The Symbolism of Foo Dog Tattoos

An artist tattooing a foo dog
Jason Lander / Flickr / Creative Commons

Foo dogs—the intimidating, mythical creatures seen in many forms of art ranging from architecture to tattoos—symbolize prosperity and success, as well as guardianship. Also known as protective lions, they're usually depicted in pairs to represent both yin and yang. If you want a fierce, meaningful tattoo design that is rich in both Asian history and symbolism, a foo dog may be for you.

Is It a Lion or a Dog?

Judging by its appearance, you might conclude the foo dog, with its glowing eyes, spots, and growling expression, is a canine, a feline, a little of both, or neither.

In truth, foo dogs are not dogs at all; the term arises from erroneous Western interpretations. In Chinese Buddhism, where they originated, these creatures are lions, not dogs.

The Western misnomer likely arose from a combination of mispronunciation and confusion. The words fo and fu mean "Buddha" in Chinese, and foo dogs resemble two Chinese dog breeds associated with lions: the shih tzu ("lion dog") and the chow chow ("puffy lion dog"). Thus, we get foo + dog. In actuality, however, the culturally proper term for a foo dog is "guardian lion." 

Foo Dog Symbolism

The Chinese believed that these mythical guardian lions had special protective powers. According to legend, their sole mission was to keep watch over Buddhist temples. Statues of guardian lions still stand guard over innumerable buildings throughout Asia, from opulent homes and government buildings to imperial tombs, temples, and palaces.

You also might see them decorating commercial structures, such as stores, hotels, and other businesses, both in Asia and Asian communities around the world. They adorn artistic pieces like pottery, architectural elements, and paintings. The symbolism dates all the way back to about 208 BC. 

In general, Buddhists consider the lion to be sacred; lions represent peace and are believed to impart calmness to anyone who bears their mark.

They also represent happiness and energy. 

When they're displayed as statues, they almost always appear in pairs. One is a male lion leaning against a ball, which symbolizes domain over the world, and the other is a female holding a cub, which represents a mother's nurturing. Together, they're a study in contrast and complement, strength moderated by gentleness and wisdom.

Other Symbols of Luck and Protection

If you want a tattoo with this kind of symbolism but don't find the foo dog appealing, you can choose from many other designs that convey protection, success, and balance. If you want to stick with an Asian-inspired theme, consider a Koi fish tattoo. In Chinese tradition, the koi symbolizes strength, a trait it displays in its travels up the Yellow River in its quest to transform into a mighty dragon.

Other options include crosses, Pagan symbols, dreamcatchers tattoos, and the numbers seven and 13, all of which are said to confer protection and convey strength. For a lighter-hearted, prettier design, you might opt for a dandelion, which stands for hope and wishes.

Best Placement for a Foo Dog Tattoo

If you're ready to ink this ancient, noble symbol, you should keep a few things in mind when deciding where to put it—chief among them, size.

Foo dog tattoos tend to be rather large. Remember that foo dogs travel in pairs, according to tradition, so this alone makes for a bigger design. Foo dogs also tend to be very elaborate, colorful, and detailed, so yours has to be large enough so you can appreciate its detail (and so your tattoo artist has a good shot at rendering it well). Given the size and detail, you're going to be investing a bit in terms of time, pain, and expense, so put the design where you and others can appreciate it.

The arms, legs, and outer thighs are good choices. Some people split the foo dogs between sides—for instance, one tattoo on each side of the chest or on each arm.

Depending on your preferences, you can add all kinds of background details to your foo dogs, such as bamboo (which symbolizes good luck). Some research and your imagination can yield some beautiful results.

Tattoo artist selection is always important, but especially so with such a prominent, detailed piece. The tattoo pictured here was created by tattoo artist James Vaughn, a contestant on season one of SPIKE TV's Ink Master. Choose your artist carefully, and you'll enjoy a beautiful piece of body art that's rich in symbolism and tradition.