Dormant in the winter, resplendent in the summer, the water lily is a mythical plant that blooms in symbolic colors and has its own place in the legends of many lands. Water lilies are popular tattoos because they are celebrity flowers and, like the best skin art, they tell a story.
Water Lily Tattoo Designs
Inked water lilies make beautiful, often symmetrical stand-alone tattoos and are equally at home in the middle of a busy full back or sleeve. You may find one wrapped around a lucky carp in a classic Japanese tattoo, or supporting a deity in a large colorful mandala. Choose the simple lily for a watercolor wash of abstract skin art. Center an eight-petalled lotus on your chest or the back of your neck. The eight petals align with the eight limbs of yoga and the Buddhist eight-fold path to liberation. Ink the tiny outline of a lily on a finger or behind your ear.
Tao and Zen
A stylized water lily centered on the back is a recognizable flower but an unmistakable symbol. You determine if the meaning is secular (cultural) or sacred (spiritual) to you. Observers will make their own assumptions. Center a smaller blossom between your shoulder blades for maximum exposure in a strapless dress. Make it larger and position it toward the lower end of your spine as the base for an eventual explosion of colorful Asian images that cover your back. Keep it monochrome all-black, or color in some or all of the petals.
Flip Flop Flowers
As you walk the Eightfold Path, wear a pair of lotus tats on the tops of your feet. A nest of water lily petals in lavenders and blues calls on your higher powers with every step. Embellish the matching tats with fluttering butterflies and think about adding a tiny frog on a lily pad on the outside of each ankle. Flip-flops are all you need with that much art on your feet.
The Lotus pose is the classic meditation seat. Your legs are tucked in, like the rounded leaves of the water lily, and your torso rises up tall like the stalk of the lotus reaching for the sky. A stylized lotus on your inner arm, that incorporates an infinity symbol as the leaves, is on full display when you rest your hands on your thighs in jnana mudra. The ancient Egyptians linked lilies with infinity, rebirth and renewal. That's a lot to contemplate for one choice sliver of real estate on your forearm.
Buddha sat on a lotus throne. So did every Hindu deity from Ganesh to Lakshmi. Add a lotus seat or base to your inked depiction of the Buddha - or your favorite god or goddess - in the center of your chest over your heart. Select your image with care because the position of the lotus has a specific meaning. A closed flower and furled leaves refer to a time before you were aware of Buddhist teachings. A wide-open bloom and very spread-out leaves means you are self-aware and maybe enlightened. There's room on a chest for enlightenment although it might be wise to settle for the partly bloomed middle path. You don't have to have killer abs for this tat - but it wouldn't hurt.
Blessings For Your Backbone
Water lilies are adaptable art. They are ideal for filling in an ambitious piece that ranges on an angle over a back or around a thigh, or covers the upper arm. Because the lily-lotus is embraced as a significant symbol by so many cultures, the flower fits in with your Japanese samurai or geisha tat, your panoramic depiction of the pyramids (the blue lotus was painted and reproduced in Egyptian tomb art), your hearts-and-flowers-forever tat, or those goth snakes and skulls that need some balance and vibrant life to alleviate the gloom. Use multiple blossoms for blank spots, a single large bloom as a centerpiece, or a base lotus and a pinnacle lotus to tie things together.
If you're into tribal tats, a fully open water lily with its distinctive seed pod revealed makes a great complement to the dark, heavy lines. A wide bloom, hand drawn in black with no stem or leaves, appears to be floating over your shoulder blade like a lily on a pond. The strong symmetry of the flower, with detailing and shadows on the petals, is an arresting image. Add the showerhead-shaped seed pod for realism. This ink works on rounded body parts as well - the swell of a calf or over the shoulder and upper arm.
Small and Simple
Water lilies can be as subtle as they are showy. A spare, abstract squiggle that suggests a water lily with a curvy stalk is all you need trailing down the back of your neck. Keep it simple; keep it modern; keep it elegant. A lotus is freighted with meaning but a light approach to a smaller size tattoo is more versatile. A non-traditional lily-lotus can hide under your ponytail, nestle into the curve of an ankle, wrap around your wrist, or even bloom on the side of a finger. Hint: the sacred flower looks like a common meadow blossom if you color it when it is small. Stick to black for miniature blooms.
The Lotus and the Lily
Strictly speaking, a lotus is a water lily, although not every water lily is a lotus. But that is an almost meaningless distinction in the tattoo world because both are assigned the sacred and symbolic meaning of the lotus, and both are exquisite flowers with many tattoo-worthy specimens.
Water lilies come in a variety of vibrant colors and can be identified because their leaves float directly on the water. The flowers are at or near the water surface, too. The lotus is an emergent plant with leaves rising up above a pond or lake and flowers fixed on stalks that can reach several feet in height above the water's surface, for the larger varieties. But here's why they are magic and routinely confused. Both are rooted in the mud and send up stalks that lift the buds above the water's surface toward the sky. Both bloom in pristine beauty, reaching heavenward. You are safe choosing a water lily-lotus as an aspirational tattoo.
Padma, the thousand-petaled lotus, is considered in Eastern cultures to be the mouth or birthing place of the universe; possessing perfectly divine beauty; a Hindu and Buddhist symbol of freedom from attachment; and a symbol for enlightenment. Egyptians believed the lotus to be a metaphor for rebirth, infinite life, purity and renewal. A blue lotus, indigenous to Africa and found in the Nile, was considered the most sacred of the water lilies. The Chinese believed that gazing at a lotus would mesmerize you into perfection.
The white lotus stands for a pure mind; red evokes compassion and heart wisdom; blue signifies intelligence; and purple opens the door to mystical insights. Pink lotuses are stand-ins for Siddhartha, the historical Buddha.
No Mud, No Lotus
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has painted iconic calligraphy with the idiom "No Mud, No Lotus" and has written a whole book about it. The profound seduction of the water lily is that it mirrors a human life. When a person transcends the mundane - even the inevitable muck - and grows steadily toward the light, we call that the journey to enlightenment. The bloom of a pristine flower, with no mud clinging to it, from such a humble origin is infinitely hopeful. Your water lily tattoo may signify many things to you. But, whatever meaning you attach to it, a water lily tattoo is first and always about hope.