Behind the Smoke & Mirrors—What Tattoos Mean

Published on August 28, 2017 by Elisha Neubauer

Throughout history, tattoos have been an important means of communication for humans. Societies across the globe—through varying times—have utilized tattoos for an assorted collection of purposes.


For early man, approximately 5,000 years ago, tattoos were a rudimentary form of acupuncture—being put to use as a method of therapy for ailing bodies. As time progressed, tattoos began being used as a method of branding slaves and thieves. In other societies, they were a method of religious protection, similar to a talisman.


In other cultures, still, tattoos were used as a means of defying authority and social structure. The Japanese, for example, began to tattoo full body suits on themselves to replicate the bright, colorful tunics which the upper class was able to afford. For some tribal cultures, tattoos were a way of recognizing a coming of age, a wedding, or tribal affiliation. As time passed on, tattoos were used to depict travel, honor loved ones, reclaim freedom, and other such uses.


The list literally goes on and on.


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For those outside of the industry, tattoos seem to be cloaked in smoke and mirrors. Common misconception is that every tattoo holds a devout, deep meaning and there is a story behind every image.


“What does your tattoo mean,” is perhaps the most frequent question a tattoo collector is asked (of course, followed by the typical, “Did it hurt?”).


Here’s the deal…


Not every tattoo has a meaning. Now, that is not to say that you won’t ask someone and get a tear-jerking story about the underlying meaning behind their sprawling tattoos. All I am saying is that some tattoos just don’t hold any meaning other than the simple fact that the wearer liked them.


Another problem with attempting to decipher the meaning of tattoos is that one symbol or image can hold a variety of meanings across different cultures. For example, we recently had a follower ask about the meaning of a triangle tattoo. Simple enough, right?


Not quite. There are many different meanings for this simple geometric shape. To the Celts, a triangle was determined to be of religious origin and was often used by newlyweds to symbolize their love for one another. To the Greek, a triangle was symbolic of a doorway. To the Christians, it represented the holy trinity while the Pagans believed a triangle to depict the three phases of the moon.


That’s just the start. Having an open triangle (one side not closed off) depicts an openness to change. If it points upwards, it displays masculinity and rising up while pointing down implies femininity and grace. At the same time, an upward triangle represents the element of fire while one that points downwards is the element of water. It all depends on the wearer’s belief system and cultural background.


The differences in meanings are staggering.


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This doesn’t even include the meanings which the wearer could have instilled in the image themselves. For example, a monkey tattoo usually stands for wit, intelligence, and protection. However, my other half and I wear our own monkey tattoos which symbolize something completely different. They have a personal meaning that is heavily based on our history as high school sweethearts. Nobody else would understand that meaning apart from us.


Tattoos are magical—they can be used to tell a story, remember a past, or encourage a future. They can elicit emotion, create controversy, or build strength. Each tattoo on each wearer can hold a meaning or simply just be for fun. Tattoos are something that can be adapted—they can become whatever you want them to become.


There isn’t always a meaning… but it doesn’t really matter, anyway!


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