Tattoos, from simple symbols to intricate designs, have been a feature of most cultures since the dawn of time. While tattoos were traditionally part of an elaborate rite of passage within a specific culture, tattoos have also served as a mark of royalty and rank, as symbols of spiritual and religious devotion, a mark of bravery and prowess in battle, as a sexual lure, a pledge of love, as punishment, as amulets and talismans for protection and the mark of slaves, outcasts and criminals. Many tattoo designs are symbols potent with meaning, and within all of the preceding reasons for getting tattooed, there are hundreds of popular tattoo designs. Looking for a body art design that speaks to you? These tattoo symbols offer some great tattoo ideas for girls looking for the perfect butterfly, or spiritual tattoo ideas for women celebrating a milestone, and great tattoo ideas for men who want to find a tribal tattoo that reflects their inner warrior.
See what every girl should know before getting a tattoo
It is apparent that tattooing was widely practiced in many cultures in the ancient world and was associated with a high level of artistic endeavor. The imagery of ancient tattooing is very similar to that of modern tattooing. Throughout history, tattooing, like other forms of body decoration, has been related to the sensual, erotic, and emotional aspects of the psyche. Tattooing from the ancient Chimu of Peru in South America to the diverse ethnic tribes of the island of Borneo in the South China Sea is characterized by bold abstract patterns that resemble contemporary tribal tattoo designs. The Pazyryk tattoos of the Russian steppes are images of fantastic mythological animals, as are the tattoo crests of the Haida of the Pacific Northwest of North America. Animals are the most frequent subject matter of tattooing, and all manner of creatures and denizens of the natural world are represented on the human canvas. In many cultures tattoos are traditionally associated with magic, totems, and the desire of the tattooed person to become identified with the spirit of the animal. Tattooing in the ancient world had many things in common with modern tattooing, and tattooing around the world has profound and universal psychic origins.
Tattoos as Rites of Passage
The most popular tattooing genre in the world today, is that of the tribal tattoo. Modern tribal tattoos are largely inspired by the traditional tattoos of the indigenous peoples of Borneo and Indonesia, the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest of North America. Many of these bold graphic designs first inspired the fascination of Captain James Cook and his men in the eighteenth century and sparked a revival of tattooing in Western Europe and they are no less influential today among modern tattoo artists.
Tribal tattoos once marked individuals, both male and female, as members of a greater community and they were traditionally done as part of a larger, more elaborate rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood. The tattoo designs themselves were symbols that had important meaning within each community, tribal group and culture. These tattoo designs were powerful symbols of recognition that identified member's inclusion within the larger group.
Tribal tattoos often used symbols of animal and spirit totems and they are just as popular with Western individuals as they were with the original Haida, Iban headhunters, and Polynesian peoples of their day. The Haida people used tattoos as a means of passing ownership of Clan insignia and crests down within family groups from generation to generation.
As a rite of passage, there are clear distinctions and differences between the genders when it comes to body art. The tattoos of girls and women are often marks that a culture identifies as beauty marks and that celebrate fertility. The tattoos themselves are frequently focused on the erogenous zones, the thighs, buttocks, abdomen and breasts as in the case of Egyptian courtesans whose mummified remains have been preserved for over two thousand years.
Many cultures have grappled with both the necessity and the difficulty of channeling young adolescent male energy. Unlike their female counterparts, where the line bridging childhood and womanhood is more clearly biologically defined, it is often more difficult for a culture to pinpoint exactly when boys become men. The use of tattooing as part of a bloody, painful and memorable ceremony offers an inspired solution. The initiation ceremony that serves as the rite of passage for young men not only inculcates them with the virtues and values that the community celebrates in its male members, the courage and strength to withstand pain and suffering with stoicism, an indication that they will protect their community as able warriors, but the tattoos also clearly identify all the male members of the community who are considered adult men. In cultures that embrace body art, the identification of the position of individuals within the community is a problem easily solved with tattoos. Any male with a tattoo is a man.
Within modern urban cultures where the line between adolescence and adulthood are often increasingly blurred and where many young people do not have specific rites of passage, many young people take matters into their own hands. It is common for peer groups of young men and women, whether they might be close friends, school mates, members of athletic teams, fraternal or community groups, to get body art that celebrates their sense of shared experience. In many instances they choose to get tattooed with the same tattoo design or symbol.
Tattoos as Marks of Rank
Before the advent of modern technology and the invention of the first modern electric tattoo machine in 1892 it must be remembered that all tattooing, in both traditional and modern cultures, was all done by hand. Traditional tattooing done using hand implements was often a long and time consuming process and one that was usually expensive. Whether you paid the tattoo artist in dollars, pounds sterling or pigs and rattan mats, the more you were tattooed, the greater the sum of your body art, the greater the symbol of personal wealth.
Among traditional cultures like the Maori of New Zealand, tattoos often told specific genealogical information about an individual. A man or a woman's tattoo could not only identify their paternal and maternal lineage, but because Maori 'ta moko' was an ongoing practice, it also often revealed an individual's political, social and military rank.
Among the Iban Headhunters of Borneo, tremendous status was accrued to a man by the numbers of heads he had collected. This record was carefully documented by tattoos on the hands. Other Iban tattoos told the story of a man's accomplishments through his life and a heavily tattooed individual had greater rank and status within the community. Indeed, it was important for the Iban to become heavily tattooed because they believed that tattoos illuminated their way in the darkness of the Spirit World of the Afterlife.
Early Roman historical references often noted that members of the "barbarian" nobility classes often displayed tattoos that signified their rank and family crests.
And unlike modern Western tattooing where the choice to get tattooed is the sole purview of the individual and the decision of which tattoo to get is purely a matter of personal taste, tattoos that denote individual rank within a larger community are almost always an act that requires the consensus of the decision-making apparatus or executive of that community. Tattoos of rank are badges of honour and status handed out by groups of grateful and approving peers.
Tattoos as Symbols of Religious Devotion
Throughout history people have used tattoos to identify their religious affiliation and to signal their devotion to their spiritual beliefs. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, it was common practice among both members of the nobility and common foot soldiers to seek out a tattoo artist upon entering the Holy City of Jerusalem. The reason? To be tattooed with a cross. King Edward VII of England had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm after he paid a visit to the city in 1862. The exact same tattoo artist tattooed Edward's sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York, when they too made the same pilgrimage to Jerusalem twenty years later.
Coptic Christians had cross tattoo designs on their forehead as symbols of their faith. Berber women in North Africa have tattooed symbols of their faith on their faces and arms for centuries.
Today, religious images are among the world's most popular tattoo designs, with images of crosses, angels, doves and other religious icons among the most sought after tattoos.
Tattoos as Marks of Bravery
There are few tattoo traditions with a neither longer nor more storied past than the rich history of military tattoos. It is a revered martial tradition and body art has long been the mark of a true warrior in the eyes of many. For the past two centuries in the West, and for many millennia before that around the world, men in the military services have traditionally used very specific tattoo designs to proclaim their membership in a branch of the armed services and as an overt sign of their patriotism and national fervor.
Military tattoo designs for men of arms run all the way from the actual insignia of a particular military unit, to tattoo designs that feature the flags of their nation, or to tattoo designs that symbolize their military branch. At the turn of the twentieth century it was estimated that over 90 percent of members of the British Admiralty, or Navy, were tattooed, with tattoo designs ranging from anchors and mermaids to actual images of the ships those sailors served on. In the past, many ancient historians remarked on the tattoos of soldiers, Roman and otherwise, who went into battle armed as much with their tattoos as their weapons.
Many other endeavors and careers that call for overt and conscious acts of courage and bravery in the face of adversity and where an individual may be at personal risk or harm also routinely celebrate those virtues and character traits with tattoos. Police officers and fire fighters are two specific groups that often get body art that celebrates their work.
Tattoos as Sexual Lures
There has always an erotically charged aura around tattoos, due in no small part to their reputation for being just a little bit racy for the better part of the twentieth century. Tattoos have long been seen in modern times as belonging to the realm of bad boys and naughty girls. In traditional cultures, many tattoos, especially those of women, were clear indicators of sexual maturity and that a woman was of the proper age, in other words, fertile, and in the market for a husband and marriage. Individuals within traditional cultures were generally tattooed as part of an adolescent rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, and a tattooed member of a community was recognized as an adult, with an adults sexual needs, wants and desires.
And if power really were the ultimate aphrodisiac, then tattoos that indicated an individual's high social rank and status would have only helped make them more attractive to the opposite gender. Some cultural anthropologists also theorize that the ability to withstand a large amount of tattooing without any ill effects may serve as an indicator of the health and quality of an individual's immune system. The tattoos then serve as a signal that you have good genes!
In a more modern context, men and women have both specifically chosen quite gender specific tattoo designs to accentuate and draw attention to their best masculine and feminine attributes.
Men like tattoos that exaggerate their physiques, drawing attention to their upper bodies, in particular their shoulders and arms. Men also tend to choose tattoos that are overtly masculine, or perceived to be "tough", with an emphasis on powerful animals and other iconic symbols of strength and virility. Male body art is also likely to be much more extensive than is traditionally seen on their female counterparts, with both greater and denser coverage.
Women are much more likely to choose more feminine designs, butterflies and flowers are by far the most popular tattoo designs for women, and they choose to display them in visually powerful erogenous zones. The most common places for women to get tattoos are the lower back, hips, bikini line and breasts. In other words, a woman's tattoo draws the eyes to her most powerful sexual flags, her curves. And it is also no accident that many women choose to get tattoos that can be casually displayed or artfully covered up. Few things are neither as tempting nor as teasing as the tip of a tattoo peaking from a hidden spot.
Tattoo as a Pledge of Love
The single greatest reason that individuals regret getting a tattoo is because the tattoo contains the name or initials of a former lover or significant other. And yet, hearts and flowers with declarations of love continue to pay the rent for tattoo artists. First, when the tattoo "I love Mary" is inked in a scroll beneath a red, red rose and the second time when the name is covered-up with some artfully inked leaves, hence the tattoo term, "cover-up". There's an old expression among tattoo artists, "Love lasts forever, and a tattoo lasts six months longer".
And yet there are many pledges of love that people do not regret. Interestingly, it was soldiers going off to fight wars that popularized the heart tattoo, inscribed with the ever popular "I love Mom". Such tattoos were reminders to a home-sick soldier or sailor of why they were at war and whom they were fighting for, and a poignant reminder of the life left behind and the hearth fires burning at home. Such tattoos were pledges of love for families and sweethearts left behind.
Still another popular tattoo design that is a pledge of love is the Memorial Tattoo, a tattoo that commemorates a lost love, a child, a family member or a friend who has passed away suddenly and unexpectedly; or among members of the armed service, policemen and fire fighters, who get tattoos to memorialize a fallen comrade. Such tattoos are a way for people to grieve the loss of a loved one, yet honour their memory as they try to get on with their own lives.
Tattoos as Protection
Tattoos have long served to act as talismans and amulets of protection, for surely one of the things that set us apart from the other primates is our profound belief in superstitions. Almost all cultures that tattoo have incorporated into their design philosophy a belief that certain tattoo symbols will protect the wearer against harm or bring them good fortune and luck.
Many cultures, such as in Thailand and Borneo, believe their tattoos will turn away evil spirits, cure or prevent snake and other poisonous bites, deter attacks from predators and even act as shields for knives, spears and even bullets. Such tattoos are worn to inspire confidence and diminish worry and doubt about all the vagaries that plague human existence.
Even today, popular tattoo designs incorporate four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, and a long, long list of religious and spiritual symbols meant to appease Gods and ensure divine protection for the true believer.
Tattoos as Punishment
No account of human history would be complete without some reference to the crueler aspects and darker side of human nature. Down through history tattoos have often been used, sometimes with force against an individual, as a form of punishment. In Roman times, slaves were often marked with tattoos, as were prisoners of war and criminals. In Japan, criminals were at one time tattooed on the forehead, with the nature of their crimes clearly spelled out for all to see. In the Second World War, Nazi atrocities came to be exemplified with the forced tattooing of Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. Even today, within prisons around the world, a culture and language of symbols has sprung up among criminal populations, with tattoo designs taking on very specific meanings.