The phoenix is a mythological firebird present in the folklore of several cultures, including those of the Egyptians, Arabians, Romans, Persians, Greeks, Chinese and Indians (among others). It is strongly connected to the idea of rebirth, renewal, and immortality. While phoenixes exist in the folklore of numerous cultures, the specific nature of the phoenix is anything but constant. The phoenix has traditionally been said to live for 500 to 1,000 years. At the end of its life cycle, it builds a nest of twigs, which then catches fire. The nest and bird are engulfed in flames, eventually burning to ashes. But from these ashes, a new phoenix is born, and the cycle begins anew. Depending on the specific story, the phoenix may be the same bird or the offspring of the first.
In China and Japan (where the phoenix is called the Feng Huang and the Hou-ou, respectively), the phoenix’s tale is quite different. It is closely associated with the dragon (See dragon tattoo designs), both as lover and deadly enemy, a complex motif steeped in meaning – both conflict and bliss characterize the relationship, something many people see reflected in their own relationships. Interestingly, many tattoo designs merge aspects of artistic renderings of phoenixes traditional to the version of the phoenix in Egypt and Rome with those of Chinese and Japanese tattoo designs, with striking and unique results.
The phoenix in art is portrayed numerous ways. Of course, it is typically largely inked in shades of orange, red, and yellow – fiery, intense colors. These designs place emphasis on the phoenix as a bird tattoo design of fire and draw upon that aspect of its folklore for meaning (rebirth, renewal, etc). But, just as often, some its plumage is also wildly vivid and marked with a greater variety of color, especially among Asian-inspired designs.
The prestige and otherworldly beauty of the phoenix’s plumage lends itself to designs that revel in elaborate artistry and allow for flexibility on the part of the artist – any colors go, essentially. Similarly, the bird’s shape itself varies across cultures and specific works of art. Depictions range from sharp-beaked birds of prey to long-necked birds with very long tail feathers reminiscent of cranes or even peacocks.
As mentioned before, in Asia the phoenix is linked to the dragon, and many designs integrate both in what can be interpreted as a battle or, in some designs, a kind of lover’s embrace. It is often intentionally unclear whether they are fighting or embracing – in fact, a valid interpretation would be that they are doing both simultaneously.
Some designs, on the other hand, go in exactly the opposite route, turning the traditional elaborate style on its head and going for a minimalist approach. This particular design opts for the colorful tail feathers, then adds a flame in the bird’s chest to identify it as a phoenix.
Another variation constructs the bird in a tribal fashion, using the solid lines, spirals, and arcs that characterize tribal designs to form the body of the phoenix, while the head is more free-form and closer to the traditional.
Like the tribal design before, this design also forgoes the use of color altogether (rare in phoenix designs), and draws its most striking visual feature from the tail feathers (See feather tattoo designs), much more closely resembling those of a peacock than many other designs. This affords the design an elongated, smoothly-flowing feel that works well for its placement -- wrapped from the shoulder blade, around the hip and across the midsection.