You might have been asked (or have been the asker) the question: what does your tattoo mean? Sometimes, there’s a simple answer about a piece of art and what it represents.
In other cases, it’s deeply personal and a little abstract. There are also people who get tattoos simply because they love the aesthetic quality of a design so much that they want to wear a piece of art for the rest of their lives.
If you want a tattoo that conveys a traditional meaning or if you want to be able to interpret tattoos, here’s what you should know about what common tattoo symbolism represents.
An animal tattoo won’t always have a deeper meaning. Sometimes, you just want a tattoo of your favorite pet cat. Animals are sometimes chosen for their cultural significance or the ideas they represent.
Snake tattoos can mean power or transformation. Snakes shed their skin and carry on. It’s similar to a phoenix tattoo in its meaning, but snakes have a darker connotation. The word “snake” is often used to describe bad people who can’t be trusted, but the interpretation is up to the wearer.
Snakes also became one of the most popular tattoo choices among Harry Potter fans. They represent the house of Slytherin, the allegiance of the story’s villain, and the tattoo all his followers received.
Lion tattoos represent courage or pride. They can also represent your family. Lions travel in prides and work to protect each other. Matching lion tattoos can signify loyalty for people who are very important to each other.
An eagle tattoo can have spiritual meaning for some people, depending on the way they connect with nature. In the United States, an eagle tattoo is usually a symbol of patriotism. You might find an eagle tattoo on a member of the Armed Forces.
Minimalist tattoos are small tattoos with simple artwork. Moon tattoos, sun tattoos, small flower tattoos, and infinity symbol tattoos don’t always have to mean something.
Some people just want to see what it feels like to get a tattoo before they commit to a large one, so they settle for something small. People who need to hide their tattoos prefer dainty minimalist art.
These minimalist tattoos technically share a meaning: you’re a rebel. You got the tattoo. It’s cute, you love it, and it’s easy to hide.
American Old School Tattoo Art
American old-school tattoo art usually reflects the lives of sailors and army personnel. They were among the first members of mainstream society to receive tattoos. A swallow tattoo, an anchor tattoo, or a nautical star tattoo used to be a dead giveaway that someone worked on a boat or sailed with the United States Army.
A skull tattoo with a beret is a recognized symbol of the United States Air Force. Many men who served would get a heart tattoo or a rose tattoo with a banner that said their significant other’s name as a symbol of eternal love before deployment. It has a sweet message. It means the same thing as a wedding ring, but it can never be lost or stolen.
Of course, now we think twice about tattooing people’s names on our bodies. Or at least we should. Tattoos can be a little bit more permanent than relationships, so think before you ink!
Cultural tattoos can pay homage to a native culture or respect to an ancient culture. There’s a little bit of a blurry line about when it’s cool to do that and when it’s seen as appropriating a culture.
Exercise caution and try to be respectful if you’re considering a tattoo that holds importance to a culture you weren’t raised in.
Viking tattoo art and images taken from Norse mythology can be interpreted in many ways. What we now call Norse mythology is a derivative of old Norse religion. Early Norse people believed these myths to be true and used them to understand deities and the universe. Very few people still practice the old Norse religion.
Norse mythology tattoos utilize symbolism like Yggdrasil (the Tree of Life), Jörmungandr (the world serpent), and Ratatoskr (the squirrel) to symbolize the circle of life. Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer) can symbolize power, and Norse runes can symbolize any number of things. They each have their own meaning.
Buddhist tattoo art, including mandala tattoo designs, represents a connection to the universe and the present moment. Buddhism is a religion, and tattoos can be used to represent its spiritual practices.
Native American Tattoo
Tattoos played an important part in Native American rituals. They were seen as sacred. Blue or black lines, simple shapes or designs, and armbands were used to display various ceremonial honors that important tribe members received.
Getting a tattoo in many Native American cultures was considered to be sacred. They were hard-earned badges.
Native Americans never got tattoos of dream catchers, feathers, or people wearing headdresses. There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not anyone should get tattoos of these things. Many members of Native American tribes think you probably shouldn’t.
Celtic tattoo meanings are very simple. Celtic tattoo art uses interwoven lines to represent how everything is connected.
These lines usually form a slightly triangular shape, but people who follow Christianity may incorporate crosses into the design to symbolize that everything is connected through God.
There’s no single culture that owns the imagery of a phoenix tattoo. Roman, Greek, Chinese, and Japanese folklore all reference the phoenix in their mythology.
The phoenix has connotations of new beginnings and rebirth. Some people gravitate towards phoenix imagery after they’ve survived a traumatic event. It’s a reminder that you can be reborn from the ashes.
One of the most common Egyptian symbols used in tattoo art is the Ankh. The Ankh symbol is the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the cross. Instead of representing a God directly, it represents the idea of eternal life.
Another popular symbol is the Eye of Horus. The Eye of Horus is said to represent protection and health. It’s a symbol from the story of the falcon god Horus, where an enemy removes his eye only for it to be divinely perfectly restored.
Traditional Japanese Culture Tattoos
Japan has a rich, long, and complex tattoo culture that spans thousands of years. Koi fish tattoos are one of the most popular representations of traditional Japanese tattoo culture that remain popular with people around the world. Depending on how you approach your design, a dragon tattoo or a tiger tattoo can also pay homage to traditional Japanese culture.
Koi fish are said to represent overcoming obstacles. Tigers can represent anything from pride to freedom, courage, and strength. Dragons represent freedom, protection, and good luck.
Chinese or Japanese Character Tattoos
Chinese and Japanese character tattoos can be found on pre-made flash art sheets at many tattoo shops. The problem is that you probably don’t know how to translate them, and neither will your tattoo artist.
We learned from Ariana Grande’s cautionary tale. She released an album called Seven Rings and wanted to get a Japanese character tattoo to commemorate the album.
Her tattoo actually read “small barbecue grill.” She was sure she got it fixed. She didn’t. It now says “Japanese barbecue finger.”
The moral of the story: unless you can fluently read or write a language, it’s best not to believe that a character means what the flash sheet says it means.
A Tattoo Can Mean Anything You Want it To Mean
We place a lot of emphasis on the meaning of tattoos and treat them like they have to come from a rule book of symbolism. You don’t have to get a tattoo with an arbitrary meaning. Your tattoos only have to mean something to you, and you’re allowed to decide what that meaning is.
You can get a lion tattoo because your favorite childhood memory was visiting the zoo with your Dad to see the lions. You can get a Norse mythology tattoo because you loved the God of War games so much that you cried during the cutscenes. You can get a butterfly tattoo because you’re a hobby lepidopterist.
If you find a tattoo you like with a meaning you want to convey (and you can get a kick-ass artist to help you create a design you love), stick to the book. If you have other ideas, follow your heart. Art doesn’t come with limitations, and it’s open to various interpretations. It’s your body, your creativity, and your meaning.
Don’t Lose Your Meaning: Take Care of Your Tattoo
One of the most important things you can do to honor the meaning of your tattoo is to care for it properly. Without proper aftercare, your tattoo can quickly scab up, lose ink, and fade away. If your tattoo is unrecognizable, it will lose all meaning. Don’t wind up with a splotchy blob.
Wear a protective tattoo covering for as long as your tattoo artist recommends, and avoid submerging your tattoo in water until your artist gives you the green light to go for a swim. Keep the skin moisturized throughout the healing process.
It might itch or peel, but don’t pick or scratch! You can damage or peel away layers of healing skin, taking tattoo ink away with it. Numbing spray can take the edge off and make the sensation a little more bearable during your itchy, peely week of healing.
Follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions, use top-notch aftercare products, and always remember to put SPF on your tattoo before you leave the house. Yes, even during the winter. Yes, even if you’ll only be outside for a few minutes.
In Conclusion: Make It Your Own
You can choose a tattoo design with a universally recognized meaning if it’s important to you that the people around you will understand your tattoo. If you’re getting a tattoo just for yourself, choose whatever makes you happy. You’ll have to spend the rest of your life with that tattoo, and it can mean whatever you want it to.
When you’re confident and ready to commit, we have your back (your arm, your leg, or whatever spot you’ve chosen for your new tattoo). Our tattoo numbing cream can take the edge off during your tattoo session. Sit back and focus on what your tattoo means to you — not on how much it hurts.