Wave Tattoo Meaning – What Do Wave Tattoos Symbolize?

Wave tattoo ideas are linked to the idea of motion and the inexorability of tides and time. They never cease traveling, even when seeming completely still. 

Wave body art is also representative of the ocean, a love of the sea and surf, conservation, or a sense of belonging to coastal villages, towns, and cities.

Whether still waters, a minimalist wave tattoo, or a crashing wave on the sand and rocks, these designs are great ways to symbolize emotion. Life can be gentle and breezy during the simple times and tumultuous during the hard. 

Other tattoo lovers use Japanese wave art as inspiration for tattoo design, like the famous “Great Wave” by Katsushika Hokusai. Some use waves for filler in large traditional Japanese tattoos, intricately aligning more dominant imagery like koi fish, dragons, and flowers.

The following story investigates the meaning of ocean wave tattooing to provide inspiration you can take to your tattoo artist to craft a killer custom wave design idea of your very own.

1. Tides, Time, Motion, and Emotion

Blue Tattoo Waves For Men With Flower

Wave and water tattoo designs are appreciated as symbols of life’s constant motion, an unstoppable force of nature that continues on and on over the course of time.

Arching waves can represent how even with all the strength in the world, water can still manage to work its way free. Just like life itself, many things refuse to be grasped and remain elusive.

Waves are also a popular symbol for depicting emotions, as they can be shown as calm, cool, fun, in turmoil, or complete rage, just like a beach battered by a crashing wave during a storm.

Wave Tattoos Men's Designs

2. A Tribute to a Life of Sea, Salt, and Surf

Masculine Sun And Wave Tattoo On Arm

Oftentimes wave tattoo art is representative of the ocean, a love of the sea and surf, conservation, or a sense of belonging to coastal villages, towns, and cities.

For tattoo lovers who dwell near or on the water, the wave is often worn as a protective totem, a message of unity with the elements, and depicted from the smallest tiny tattoo through to large, amazing tattoos incorporating different sea elements. Sailors, swimmers, and surfers alike all understand that the tide is much greater than themselves, and respect the forces beyond their control.

It’s easy to surf across the perfect wave, yet even easier to get lost in a view of the water as you stare out across the horizon, far from the beach shore.

Simple Wave Inside Television Mens Arm Tattoo

3. Mountain and Wave Tattoo Meaning

Mountain Wave Tattoo Designs For Gentlemen

Defined by its blending of sea and mountain peaks, the mountain wave tattoo represents the union of water and earth, indicative of the necessary balance between the elements of dreaming and practicality. 

While water represents our deepest emotions, the earth is where the tangible potential lies; the mountain wave tattoo embodies both and never sacrifices one for the other. It believes in keeping such harmony and acts with similar calm and integrity.

Fluid and simple or sprawling and detailed, in vibrant color or dramatic black and white, the mountain wave tattoo conveys its message in a number of styles and sizes.

Neither the mountain nor the wave is superior to the other, and these design ideas exemplify the perfect merging of the two into often beautiful landscape designs popular with collectors who prefer the outdoors.

Masculine Mountain Wave Tattoos For Men

4. Simple Wave Tattoo Symbolism

Simple Wave Guys Side Of Foot Tattoo Design Ideas

Sometimes the simplest designs carry the deepest meanings. The wave, even in small tattoo form, has held a powerful place in ancient imagery as a symbol of the natural forces that move and challenge us.

For many cultures, the simple wave tattoo is a gentle reminder that you can indeed choose to fight the current and risk being swept away, or trust in the timeless tide to deliver you to where you are destined to go.

The simple tattoo is just that: arching waves that represent a decisive small tattoo of one’s acceptance that there are greater forces in the world compelling us, that depending on one’s outlook and approach life can be a constant struggle or smooth sailing. 

Hand With Wave Guys Inner Forearm Simple Tattoos

5. Wave Meaning in Wider Ocean Tattoo Art


Source: @casey_joe_tattoo via Instagram

Many individuals use an ocean tattoo as a metaphor for mystery, depth of character, and the intricacy found in the human mind.  

Other wave tattoo ideas hold symbolic meaning: many people live their lives at or near the water and are tied to the waves, the flow of the tide, or find magic in creatures living underwater. 

The depth of oceans, their dark vastness making up more than 90% of the world’s surface, and the fact we humans cannot breathe underwater unaided, provides traction to the concept of mystery in amazing tattoo designs. Their sheer size and difference within them make for brilliant tattoo ideas, from minimalist tattoo ideas to elaborate Tahitian tattoos.


Source: @so.hktattoo via Instagram

6. The Wave in Tribal Tattoo

Polynesian Shoulder Tattoo tats_by_phats

Source: @tats_by_phats via Instagram

The traditional tattoos of the Polynesian culture date back to the Bronze age. The wave is an essential element at all levels of Polynesian and tribal tattoo design. They are used as part of the intricate black ink patterns Islander people choose to tell their life stories.

Within the cultural context of Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, the NZ Maori, and the Hawaiian Islands, these tattoos have very specific meanings attributed to different patterns and designs, with the wave being one of the most depicted symbols on the skin, often combining with other important symbols, such as the moon or sun.

Traditionally, a Polynesian tribal tattoo is associated with specific tribes from different parts of the Islands, hence why there are some slight variations in body art style.

Many of the patterns in Polynesian culture and tattooing are drawn from nature, with the layered designs referencing the fishing, hunting, and warrior lifestyle that sustained Islanders for thousands of years.

Tribal tattoos refer to events, life achievements, tribal status, and personal journeys, while in the past, achievements in battle were also signified by body art.

These different patterns are also associated with inner strength, good luck, feats of physical strength, and spiritual guardians.

Polynesian Half Sleeve Tattoo iupaticustomarts

Source: @iupaticustomarts via Instagram

7. Traditional Japanese Wave Tattoo

Leg Sleeve Blue Ink Japanese Wave Guys Tattoo Ideas

Water and waves are vital symbolically in Japanese culture, not only because the nation is surrounded on all sides by the ocean, but because of the relationship between the Japanese people and the power of the sea.

The wave in Japanese art is typically representative of power, fluidity, and movement. Such tattoos are often blended with animal motifs like koi fish, oni, or dragons, or represent the ever-changing nature of life.

Japanese wave tattoo designs play off other concepts with practiced similarity and relatable imagery linked by symbolism or linked with the seasons.

Waves are some of the most utilized elements in Japanese art, with pieces by famous Japanese artists reaching global recognition. 

Traditional Japanese Great Wave With Rising Sun Mens Chest Tattoo

8. Hokusai Great Wave Tattoo Design

Woodcut Detailed Male Japanese Great Wave Off Kangawa Circle Tattoo On Inner Arm

Wave tattoos inspired by the art of Katsushika Hokusai rarely disappoint. The work of this world-renowned Japanese artist has undoubtedly inspired a multitude of tattoos across the world.

Many of them have spawned from his famous painting “The Great Wave.” Hokusai wave tattoos inspired by this amazing piece of art tend to share many of the same core characteristics. They depict water and waves, often in blue and white, although some of these tattoos are inked in black and gray.

It may seem obvious, but these Hokusai wave tattoos tend to be quite large in scale. It is not a standard wave by any means. Rather, it is a monstrous, overwhelming extension of the ocean it comes out of that creates a deeper layer of tattoo meaning.

Awesome Guys The Great Wave Off Kangawa Inner Forearm Japanese Tattoos

9. Waves as Filler in Japanese Tattoo

Full Sleeve Mens Japanese Orange Koi Fish With Blue Waves Sleeve Tattoo

Wave tattoos make ideal filler pictures for large traditional Japanese tattoos, intricately aligning with more dominant imagery to link spaces, themes, or augment shape.

The elements are greatly important for filling out and supporting the major theme of the large and complex Japanese tattoo designs. This is known as Gakoubori

Most commonly used elements:

  • Waves and water
  • Clouds
  • Wind
  • Fire
  • Rocks and earth

To fully and accurately demonstrate the entirety of a tattoo’s major theme (shudai) the corresponding elements and seasonal links should be part of the design.

Double Half Sleeves Mens Japanese Wave Tattoos


No matter the level of complexity or style of wave tattoo idea you are contemplating, there is a range of meanings that can be used to interpret concepts differently and add layers of symbolism.

By first identifying what your wave tattoo means symbolically and aesthetically, you’ll be able to follow a direction for bringing your wave tattoo design to life and creating the perfect piece of body art for you. 

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