Even though the Cheshire Cat appears in only three brief sequences over the course of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the character remains one of Lewis Carroll’s most popular. Certainly, the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire cat” dates at least as far back as the 18th century, but it is Carroll’s wily and inscrutable fictional representation that collective minds imagine when the name is mentioned. Any character that transcends its source material eventually finds its way into body art and tattoo designs.
Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for the 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland are, for me, still the definitive depictions of Carroll’s fantasy world. Tenniel’s drawings of the Mad Hatter, Jabberwock, and Cheshire Cat, rendered as woodcuts for the novel, still fire the imagination 150 years later.
This piece, by Sharnie Pilar of Eternal Tattoos and New Wave Tattoos in London, uses an image from the Cheshire Cat’s first appearance in the novel.
The Cheshire Cat first appears in the Duchess’ chaotic kitchen. The Cook is screaming, the baby is crying, and pepper is flying everywhere.
Cheshire Cat tattoos are popular across genders. One thing you might not know is that the character has no gender in the novel; it is always referred to as either “the Cheshire Cat,” “the cat,” or simply “it.” The first time it speaks is in the forest when Alice runs off with the pig baby.
The Cheshire Cat later appears as a disembodied head during the Queen of Hearts’ bonkers croquet game. There is a massive argument among the spectators regarding the best way to sever a head when it has no body. This brilliant tattoo art was executed by Danielle S. of Oakland’s Premium Tattoo.
Beyond the novel’s astounding illustrations, some of the most indelible ink derives from Walt Disney’s 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland. Tattoo designs based on the Disney Cheshire Cat embrace its wild pink-and-purple color scheme, one that remains popular even in other renderings of the sly and mischievous cat. This one is a straightforward design by Kelly McGrath of Art Alive Tattoo in North Carolina.
The Cheshire Cat wears many guises in Carroll’s work and its adaptations. The cat is said to belong to the Duchess, but it also seems to come and go as it pleases, like any cat.
If you’re looking for Cheshire Cat quotes, it speaks very little in the book, but those few words count. Our next Disney-inspired art is by Chris Orta of Dinosaur Studio Tattoo in Waukegan, Illinois.
The Cheshire Cat quote that, beyond all others, has passed into the lexicon, is of course, “We’re all mad here.” Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the Cheshire Cat is a reluctant guide, but one that teaches Alice how to navigate this bizarre world. Mid-Victorian England was a place of strict rules and values. In Wonderland and Looking-Glass world, the reality Alice knows unravels. Some tattoos, like this one, by Darren Ditton of Tattoo Art in Suffolk, capture the disorientation.
Close on the heels of Tenniel and Disney, another iconic depiction of the Cheshire Cat popular among tattoo artists is American McGee’s. In 2000, a dark and twisted fantasy video game, American McGee’s Alice, was released. This version of the Cheshire Cat leaves its traditionally plump body behind in favor of a more drawn, haggard look, which you can see in this tattoo art by Ben Whiteraven of Berserk Tattoos in Melbourne, Australia.
One thing is constant among the range of adaptations and spin-offs: Wonderland is a place that is continually in flux. Alice’s size changes radically depending on what she eats or what she drinks. She cannot get her bearings until she finds a way to root herself in that world. The Cheshire Cat’s infamous smile balances comfort and subtle menace at once, as in this art by Amanda Scipioni of Sacred Ink Tattoo Collective in Ottawa, Ontario.
Alice must learn to engage Wonderland on its own terms rather than seek to impose the rules of the stable world she comes from. Cheshire Cat tattoos are marvelous at conveying Wonderland’s uncanny nature, wherein the things that should be familiar — cats, croquet, and tea parties among them — are rendered strange and alien, as in this ink done at Vollgas Tattoos in Niederbrechen, Germany.
By sheer volume alone, it would seem that a huge number of Cheshire Cat tattoos being done these days are based on Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action version of Alice in Wonderland. Voiced by Stephen Fry, “Cheshire,” as the character is known, is given a much more active and intercessory role.
Leave it to Lewis Carroll, and all the artists who are inspired by his work, to make a cat and an egg be the two characters intended to ground Alice and the audience inside this infinitely mutable universe. Mutability is fruitfully depicted in tattoos that resemble running watercolors, such as this one by Elizabeth Avila of Twisted Tattoos in Chicago.
After all, the cat is one of the best-loved domestic pets, and the egg is the center of one of humanity’s greatest conundrums. Like the chicken or the egg question, Through the Looking-Glass ends with Alice asking her own cat, “Who it was that dreamed it all?” Have her adventures among anthropomorphized household objects conditioned her to expect responses from her kittens? It’s the kind of conceptual blurriness conveyed by Tracy Burton of River Rat Tattoos in New Braunfels, Texas.
As an artist myself, I enjoy art that stretches source material in unexpected directions. You can find a host of tattoo patterns and motifs that are faithful to the Cheshire Cat’s wily character but aren’t slavish copies of instantly recognizable forms. Here is a cartoonish design by Anton YellowDog of Mad Fish Tattoo in Moscow.
The Cheshire Cat endures as a figure in tattoo art because its image reminds us that nonsense is not restricted to literature, nor to the repressive world of Victorian England. The cat embodies a set of ideas that transcend place, as in this folk-art-inspired tattoo by Alexsey Tol of Russia’s XK Tattoo.
Some of the most awesome Cheshire Cat tattoo designs own the madness within us all and create their own realities. I adore this art by Cherub at Skin Kandi Tattoo in Merseyside, England.
For its own part, the Cheshire Cat is mad. In a world where Emily Dickinson’s “much madness is divinest sense” may as well be the only fixed rule, though, that means the cat is the director of its own destiny. Its grin is part grimace and part celebration, as in this art by Bam Bam of Life Is Good Atelier in Warsaw.
Linked with the house, the forest, and the croquet ground, the Cheshire Cat is an indoor cat, an outdoor cat, and an apotheosis of the eternal cat. It can be everywhere and nowhere — part of everything and belonging to no one, as in this tattoo design by Andres of Miami’s Dapper 13 Tattoos.
Try to pin down the Cheshire Cat, and you end up grasping at thin air. This tattoo art, by Mewo Llama of Studio Tentation in Montreal dissolves at the extremities. Just like the Cheshire Cat itself, just when you think you have a handle on it, it becomes something else.
Reality fractures around the Cheshire Cat in this art by Elizabeth Deschenes of Perfect Image Studio in Waterloo, Ontario. This tattoo design combines the famous Disney color scheme with geometric forms and the esoteric image of the third eye. As abstract as it seems, it is also easily recognizable.
Like your tattoo art mashed up? This one, by Ellen Morris of The Dollhouse Tattoo Studio in Chesterfield, England, combines Alice in Wonderland with the ultra-popular cartoon phenomenon Adventure Time! One of the Cheshire Cat’s greatest strengths is its infinite adaptability.
Janine McCaffrey Kahn, executive editorial director, digital, for i-5 Publishing and former Catster and Dogster editor-in-chief, dedicated her left arm to “all things Lewis Carroll” about three years ago.
“I knew I had to have two things: a queen and a cat,” Janine says. “I didn’t get to see my artist’s sketch until I showed up at her studio in Manhattan, but I was thrilled with the classic lines she’d chosen for my cat. Sometimes, I give him a chin scratch when no one is looking.”
If you’re looking for inspiration for your next ink, hopefully these 22 pictures of Cheshire Cat tattoos from all around the world were helpful. The Cheshire Cat has been depicted in so many forms of visual media, that, depending on the style of art you prefer, there are tattoo designs to fit any taste. What I’d really like to see is a tattoo based on Arthur Rackham’s 1907 illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland.
From the simplest designs to ones of almost baroque complexity, and from full-body images to the cat’s notorious disembodied smile, you’re bound to find a few tattoo patterns here that strike your fancy. Do you have Cheshire Cat and Alice-inspired ink? Post photos in the comments.
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a 17-year-old cat named Quacko, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.