The dolphin is a popular animal for tattoos, with a long history as a potent image in coastal or maritime cultures. Dolphins are fairly unique in their symbolic value, as sailors have long loved them for their role (both actual and imagined) in saving drowning seamen. Dolphins are also beloved in modern culture as some of the most intelligent and sociable animals, often considered to possess near human degrees of intelligence and social cohesion. Dolphins are among the few animals possessing transmitted culture, with pods trading fishing techniques and even tool use as they interact with their fellows.
Mythically speaking, the dolphin has long been associated with mermaids and sea creatures, though it has never been considered dangerous like many other creatures of the deep. The Celts had a long and complicated relationship with the dolphin. As a benevolent sea creature, dolphins (and the sea they inhabited) were often considered capable of washing away sins or crimes from the guilty or providing absolution to those in need of it. This symbol of rebirth, in a moral or spiritual sense, grew even more pronounced, with dolphins being the agents of rebirth.
The playful nature of dolphins has been well known since Ancient times, when sailors watched them cruising the bow swell at the front of their vessels, or playing in the waters around ships. The playful nature of dolphins has a modern element as well as most people interact with dolphins in the context of sea parks and the like. Dolphins seem like happy, well adjusted creatures with strong family dynamics and a well developed sense of play. This makes them an attractive tattoo for people who possess those traits.
Perhaps the defining trait of dolphins in the cultural consciousness is freedom. This is another attractive quality when looking for a tattoo symbolizing hopes and dreams. People identify with certain animals, often quite strongly, and dolphins are no exception. The symbolic qualities of dolphins tend to focus on their free nature, playfulness, loyalty and intelligence, all of which are attributes prized in people.
Dolphins are often included in other tattoo motifs. The popularity of the Celtic knot in tattoos and the close connection between Celtic folklore and dolphins has lead to a large number of tribal Celtic tattoos featuring a dolphin. Similar tattoos done in the style of Maori body art are also common as the dolphin was a common image in Pacific Islander cultures. And along with fish, orcas, dolphins and other marine mammals were a very important symbol in the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest and North East. Because dolphins are closely connected with the sea and sailors, they are part of a long tradition of maritime tattoos that are among the oldest traditions in Western tattoos.