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What Does a Butterfly Tattoo Mean in Mental Health?

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Many people living with mental health conditions have gotten tattoos that serve as powerful reminders of how far they have come on their journey — even our Mighty community shared their stories and sent us pictures of their body art and ink inspired by mental health challenges. While many tattoos are unique, there are a few tattoo designs that have become symbols of mental health and mental illnesses. The butterfly is one of these symbols, thanks to the Butterfly Project. 

What does the butterfly symbolize in mental health?

The Butterfly Project is a social movement that originated on Tumblr and encouraged those who feel the urge to self-harm to draw a butterfly on the part of their body and name it after a loved one. The goal of the Butterfly Project is to provide a new and safe coping skill for people who self-harm. 

Referring to the original Tumblr post, the rules of the Butterfly Project are as follows: 

  • When you feel the urge to self-harm, draw a butterfly on your arm, hand, or location that you are compelled to hurt.
  • Name the butterfly after a loved one or supporter.
  • Let the butterfly fade naturally, no scrubbing it off.
  • If you self-harm before the butterfly is gone, the butterfly “dies,” so the goal is to help it live.
  • Another person may draw them on you. These butterflies are extra special and should be handled with extra care.
  • If you don’t self-harm, draw a butterfly on yourself to show support. In this case, name the butterfly after the person you are supporting. 

Butterflies can hold many symbolic meanings even inside the mental health community. But butterflies are generally understood to be symbols of transformation, rebirth, hope, and love. 

Many butterfly tattoos can serve as a reminder of life, courage, and change for those who self-harm or experience other mental health conditions. To learn more about self-harm recovery, check out this The Mighty guide

Why do people with mental health illnesses get tattoos?

As you can imagine, tattoos can be incredibly personal to the person who wears them. Many people who live with or are impacted by mental health conditions get tattoos to document their recovery journey, to take ownership of their bodies, or to celebrate a loved one’s journey. Many people living with mental health conditions say that their tattoos give them strength and motivation to keep going and share their stories. 

Project Semicolon, founded in 2013, aims to do just that through the symbol of a semicolon. A semicolon is used by authors when they choose not to end a sentence; a semicolon is used to remind people that their story isn’t over. Project Semicolon is an advocacy organization dedicated to suicide prevention. Many people have chosen to get a semicolon tattoo to represent their personal experiences with mental health — from self-harm and suicidal ideation to depression and anxiety. 

What are examples of butterfly tattoos for mental health?

There are no limits or rules when designing a tattoo — if you are considering getting a butterfly tattoo and are looking for inspiration, the world is your oyster (or, should we say, chrysalis?). 

The Smithsonian Institution estimates that there are approximately 17,500 species of butterflies worldwide, each with distinctive characteristics and colors. If you want inspiration for butterfly tattoos, their collection is an excellent place to start. 

You can also take a walk through your backyard or neighborhood park on a summer afternoon (this is when butterflies are most active) to see if any particular local species of butterflies inspire you – and don’t forget to bring a camera!

You can also take inspiration from the Butterfly Project and draw a butterfly yourself and get your illustration tattooed. Or you can combine the butterfly tattoo and the semicolon tattoo, where the semicolon represents the butterfly’s body, and its wings expand on either one or both sides of the semicolon.

Butterfly tattoos often represent transformation — symbolizing the strength of a caterpillar’s journey to a butterfly — but know that the butterfly tattoo can mean whatever you wish it to.

Originally published: November 14, 2023
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