Bears are beautiful, gentle-looking creatures with a primal side.
As a result, people have been fascinated by them since the beginning of our recorded history.
It’s a human trait to want to classify things.
Are bears gentle giants or fearsome predators? They are both.
That contrast has confused people for thousands of years.
Naturally, this leads to all kinds of legends and superstition.
In the tattoo world, bears are a popular design that can show up in any art style.
Some people opt for the soft and cuddly side of our fuzzy friends, while others show off their dangerous claws and jaws.
Are you planning a bear tattoo? Let’s explore some bear legends and folklore.
Once you know which bear mythology resonates with you, you’ll be able to plan a meaningful design.
We make sense of the world through our mythology.
And much has been written about bears.
Who they are, why they’re here, and what magical secrets they may contain.
Nanook the Polar Bear
Nanook (AKA Nanuk, Nanuq, Tornarssuk) translates to “polar bear” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit peoples.
“Inuit” is a large umbrella term that refers to the Indigenous peoples of Northern Canada.
Because the land is large and spread out, there are many individual Inuit tribes.
This means there are also many variations on the language and traditions.
Nanook is an important totem animal for Inuit peoples.
When a bear stands on its hind legs, from a distance it resembles a human.
It also has 5 “fingers” on each paw, making some Inuit people theorize they had descended from bears.
The legend is that Nanook is a mythological guide for hunters.
They believe it is Nanook who decides which hunts are successful.
So they worshiped Nanook to stay in the good graces of the animal.
In Nanook’s legend, the creature is being pursued by hunting dogs.
The group of them run so far, they reach the edge of the earth and fly off.
They are then immortalized as stars, specifically the constellation Pleiades.
This group of stars is close to Ursa Major, a collection of stars known as the Caribou to the Inuit peoples.
In Greek mythology, Ursa Major is thought of as the great bear.
It’s interesting how the same patch of sky can have similar meanings on opposite ends of the globe.
If you decide to get a bear tattoo based on Nanook, you are inviting some very powerful energy into your life.
Maybe you identify as a hunter, either spiritually or by trade.
In that case, a Nanuk tattoo would be a perfect choice.
Callisto the Nymph
Another celestial bear story, this time in Greek mythology. Callisto was a nymph.
In the Grecian belief system, a nymph is an ethereal maiden who hangs out in wooded areas and bodies of water.
She had pledged to stay a virgin for Artemis, who was a mentor to her.
The two would regularly hunt alongside each other.
Like many Greek myths, there are a few versions of the tale.
In some stories, Zeus (Zeus tattoo) seduces Callisto. In others, he rapes her.
In some, he seduces her disguised as Artemis.
In any case, she loses her virginity to Zeus.
Though Callisto tries to hide her broken vow from Artemis, she becomes pregnant with Zeus’s child.
Upon discovering this, Artemis punishes Callisto by turning her into a bear.
When Callisto’s son, Arcas, was born, the two were separated.
One day, Arcas comes across Callisto in the woods.
As she approaches, he sees her as a wild animal and tries to hunt her.
Seeing this, Zeus protects Callisto by turning her into a constellation.
He does the same for Arcas, who becomes Ursa Minor aka “The Little Dipper” to some.
The Big Dipper makes up part of the Ursa Major constellation.
So if you can find the big dipper, you can find Callisto!
This story doesn’t really have a moral, but it highlights the dichotomy of the bear.
On the inside, Callisto is a gentle nymph and proud mother who wants to see her child.
On the outside, she’s a wild beast.
Bears as a Symbol for Mothers
Bears are known for being fiercely protective of their young.
Some mothers call themselves “mamma bears.”
They mean this to explain that they’ll do anything to defend their babies.
A bear may be a natural choice for a matching mother and child tattoo.
Or you could put a new spin on it and get Ursa Major & Minor.
Mama Bear Tattoos
Pop Culture Bear Tattoos
Care Bear Tattoos
Since their 1981 debut, the Care Bears have become pop culture icons.
Care Bear tattoos are a fun idea because of how highly customizable they are.
Each bear wears a symbol of importance to them- which gives adults the opportunity for a cheeky joke.
You can also go with a classic design if you’re a child at heart.
Pooh Bear Tattoos
Pooh Bear means a lot to so many people.
The original stories were written for children, but contain timeless wisdom that makes them worth revisiting as an adult.
Remind yourself never to grow up with a Pooh Bear tattoo design straight from the hundred-acre wood.
Grateful Dead Bear Tattoos
These colorful bears appeared on the dead’s 1973 album History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice).
Some have said that the bears were inspired by Jerry Garcia’s playful personality and his nickname, “Papa Bear.”
Though many have called these the dancing bears, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the group’s sound engineer, says they’re marching in formation.
Either way, a Grateful Dead bear tattoo is a nice nod to other fans.
Brother Bear Tattoos
Everyone has a Disney movie that resonated with them at a certain time.
For some, it’s the 2003 hit, Brother Bear.
The film deals with themes of respect for nature and brotherhood.
If the film meant something to you and your family, consider an homage to a simpler time with a Brother Bear tattoo.
Smokey The Bear Tattoos
“Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
For people of a certain generation, this phrase is iconic.
Smokey the Bear was a character created for public outdoor education and wildfire prevention.
He was inspired by a real bear, who was rescued in a New Mexico forest fire and taken to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1950.
If you have a nostalgic streak or work in outdoor education yourself, a Smokey the Bear tattoo is a really neat choice.
Kanye West Bear Tattoos
The College Dropout Bear represents Kanye’s rebellion against societal norms.
He resisted the idea that college was the only way to become a success story, which is why he named his debut studio album The College Dropout.
But the rebellion isn’t just against college- it’s against norms in the rap scene.
In an industry that, quite often, runs on machismo, using a teddy bear as a mascot sets Kanye apart.
The symbol was meant to be a symbol of hope for fans, which is why College Dropout Bear tattoos are so popular.
Yogi Bear Tattoos
Yogi Bear is a playful, enduring symbol in cartoon history.
Often known for his appetite and over-estimating his own intelligence, he’s a lovable goof a lot of people can relate to.
Life is short, if you’re a tattoo collector, make sure you’ve got a fun design in the mix.
Radiohead Bear Tattoos
The Radiohead Bear seems to have two origin stories:
One, a symbol of paranoia about genetic modification, and two- a drawing for Stanley Donwood (the artist)’s child.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
The band had been talking about genetic modification and experiments and, around the same time, Stanley thought up a story for his children.
The story was about a forgotten teddy bear who eats humans.
It all seemed to flow from there.
The design has an interesting aesthetic in that it’s plain enough to be interpreted in many ways.
Radiohead fans will recognize the tattoo immediately, everyone else will just think it looks cool.
Polo Bear Tattoos
In 1991, Ralph Lauren’s design team presented him with a gift: A teddy bear wearing Ralph Lauren’s classic polo aesthetic.
Because Lauren loved the gift so much, he began carrying the bears in his stores.
At the same time, polo wear was becoming an obsession in the world of hip hop, and with that, so did the bear.
The bright, audacious colors are a draw for rap artists, but it’s also an interesting statement on class divisions.
It’s often a symbol of the aspirational themes that run through hip hop’s core- about working hard to get what’s yours.
The bear looks innocent enough, but there’s something so much deeper to the polo bear tattoo design.
You’ll often see it on someone with a love for hip hop, way back to the beginning.
Even Kanye gives a little shout out to the polo bear on College Dropout, continuing the legacy with his own cuddly mascot.
Symbolism of Bear Tattoos in Different Cultures
It can be hard to choose the perfect style for your new tattoo.
Maybe you can take inspiration from some cultural attitudes and traditions.
Once you know the well you’re drawing from, you may have an easier time choosing a tattoo style.
Just be sure that, if you’re inspired by a culture outside your own, you choose your design with respect.
Bears in Native American Culture
Though bear symbolism varies from tribe to tribe, there are some similarities.
The bear is known for its human-like qualities, and revered as a noble beast.
It is often seen as a protector over all the other animals.
In this context, a bear tattoo is a protective symbol.
People from Indigenous populations may be inspired by the bear art from their specific tribe.
Bears in Norse Mythology
A bear was the preferred disguise for Odin, the king of all Norse gods. (go to Odin tattoo for more!)
To Norse peoples, the bear is seen as a symbol of wisdom and strength.
It is also a bridge between the spiritual and tangible world.
Odin was on an eternal quest for divine knowledge, and was prepared to make great sacrifices to obtain it.
Does that sound like you?
If you’re a fan of Norse mythology and have been looking for an original tattoo idea, a bear with Nordic imagery would make for a unique ode to Odin.
Now your task is to find an artist who understands the culture enough to make a proper tribute.
Bears in Chinese Mythology
The most famous bear in Chinese culture is the panda bear, a clown in the bear family.
Pandas are less viscous than other bears, but they can defend themselves if need be.
Due to their slow, silly approach to life, pandas have become a symbol for taking things slow.
Are you prone to multitasking or burnout?
Maybe you need some panda energy in your day.
Main Themes in Bear Tattoos
Baby Bear Tattoos
Bear tattoos can be so versatile.
On one hand, we have a bloodthirsty creature who is feared by many. On the other, we have a funny, irresistibly cute, and sometimes clumsy creature.
Your bear tattoo can play up either side of this animal.
A baby bear tattoo is all about a bear’s softer side.
This is a popular tattoo for parents, especially women who consider themselves “mamma bear.”
Forest & Bear Tattoos
For outdoor enthusiasts, a bear is the ultimate symbol of being out in the wilderness.
These creatures add a little texture and interest to forest landscape tattoos.
Roaring Bear Tattoos
Do you answer the call of the wild?
A roaring bear is a fearful sight, and having one as a tattoo is an invocation of your primal side.
Do you need to get in touch with your wild instincts?
A roaring bear tattoo is a signal to burst out of your domesticated shell once in a while.
Bull & Bear Tattoos
A bull and bear have become sort of like the “tragedy comedy” masks in theatre, but for the stock market.
A bull market is on the rise, while a bear market is falling into decline.
The two animals have become symbols for optimism and pessimism as a result.
It’s often imperative to have a healthy dose of both, so and bull and bear tattoo can be a reminder of that balance.
Bear Claw Tattoos
Bear Tattoo Designs
There are so many reasons to love a bear tattoo.
You can get one in any style. They suit elaborate portraiture, simple old school tattoo designs, and everything between.
A bear can symbolize your love of nature, your quest for knowledge, your protective streak, or your love of star-gazing.
They’re a versatile and accommodating symbol, and they’ve been revered by so many cultures for so long.
Why not join in the bear love with some fresh ink?
Still hunting for the perfect bear design?
Check out our bear tattoo gallery for some grizzly inspiration!
Black & Grey Bear Tattoos
Black and grey bear tattoos are a beautiful, realistic way to pay homage to this magnificent beast.
These tattoos can be fierce, or they can show the wise and gentle nature of the beast.
These will have a portrait feel but are slightly more romanticized.
Black-work Bear Tattoos
If you like the monochrome elements of a black and grey tattoo, but want something a little more cutting edge, consider a black-work bear tattoo.
Black-work is a stunning technique with large sections of highly saturated black ink.
Black-work tattoos are a versatile tattoo style because it can be combined with other techniques for a truly unique result.
Realistic Bear Tattoos
Realistic can refer to photorealism, where a tattoo subject looks exactly as it does in real life, and a take with a little more artistic license.
Some realistic tattoos combine portraiture elements with slightly more surreal effects, making an altogether unforgettable bear tattoo design.
Graphic Bear Tattoos
In graphic tattoos, artists combine several highly graphic styles to create one image.
These designs are often a tug of war between symmetry and more organic elements.
We love these graphic bear tattoos because they capture the bear’s essence but have plenty of artistic flair.
American Traditional Bear Tattoos
Bears are one of the many predatory animals that feature heavily in American traditional tattoo designs.
American traditional tattoos were often worn by men who wanted to pay homage to their primal instincts and virility while flaunting their dominance over the natural world.
Today, they’re worn by people of all genders as an homage to America’s history with ink.
Single Needle Bear Tattoos
The details in these single needle bear tattoos are breathtaking.
In a single needle tattoo, an artist works with only one needle.
Typically, tattooers use a variety of liners and shaders to achieve their objective.
This is a highly advanced technique, and gorgeous when pulled off well.
Geometric Bear Tattoos
Geometric tattoos have a high visual impact.
The juxtaposition of the natural world meets futuristic geometry is an interesting one to look at.
This style is similar to graphic tattoos, but in these designs, the bear is made up of basic shapes and patterns, rather than being surrounded by them.
Illustrative Bear Tattoos
Illustrative is a broad term in the tattoo world and simply means that the tattoo looks like a drawing rather than a portrait.
These tattoos cannot be classified as one style or another, so they are referred to as illustrative tattoos.
If you aren’t sure what style you like, your artist can get creative with an illustrative bear tattoo design.
One Line Bear Tattoos
If you like to keep it simple- one line tattoos are clean and contemporary while still being extremely interesting to the eye.
As the name suggests, a one line tattoo must be drawn with one continuous line, so it has no detail or shading work.
The resulting use of negative space makes for a dazzling bear tattoo.
New School Bear Tattoos
If you’re a Saturday morning cartoon kid at heart, new school is the genre for you.
New School tattoo style blends cartoonish elements with graffiti techniques to create playful, exaggerated characters.
A new school bear tattoo is sure to turn heads.
Sketchy Bear Tattoos
Perfect for art fans, the “sketchy” tattoo style looks like it was ripped from a sketchbook.
If you consider yourself a little rough around the edges, think about taking a sketchy approach to your bear tattoo.
Neo-traditional Bear Tattoos
Neo-traditional tattoos have the best of a few worlds: The saturated color fills of an American Traditional tattoo, the interesting color choices of a New School tattoo design, and the bending, curving lines of Art Nouveau works from yesteryear.
This style is popular for animal designs, and it’s not hard to see why.
These Neo-traditional bear tattoos are truly dazzling and original.
Tribal Bear Tattoos
Tribal tattoos may be inspired by the traditional artwork from different tribes throughout time.
A tribal bear tattoo may refer to an Indigenous person’s spirit animal, something they would be presented with by an Elder or spiritual leader.
Watercolor Bear Tattoos
Watercolor tattoos are lively and eye-catching, and watercolor bear tattoos celebrate the spirit of the creature.
We love how the watercolor tattoo technique can be more realistic or abstract, but will always be enchanting.
Celtic Bear Tattoos
In Celtic traditions, a bear is associated most closely with Artio, the shape-shifting goddess of wildlife.
She can take the form of a bear, and would often be called upon by hunters before an expedition.
As a maternal symbol, a Celtic bear tattoo symbolizes divine protection and was often called upon during harsh Winter weather.
If you have times when you could use a Mamma bear, and you want to celebrate your Celtic heritage, a Celtic tattoo design is perfect for you.
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