Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 37, Issue 3, 2018

Whimsy on Wings

Spanning time and cultures, bats are everywhere in art

By Michelle Z. Donahue


Just as millions of Mexican free-tailed bats swirl from Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge every night, another fixture in the city also wheels free in the gusts and breezes blowing along the Colorado River.

"Nightwing" statue by Dale Whistler
Courtesy of Mark & Selena/BCI

“Nightwing,” known among locals simply as “The Bat,” celebrates its 20th birthday this year. A monumental piece of public art, the free-spinning sculpture has become synonymous with the city alongside its famous colony of bats. With one wing stretched forward and the other swept behind, Dale Whistler’s gently rotating sculpture captures the lissome energy of a bat in flight.

Whistler says his art is driven by the desire to bring more playfulness into everyday life, even in the face of environmental and other challenges. He believes that’s why “The Bat” has become such a beloved fixture in the city—it brings levity and lightness.

“If it were stationary, it would look serious, but it wiggles and moves,” Whistler says.

“The Bat” may be one of the most recognizable works of bat-inspired art, but it’s far from alone. Around the world, throughout time and across all cultures, bats have inspired creators and artists of all kinds to immortalize these enigmatic characters in their works.

Tales as Old as Time

Though they have often been portrayed as ill omens and agents of mystery, bats can claim to have done it all when it comes to symbolism and allegory.

Many representations have drawn heavily from bats’ nocturnal habits, linking nighttime activity with lurking evil. In Mayan mythology, the “death bat,” or Camazotz, represented the trials of the underworld; in medieval Europe, bats were regarded as agents of hell. This notion possibly originated from the designation of bats as “unclean” animals in the Christian Bible, prompting artists to adorn devils and demons with bats’ leathery wings to contrast with angels’ snowy swan wings.

A woodblock print from the 1930s, titled "Bat and Moon."
Courtesy Takahashi Bihō; Publisher - Kawaguchi Jirō

In classical Greece and Rome, the ancients also had a low opinion of bats, but not because of their night flying. In one fable, as preserved in Aesop’s animal tales, the bat switched sides during a battle between beasts and birds, choosing the side he thought would win any time the tide turned. When peace came, the animals punished the bat for his deceitful behavior by banishing him to fly alone at night. Considered an asset by modern standards, the Greeks and Romans clearly felt the bat’s adaptability was an undesirable trait.

But around the bottom half of the globe, the perspective of bats also seems to be inverted, compared with Northern Hemisphere views.

Among indigenous peoples in the Southern Hemisphere, the bat has enjoyed more favorable representations. In stories of the goddess Leutogi from the island of Samoa, a banished princess survived on a barren island thanks to her bat companions who brought her fruit. As the bats colonized the barren island’s caves, they made the land fertile again. And in Australia, some Aboriginal tribes pass along stories of flying foxes as ancestors, says Tessa Laird, an artist and author of the book Bat, in which she has collected stories of chiropterans and their imagery from around the world.

“We’re so used to seeing and portraying bats as almost horrifically or comically ‘other,’” Laird says. “To think of them as being related to us, it really turns things around. I love the idea of the shifting perspective that the bat exemplifies, because of their upside-down view.”

You Lucky Bat

Nowhere do bats enjoy such high favor as in China.

“In China, the bat is a symbol for happiness,” writes D.H. Lawrence in his 1923 poem “Bat.” That’s because in Mandarin, the words for “bat” and “fortune” are represented by the same character (“fu”), leading to millennia of sly visual references.

In carvings, paintings and on ceramics, bats are everywhere in Chinese art. On pottery, such as the “Imperial Vase with Red Bats and Clouds,” their free, fluid shapes could easily be mistaken for birds at first glance; the red color traditionally represents joy, making the bats doubly lucky.

The basis for the original BCI logo was a
Chinese wu fu

The vase was commissioned by or given as a gift to the Chinese emperor Qianlong in the mid-18th century.

“It’s like a greeting card,” says Luke Kelly, Associate Curator of Collections and Antiquities at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, which holds the vase in its permanent collection. “But instead of written words saying, ‘I want to wish you happiness as high as the clouds,’ you have these blue clouds and red bats. I love that this is their view of bats. Because [the word] sounds like good fortune, they can play and have this visual pun.”

Laird points out bat shapes on plates at restaurants and sees them hiding playfully in the carved backs of chairs.

Even BCI’s original logo was also a nod to a traditional Chinese symbol of good fortune. Standing for happiness, health, wealth, longevity and a good death, the five interlinked bats make up the “wu fu,” or the Five Fortunes.

From Fantastic to Factual

Even if bats are still a go-to symbol of things that go bump in the night, Laird says depictions of bats in popular culture and art have experienced a shift in the last several decades. Halloween, for instance, is increasingly used “in service of bats,” she says, as an annual opportunity to learn more about the role and benefits of the animal behind the symbol.

They show up more often simply as themselves, as well. Laird credits Merlin Tuttle’s portrait-style photographs of bats as helping people relate to them better, but also artists like Monster Chetwynd (formerly known as Marvin Gaye Chetwynd). Her “Bat Opera” series depicts bats flying alone or in groups among landscapes blooming in color—never hidden away in a dark corner.

“Kids get to do these exercises about how cool bats really are, and I feel at least the younger generation is getting a different picture of bats,” Laird says. “And with videos and pictures that show how incredibly cute many bats are—that’s amazing for them.”

Off the Page

Bats aren’t just a source of inspiration for people working in visual media—their dynamism has also influenced choreographers, musicians and interdisciplinary artists to capture their essence. In 2004, Humboldt State University presented “Echoes of the Night,” a bat-inspired dance performance; for the SXSW festival in 2014, Bacardi partnered with a London-based creative agency to produce an electronic musical number based on motion-capture of Austin’s nightly bat exodus.

A similar project went on display in 2012 at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont, a product of recordings of little brown bat calls made in 2001.

Andrea Polli is an environmental artist at the University of New Mexico who specializes in “sonifying” data to reveal new dimensions. As part of a larger project delving into the “soundscape” of the area, Polli worked with park scientists to manipulate the bats’ echolocation sounds into a spacy-sounding loop that could back a techno track. Recordings like these, she says, could be key to a better understanding of the health of an area’s wildlife.

“I’d learned that White-nose Syndrome had devastated the bat populations in the park, and I became very interested in this soundscape of frequencies that aren’t within the human hearing range,” Polli says. “There’s a theory that the health of a natural environment can be measured by looking at how full its frequency spectrum is. So maybe we can use sound to find and measure wildlife when you can’t see it.”

And who knows what forms bat art may take in the future? With a great deal of engineering work now focused on translating bats’ many abilities into street-ready tech, perhaps the greatest artistic homage to bats is yet to come.

Bat Tats

From goth icons to quirky motifs, bats are a favorite of both tattoo artists and the inked-upon.

Stephanie Tamez, a tattoo artist based in New York City, says it’s for one simple reason: a bat’s shape makes for great motion on the skin.

“The overall structural shape of things can make them form interestingly,” Tamez says. So while she’ll try to guide people away from doing a hibiscus tattoo, which is “big and floppy” and doesn’t have a structural shape that reads strongly on the body, forms like bats translate well—especially their wings.


Tamez has done everything from hyper-real bat portraits to more stylized impressions—the sort she chose for her own bat tattoo, which is in a Chinese style, a nod to the luck and longevity attributed to the bat.

An original bat-and-agave tatto design from Stephanie Tamez
Stephanie Tamez NYC

Though she grew up in Texas and didn’t visit the massive bat colony at Bracken Cave until recently, it was a close encounter with bats on the Yuba River in California that started her on the path to studying tattooing and iconography.

“It led me to want to learn more about them, and I came across a Chinese stylized bat. It was an awesome moment, and I really felt connected to them after that,” Tamez says.

Samantha Bourgeous, a Utah mother of three, has a tattoo of flying foxes on her left forearm. The large central figure is surrounded by three pups, one for each of her children. Bats, Bourgeous says, were the obvious choice when it came to representing motherhood.

“They are excellent mothers, being both doting and fiercely defensive,” Bourgeous says.

A realistic portrayal was important to her since “bats are beautiful the way they are in nature,” she says, adding that the tattoo has opened up many opportunities for discussion about bats’ role in the environments in which they live. The tattoo artists, too, learn from the experience—like tattoo artist Jaki Freeman, of Revelation Tattoo Company in Orange Park, Florida.

“[Jaki] actually let me know that drawing it changed her original negative perspective of bats,” Bourgeous says. And most people seem surprised at first to learn that they’re bats, when asking about the tattoo, she adds, but she’s used that surprise to try to turn around misconceptions she encounters, and advocate for bats.

“I try to educate those who still see them as gross or frightening, or believe their existence is not important for the environment,” Bourgeous adds.

Bats also have a deep history in traditional tattooing, especially in Samoa, where getting a traditional form based on the p’ea, or flying fox, is still an important ritual today. Extending from the knees to the hips, the thick black lines of the p’ea wraps a man’s legs and body like the flying fox’s wings, “symbolically sealing and protecting a potential warrior,” writes Tessa Laird in Bat.

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