Lotuses are perennial water flowers (distinct from the waterlily) native to tropical Asia and Queensland, Australia. They are considered sacred in both the Buddhist and Hindu religions.
The lotus is also famous for its longevity, and its seeds remain can remain viable for an incredible amount of time— the longest recorded case being 1,300 years, when seeds from a riverbed in China were recovered and planted.
The color of the lotus is significant in traditional art. In the Hindu vein, the deities Lakshmi and Vishnu are associated with pink lotuses, while Sarasvati is seen standing on a white lotus. Other gods and goddesses are also frequently pictured on various colored lotuses.
In Buddhist art, the lotus represents thriving despite the imperfections of the world, just as the lotus blooms and lives above the mud and water. Just as with the deities of Hindu art, representations of the Buddha will often depict him standing within the petals of a lotus flower.
Separate from all of this, lotus tattoo designs have yet another layer of meaning across Asian cultures: they symbolize a lack of attachment to worldly things, as well as sexual purity.
In both Hindu and Buddhist art, the lotus represents the unfurling and expansion of the soul, as well as spiritual growth and development.
The pink lotus is the Supreme Lotus, traditionally reserved for association with the highest deity, as well as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate from the white lotus, which represents Bodhi, the state of spiritual perfection and mental serenity.
The purple lotus is of a more mystical nature than the other colors, and it’s also seen less frequently in traditional artwork. Traditional depictions show three stems or five (both of which are symbolically relevant), and the flower will usually have eight petals, representing the Noble Eightfold Path.
If designed with one petal facing forward towards the viewer, the design will have space for a symbol or smaller picture on the flower itself. Most common are the ohm character or a Chinese character.
The red lotus symbolizes qualities of the heart—love, compassion, and passion. Orange lotuses are seen fairly regularly in tattoo art but are not traditionally significant in Buddhist and Hindu culture. Since the lotus is a water flower, tattoo designs often feature them in water, and given the Asian influence on the lotus as a symbol, Japanese-style waves are a popular design choice.
The blue lotus is perhaps a bit more obscure in the tattoo world, and it symbolizes the victory of the spirit over the senses, as well as traits associated with the mind: wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge. Traditionally, the blue lotus is not pictured fully opened, unlike other colors. Two separate flowers of separate colors create a juxtaposition of qualities, then: mind versus heart, etc.
Lotus tattoo designs may picture only one lotus or a grouping of them—usually no more than three, though there’s no significant reason for this (just a trend in traditional art and, thus, tattoo art.)
The inner center of the lotus is that which is most sacred and guarded, defended by the petals, the truest, deepest self.
Lotus tattoo designs are flexible in pretty much every way, and they can be inked to take up a small space or large one, a square or rectangular one, etc. Common placements include the back (especially for a single flower), the feet, the shoulder and/or upper arm, and the side (mostly for chains of flowers.)
Opportunities for unique variations on traditional designs exist for every part of the flower: the petals, the stem, and the center. Not only do enterprising artists use the pedals as a canvas for specific design aspects, but those pedals can envelope anything that holds meaning to the person getting the tattoo (such as a skull in the picture above).
Lotus flower designs are alive with meaning, layer upon layer of it, and even more possibility exists to customize designs to add additional personal meaning. But all designs will carry with them the historical significance of traditional depictions: spiritual development and purity, as well as overcoming base physical and worldly concerns in favor of higher pursuits.
(Banner artwork by Andoledius on DeviantArt)