Tattoo Art - Does Your Tattoo Have a Hidden Meaning Which Can Trip You Up?

A tattoo is a tattoo is a tattoo, right? Not true if your tattoo art is based on some kind of symbol. For example, you may think that a double lightning bolt looks pretty cool. So do I, actually. But in some places, this double lightning bolt is the symbol for white supremacists. This is one tattoo you do not want to show off in a black ghetto. Another example would be the swastika. Before Adolf Hitler and his Nazis stole it, the swastika actually meant good things to Native Americans (or Red Indians to people of my generation). In the East, the swastika is actually the symbol of Buddhism, one of the most peaceful religions on this planet.

So, how do you find out if your tattoo has some kind of hidden meaning? First, you need to classify your tattoo design:

  • Flower
  • Zodiac
  • Celtic
  • Animal, Bird, Fish, etc
  • Nautical
  • Tribal
  • Chinese/Japanese words
  • Others

After that, just look up an appropriate reference book in your local library or on the internet. For example, if you type in "meaning of flowers" into Google, you can get references to what flowers normally mean. One of these websites says that marigold means "cruelty, grief or jealousy". Probably not a tattoo you want to get to celebrate your new girlfriend or marriage.

Of course, Chinese and Japanese words are not so easily researched. Unless you know a native Chinese or Japanese speaker, you should give these a miss. For example, there are 2 forms of Chinese words, old Chinese and new Chinese. Old Chinese is still used in Taiwan, and by many overseas Chinese. New Chinese is used in China, and is increasingly superseding old Chinese in Singapore and Hong Kong. Additionally, old Chinese words have slightly different meanings depending on which dialect of Chinese you are speaking. Beyond the basic meanings, the same word in the mainstream Mandarin dialect (used as the standard dialect in China) could have additional meanings in Cantonese (the original main dialect in Hong Kong), or Hokkien, or Hakka (other dialects used by overseas Chinese).

Animal and bird symbols are considered significant by both psychoanalysts and astrologists/fortune-tellers. When I typed "animal symbols in dreams", I found over 800,000 references. Among the more fascinating things I found out:

  • Gold koi fish represents wealth
  • White and red koi fish represents love
  • Tiger represents power and energy
  • Coyote represents ingenuity and resourcefulness as well as playfulness

If your tattoo design is more abstract, you could look up the Anti-Defamation League's website. They have a pretty comprehensive list of hate symbols used by extremist groups. I found the swastika and double lightning bolt on their website. If you think the viewpoint of the Anti-Defamation League is too Jewish, you can also google for "racist symbols". But I have to warn you that their website is well-regarded, and appears on the first page of search results.

Some of you may prefer a printed reference, with all the information you want in one place. Terisa Green's "The Tattoo Encyclopedia : A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo" (ISBN-13: 978-0743223294) is a good and cheap reference book. She organizes the most common tattoo symbols into alphabetical order, and has 800 tattoo images in her book. I found the paperback version of her book on Amazon for only $12.

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