject of myth, legend, and beauty. Ranging across cultures, there is plenty of symbolism and meaning found within the mermaid's body, and they're much more than just a pretty face. In fact, some cultures didn't even believe them to have pretty faces at all. Often representing danger, temptation, sensuality and duality, the history and meanings behind the aquatic folk are as deep as the oceans themselves. If you're considering a mermaid tattoo, take a look at some of the more popular associations and meanings behind these mythical creatures before settling on a design.

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Ode to Sea

Since our bodies are made primarily of water, it's not a shock some people feel a compulsive desire to jump ship and swim fearlessly through the vast oceans. Mermaids can signify this particular sweet freedom of life, helping us pay tribute to our primordial home. By singing her song, the mermaid beckons us to return to the calm (and at times turbulent) water, and seems to promise our protection if we follow. How enticing.

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Mermaids love to bask in the sun, comb their hair and gaze into handheld mirrors admiring their own beauty. Christian churches have long used the symbolism of the mermaid to depict vanity as one of the seven deadly sins. Painted swimming amongst schools of fish, and depicted in murals throughout churches to encourage Man to refrain from the Devil's ways, mermaids take on an entirely different connotation in Greek Mythology.

Rather than being associated with sin, mermaids are the admired descendants of Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of both love and beauty. In this context, a mermaid tattoo can be a celebration of inner and outer beauty.

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The iconography of the mermaid has sensual power. Bare-breasted curves and long flowing hair are often symbols of feminine beauty, and she has them in spades. During the Victorian era when women were deemed to be covered up and wear their hair secured into conservative styles, mermaids let their wavy tresses down, tossed the rules aside, and playfully enticed men at sea. Adding to their loveliness, mermaids aren't shy about baring their bodies—although we now accept the idea they would cover their breasts with shells, that wasn't always the thought. 

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Is it really fair to call the mermaid dangerous? While sirens have always been considered dangerous, oddly, it wasn't until the Victorian era that the "mermaid" was dubbed untrustworthy. What was once just a lovely storybook character soon followed the suit of the siren, becoming the temptress that took down ships and drowned any man who followed her lure. In most myths and legends, mermaids are present for destruction, but whether they cause it or help people escape depends on the origin of the story.

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All magic comes at a price, something made obvious by the dual nature of the mermaid. As an ancient goddess, mermaids provided water for the crops. However, they also contributed deadly storms and waves that resulted in mass destruction and loss of life. If you balance giving and taking, a mermaid tattoo might help capture this particular aspect of your character. And, of course, your dangerous allure.

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Mermaids Around the World

If you're considering a mermaid tattoo, you may want to research fictional depictions of the sea-people that are celebrated around the world. There are many types of mermaids, and their history and legends vary. In Russia, water spirits are called the rusalka. In Korean folklore, mermaids have historically behaved in a kind and helpful manner. No matter what country from which the legends hail, most merfolk have the traits of fertility goddesses, likely because of their pre-Christian conceptions and from the belief that deities ruled the waters. 

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