Tattoo Meanings A Visual Culture By Louise Baynton
Tattoo Meanings A Visual Culture By Louise Baynton The need for humans to mark our skin with meanings began thousands of years ago, fundamentally in the Tattooing culture the marking on one’s skin is to be seen as an extension of yourself, in today’s modern world tattoos are a huge expression of your individuality, your life your past, your passions, there even seen in the modern day as a fashion statement. But in previous years the Tattoo world wasn’t so accepted or diverse in designs or the people who would get tattooed this has blossomed in the last twenty years or so. In this essay i will be taking a close look at the symbolism behind traditional tattoos and what this means to the modern day visual culture we experience to be tattooing. Traditional commercial tattoo styles can be split into three groups, American style which is the youngest of all three, Japanese style, and the oldest which is Yantra/Mandala tattoos, which in the last five years has become one of the most popular styles of tattooing. But the concept of marking one’s skin with symbols that hold great meaning dates back even further than the commercial culture of tattooing. The word Tattoo comes from Tahitian tribes in Africa which would use the word ‘tatau’, which means to mark. tattoos have not always been used by humans to express personality, Tibetan Buddhist monks used Yantra tattoos as a tool in the path to enlightenment. (wiki, Yantra tattooing, page 3)
of Wat Bang Phra. The most commonly used designs for these tattoos are, ‘Ha-thaeo, and Kao-yot’ Typically tattooed on the upper back across the shoulders. Each of the of lines relates to a different blessing for success in life and good luck for the person getting tattooed, also can be seen in figure one. A relation to this being tattooed along the shoulder lines is the barer of the tattoo must hold these up with their strength, that this is a blessing they will carry with them the rest of their lives.
The next is ‘Paet-thit’ which translated means eight points, represents protection in the eight directions of the universe, which is a relation or reference to Mandalas which Buddhists believe is the sacred formula that the universe is made up of. ‘Panchamukhi’ and ‘Suea’ another typically used yantra symbol depicts two twin tigers on the lower back with script in the middle. they believe the two twin tigers to represent power and authority over one’s life, making symbols of tigers one of the oldest symbiology in tattooing that is still used today in Japanese and traditional style tattoo’s. Mandalas on the other hand aren’t as set to traditional meanings and symbols. Mandalas were first created by Buddhists, but are also used in Hinduism and Jainism there are commonly used in meditation. the word mandala means circle, In Tibetan Buddhism the role of mandalas is so strong that it could become an architectural structure and even whole Yantra tattoos are seen as a sacred techtemples may be built as giant mandalas. Some nique of skin marking. Some of the monks of the most common Mandalas are the seed who practise it will turn down people coming and flower of life. which are a circle with several from western cultures for the tattoos because different smaller circles within them, the number they worry westerners wont apricate the deep of circles are the mathematical formula to the meanings behind the sacred marks. The monks universe, and can be found in nature such as the who do Yantra tattoos truly believe they beformation of tree leaves, as can be seen in figure stow magical powers to the barer of that tattoo. number two and three. the meanings of mandaIt is also believed that the sacred tattoos lose las are to heal someone in a spiritual way, either their power over time. So to re-empower them to be tattooed or have it in one’s environment each year, yantra masters celebrate with their where they can stare into it. Its only very recently devotees the Wai Khru ritual. Wai Khru means that these have become very popular in western “pay homage to one’s guru”. In Thailand, the cultures to be tattooed, it is perceived as quite a most impressive Wai Khru is held at the temple spiritual or-
In modern culture, could be considered a stereotypical hippy tattoo as the symbolism is heavily associated by nature and healing. Mandalas can become even more personal though and have been known to be individuality created for the owner, prosed to cure what ails them in their life, whether they seek to be more successful or find inner peace, the one who creates the mandala will base the lines on things like these in hope it will cure them through the use of Mandala meditation techniques, so it’s not really a bad thing to have tattooed at all. As it seems more westerners become more richly cultured in more spiritual outlooks on life and healthy living it does make sense why these more spiritual tattoos keep appearing in tattoo culture and fashion. But with the fear of Yantra tattooing not being held as sacred as it is in their culture it raises the question do westerners really apricated the deeper meaning of being marked with such theories, but you cannot dispute the dedication to getting these afflicted into our skin is stronger than ever.
the water symbolises the hardship person faces in their life. Even the colouring of the fish brings a deeper meaning to the symbolism behind the tattoo. Red Koi symbolise love, Red the colour is common connected with the ideals of passion and romance, and this colouring is popular among men. Black Koi’s are to do with success and overcoming obstacles in their life, The dark colouring symbolises strength, to choose one’s own destiny, to be reborn against the adversity in the owner’s life. Black is a strong and deep colour, there is a lot of power behind the colour whether we see it as good or bad. (stone Lucius, history of Japanese tattoo, chapter, page 2).
Interestingly Snakes in Japanese tattoos, can represent a lot of different things in Japanese tattoos, a popular interpretation of snakes is regeneration and healing. These symbolisms come from the connection of snakes being used in the medical symbols and because snakes shed their skin meaning there constantly regenerating their body and moving forward. After the old one is shed which is a powerful symbol for improving one’s self. The snake is popTattoos contain some of the most deeply sym- ular in design, in the way it can be wrapped around bolic, powerful meanings in design many of people’s bodies legs and arms. The snake is one of which have been integrated into western culthe most adopted symbols in tattoo culture and has ture, some of which are Koi fish and dragon tat- taken to several different styles. toos. In Japan Tattoos, have been outlawed for several years to do with the associated with the Tora or translated into English is Tiger. Tigers in highly-organised mafia group the Yakuza.The tattooing have been around for centuries and has group itself uses tattooing as a rite of passage, always been seen as an iconic way to represent a physical test, a sign of true power against great power and holds great power in warding off affliction to the body. (Richard moss, Mandala evil, these connotation began from Yantra tattooof being, page 3) ing. Even in Japanese Irezumi gang culture tattoos, it is a popular element to many of the designs. In Irezumi Is the Japanese phrased used for ancient Japanese culture the Tiger is one of the tattooing (Stone, Lucius, history of Japanese sacred four animals, in which they represent the tattoo, page 3). the term translates in English to season of autumn and the control of the changing Insert Ink, which is a fairly good understanding winds, which is often why in the design they are to the practise of tattooing. In ancient japan shown to be with a gust of wind and cherry blosmany believed the ink would protect them soms flowing in the gust. against evil. The Japanese skull signifies death, change and a a Koi Fish, one of the most famous tattoo deconnection to fallen ancestors which is a big part of signs in the Japanese style, Common folk Japanese culture, they feel a great connection to legends in japan state the Koi fish bring good their ancestors and history of their families and pay luck and has the ability to overcome adversity. tribute to them. The design of the skull differs vastly Stories speak of Koi fish being able to climb such as the dragon, Their interpretation in western up waterfalls despite the heavy waters fighting culture. a skull may symbolise evil but in japan it against the Koi Fish. These tattoos symbolise is intended to be a sign of positivity. The skull is a the owner’s aspirations into self-improvement. great sign of aging and the natural circle of life, it A sign of personal strength and perseverance. can also mean change or loss in the family.
Japanese skulls are deeply engrained into the culture, and are a very popular thing to be tattooed on someone. they connect the person with the past and pay personal tribute. Japanese people believe their ancestors watch over them so feeling that connection to one’s past holds great importance. Skulls hold great superstition in Japans culture, even in where the skull tattoo is placed on the body holds great meaning and importance to the status of the tattoo. There is defiantly more than meets the eye when trying to understand the symbolism behind this great art form. Many people still believe the art form of being tattooed is a rite of passage in Japan, even though it is still illegal to get tattooed more and more tattoo shops are opening up in japan each day. (stone Lucius, history of Japanese tattoo, chapter, page 4).
ders. This is because they believe it is your strength, it has your back as you could say. The dragon is there to help the ink owner and draw strength when it is needed. The tattoo design is also a reminder to be good to your fellow beings be ‘gracious in your battles.’ (stone Lucius, history of Japanese tattoo, chapter 5, page 4).
Threw out tattooing history there has always been great symbology behind the marks we ink into our skin, but as we’ve taken this accident and powerful practise into the modern day, we the people have began to give our own meanings to our tattoos rather than having set tattoo designs on the wall of the tattoo shops. With the advance in the technology being used to tattoo and the greater the ability to have literally any design you could think of, tattoos have become greater in personality and emotional attachment for the person. Being apart of this inked One of the most stunning and my personal up culture personally i can speak from this first favourite symbolism in Traditional Japanese hand. Having tattoos to me captures great people tattooing is the depiction of Japanese samurais. and moments in my life, I took great time in choosThe Samurai warrior symbolises the bushido ing my symbols and marks, and none of my tattoos ‘The way of the warrior’ this too conveys courfollow classic symbiology but are in traditional style, age, honour and loyalty, to be brave and polite. which in the modern day of tattooing would be These stunning artworks, are usually found to classed and neo traditional style. be back pieces or tattooed onto larger surface areas of the body. Because the Samurai is American tattoos dominate the tattoo culture and very respected when tattooed the artist will go world, this is the newest of the traditional styles into heavy detail of the Armor and warrior. The of tattooing i have looked at and has taken great Samurai tattoo is seen to be a great honour influences from styles like the Japanese way of and some artists question if westerners truly tattooing. It was the first dramatic change in tattoodeserve such a great honour to be blessed ing, even though in western cultures tattooing has with this onto their skin. this is open to debate always seen to be assonated with lower classes as is much of the tattoo symbolism they carry. and criminals, that ignorant outlook on tattoos has been around since the slave trade where westernFinally, but not least, the Dragon. The Dragon in ers encountered tribes in Africa with ‘marked skin’, Japanese tattoo designs is probably the most the invading westerners deemed the practise barcommon and most famous of all the designs. baric and the taboo seemed to have stuck around In Japanese culture Dragons, have held so until the modern day, This pushed the tattoo culture much power and generosity and good forinto a subculture, its only until recent years that the tune unlike how they were depicted in western boom of tattoos has become more socially acceptculture to be evil creatures who eat princesses. ed in greater audiences. In Japanese culture, they are seen to be generous beings, that use their powers to help man- American electric tattooing first became majorly kind. Dragons are seen to be higher creatures popular with sailors, who would collect tattoos port than humans, of greater intelligence. By having to port depicting the adventures at sea and the life’s a tattoo inked onto your body you are seen to they led. So, getting Anchors is pretty self-explanbe portraying that you are wise, and a person atory for men in the navy, but there’s more to the of the people. Not to mention the beauty of symbolism of Anchors than meets the eye. Andragon tattoos is undeniable. Dragon tattoos other reason for the Anchor tattoo, can symbolise are commonly wrapped down the owner’s where they want to be in life this comes from the arms or placed somewhere around the shoul- phrase to drop one’s anchor, or where they want to
-Drop Anchor. Another understanding of the Anchor tattoo is sort of the opposite of the first which is to mean the rising of Anchor which symbolises a new chapter or adventure in the person’s life. Anchors can also have Association to Christianity, because the upper half of an Anchor resembles the cross, and there for associated with sacrifice and salvation in Christ and faith. The Anchor was used as a symbol in roman times, it would have been tattooed on a Christian to let other Christians know their faith and who they were. (Grahame Garlick, 2015, Tattoo meanings, chapter 2, page 9). Butterflies are another very common traditional tattoo which is assioated with the meaning transformation. The Concept of coming out of one’s shell or cocoons in this case. Butterflies can also symbolise moving forward in one’s life. But strangely on many cultures the butterfly is a symbol of the human soul. In Japan, a white butterfly is meant to be seen as someone’s soul, whether they are living or dead. The idea that the Butterfly is a constantly moving and regenerating itself in its short life has a connection with the concept of moving forward in life, growing your wings and taking off. Moths also have similar qualities of symbolism as Butterflies do.
point where the owner verbally has to express the meaning as if they are the owner of great artworks. And the other world of people fuelling the need to be tattooed for fashion making the owner of the tattoos a symbol of the culture themselves. To be more be seen as a human work of art than wearing art underneath their skin. In the last 50 years, we have started to glamourize the tattoo industry making the tattooed look a show of rebellion. Porn and modelling companies have started to branch out and distribute solely devoted tattoo themed products, even with the use of TV shows like Miami ink, the lives these tattoo artists live seem very cool and exciting, and help desensitise younger audiences to the idea of getting some ink. Not to say they haven’t used this technique on celebrities before, but the growth in fascination with tattoo culture has exploded onto our screens, and helped open our minds to the concept. Not to mention the hundreds of different styles being produced by some of the world class tattooing artists. They become sort after like collecting process artworks, ever being advertised of famous people’s skin.
But where does it go next? The fact that someone to have tattoos has been deemed to be rebelliously spirited or an individual, but still is widely not accepted in the professional world, With the growDaggers have been cropping up in tattoo ing amount of people opening the idea to getting designs for the last 60 years or so. Obviously, some ink is it long before we shatter the shackles Daggers hold great meaning to violence in tat- of taboo and accept heavily inked people into more toos, in the past a dagger dripping with blood professional lines of work like bankers, being almeans the person with the tattoo had a conlowed to bare ink for everyone to see? My answer cealed weapon on them and were willing to is hopefully. In a world where people still divide use it if need be. But in modern times it could people on appearance such as having tattoos is represent someone who is fearless or strong. not moving forward in my personal opinion and still A dagger through the heart was used to signify very much is a form of discrimination. If history has being betrayed by one’s spouse or lover, many taught us anything, it is that people have had this sailors bore these tattoos also while they were need to symbolise and manifest personal beliefs or away at sea and pissing their loved ones, it was values in many ways including wearing these bealso a reminder to the person to not make the liefs in the very layers of their skin. same mistakes once again in love. to conclude, I have looked at in detail the symIn today’s modern day, people get near bolism behind traditional tattoos and how humans enough anything tattooed into the layers of have grown to perceive tattoos visually, i have gone their skin, from Nike signs to their favourite into great detail of these meanings and looked at cartoon characters, from what I’ve seen and the visual context of what it means to be a tattooed researched while writing this paper is that the person in the twenty first century and where it could tattoo world ever grows into to parallel worlds, be leading us next in the future. one filled with meaning beyond what we can comprehend visually with our eyes, to the
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