As a teenager of the '90s, I vividly remember the craze for butterfly tattoos. We all thought butterflies and frosted lip gloss were the height of aesthetic sophistication, and I am eternally grateful that the butterfly trend had petered out by the time I turned 18, otherwise I would definitely be sporting a swirly baby blue butterfly somewhere on my body right now. Now, however, cancer survivors are breathing new life into this once-cliché tat by getting tattoos of butterflies and cancer ribbons, transforming what was once a sign of teenaged impulsiveness into kickass badges of courage.
Because of their unique life cycles and beauty, butterflies have been sources of symbolism in many cultures and religions for thousands of years. There is no single “meaning” to the butterfly; even within a single religious tradition, the butterfly may take on a wide variety of significations. However, given the nature of their development — starting as caterpillars, entering cocoons, and emerging as colorful, winged creatures — it should be no surprise that butterflies are very often associated with transformation and rebirth, associations that would speak powerfully to cancer survivors and people who have lost loved ones to cancer. In Christianity, butterflies symbolize the resurrection of Christ, as well as the eventual resurrection of his followers. Entomologist Ronald Gagliardi writes that in Greek mythology, butterflies are associated with Psyche, goddess of the soul. In Irish folklore, butterflies can symbolize souls moving through purgatory, and therefore represent life after death more broadly. In Japan, butterflies are sometimes seen as housing the souls of the dead as well as the living, while in China, butterflies are connected to immortality and joy. Gagliardi suggests that the flight of butterflies is further associated with freedom, as well as creativity.
Tattoos that combine butterfly imagery with cancer ribbons thus draw on these themes of transformation, resurrection, and rebirth. Because butterflies are also often seen as symbols of femininity, tattoos that pair butterflies with ribbons attached to cancers that primarily affect women (such as breast cancer and ovarian cancer) seem to be particularly prevalent. Most of these tattoos use the cancer ribbon to replace the butterfly’s body, although here and there, you’ll see tattoos that feature butterflies alongside the ribbons.
Check out these examples: