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About The Book

A unique illustrated reference on the origins and meanings of nearly one thousand tattoo symbols that serves as a guide for choosing a personal image and provides a fascinating look at the tattoo as a work of art.

Tattoos continue to move into the mainstream and grow in popularity with each passing day. For people contemplating getting a tattoo, however, the choice of images can be overwhelming. A comprehensive, informative exploration of the colorful world of tattoos, The Tattoo Encyclopedia presents concise descriptions of symbols both common and unusual and sheds light on their historic, religious, and cultural significance.

Organized in a convenient A-to-Z format, cross-referenced, indexed by category, and illustrated with three hundred samples of authentic tattoo line art, this book features a stunning array of images ranging from ancient Buddhist and Chinese designs to those sported by twenty-first-century bikers. The definition of each symbol includes the widely accepted interpretation based on historical fact and cultural source, as well as various interpretations that have developed across different cultures and time periods.

Whether choosing a personally significant tattoo, wanting to learn more about a symbol, or simply being interested in tattoos as a form of art and body decoration, readers will discover the richness of tattoo culture in The Tattoo Encyclopedia.




The tiny acorn is an ancient representation of life and birth. In a literal sense, it is a seed that eventually grows into the mighty OAK TREE. In Scandinavia it was sacred to THOR and was used as a symbol of fertility and immortality. In an allegorical sense, it is unborn power and fruitfulness waiting to be released.


An aegishjalmar can take on many different forms, but in general each is composed of the same small building blocks of ancient Norse RUNES. They begin with a simple cross in the middle and grow from there. Frequently they are used as talismans or protective devices. However, it is actually impossible to tell the meaning of any particular one, since the small runes serve general functions -- such as collecting energy or routing it from one place to another. Only the person who creates each new aegishjalmar, giving it a certain purpose upon creation, can ever truly say what it means.


An integral part of the famous MAN'S RUIN tattoo, alcohol is certainly capable of standing on its own as a tattoo symbol. The particular spirits may vary from a generic pint of beer to a favorite or well-known brand of whiskey. The theme of the design is equally hard to predict. Alcohol can represent good times, release, and celebration. Just as often, though, tattoo symbolism with alcohol revolves around its addictive aspects. Bottles that hang like an intravenous drip or that possess some demonic personality are all part of the repertoire. In the pictured example, a 40-proof bottle is marked not only with the XXX but also the SKULL AND CROSSBONES of death and poison. But it also rests on the pure LOTUS and is surrounded by the type of MANDORLA typically reserved for the VIRGIN MARY OF GUADALUPE. Whether we revere or revile it, alcohol seems destined to remain a notable feature of tattoo symbolism.


The alien head has become an icon in American pop culture that probably originated in the 1950s around the time of the Area 51 incident (the alleged site of a UFO crash, disclaimed by the U.S. AIR FORCE as a weather balloon). The head is shaped roughly like an inverted teardrop with two large, black, oval eyes. It has come to stand for the existence of UFOs, aliens, and extraterrestrial life. In tattoo art, the alien head is sometimes also accompanied by full alien body depictions and entire otherworldly scenes as well.


The symbolism of the alligator tattoo will, of course, vary from person to person but the well-known qualities of the animal serve as a general indicator. In the West, the alligator symbolizes aggression, sometimes to the point of killing without feeling. In China, though, the alligator is the inventor of the drum and of singing and may have even inspired the imperial dragon.


The all-seeing eye, a human eye surrounded by radiating beams of light, is found in many cultures and time periods and is designed in many ways in tattoo art. The eye is almost universally taken as a symbol of perception, not just in the physical sense, but in terms of spiritual vision and insight. Most often, the all-seeing eye is a watchful charm to ward off evil, alert but serene. It is also reminiscent of the third-eye concept, such as that on SHIVA'S forehead, where it unifies perception of many different dimensions.


In a literal sense, the two Greek letters alpha and OMEGA are simply the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. But when JESUS utters them in reference to himself, they take on a completely different meaning. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" (Revelation 22:13). In Revelation, the final BOOK of the Bible, prophetic visions of the end of the world and the second coming abound, and it is in these passages where the phrase "Alpha and Omega" is found. More than just an intimation of the eternal nature of Christ, the letters have also come to signify his completeness and promise to return.


In a wordplay with the symbol of ALPHA AND OMEGA, the addition of the mu changes the three letters into an acronym for three Greek words meaning "yesterday, today, and forever," with an emphasis on the presence of God in the here and now.


In Greek legend, the Amazons were a race of women warriors with whom various Greek heroes often had violent contact. Typically they were armed with various weapons such as a bow, SPEAR, double AX, half-SHIELD, and sometimes a helmet. Their modern symbolism is thus a direct referent to their strength, courage, independence, and also their higher aspirations of sisterhood. Not surprisingly, their symbolism has been adopted by lesbians, for all of these reasons. The double ax, or LABRYS, is today a popular symbol of the lesbian community.


Sometimes said at the end of a prayer or as an expression of approval or agreement, the word "amen" appears in both Greek and Hebrew. But in either context, it carries a sense of solemnity, rather than just affirmation. In a very fundamental and yet nonliteral way, it is ultimately an expression of faith. Typically this tattoo is done with a lettering style that expresses something earnest, although it can be simple and cursive or ornate and Gothic.


An amulet can be any type of charm or talisman that is worn for protection from harm (or to bring good fortune) and it has taken many forms throughout time, including the tattoo. From the VENUS figurines of Neanderthal man, the SCARAB of ancient Egypt, or the ZUNI FETISH, to painted and tattooed images of numerous magic symbols, verses of sacred text, or the modern-day lucky RABBIT's foot, amulets take on special meaning to the bearer. They actually become something that embodies the power that they symbolize, whether they are worn in life or death. The immediacy, permanence, and physical closeness of tattooed amulets make them a special class -- a symbol that cannot be accidentally lost, a protection that is always present, and power that is constantly in one's possession.


Also known as Amon, Amen, or Ammon, this Egyptian god is "The Hidden One," one of the primordial and most ancient of the gods, who was the driving force behind the wind and the air. However, he also became known as the king of the gods, the supreme ruler, during the New Kingdom. Sometimes he is given a RAM'S head or is shown as a complete ram. More familiar, though, is his depiction as a bearded man with a tall, double-plumed headdress. Occasionally his image is painted blue, to show his invisibility. Over the centuries, he came to symbolize knowledge, impartiality, and rulership -- the actual physical father of all pharaohs. Indeed, one of the most famous of the pharaohs had his name changed to Tutankhamen (which means "the living image of Amen") in order to show his connection to this symbol of traditional kingship.


The anarchy movement ranges from groups and individuals who wish to peacefully establish local self-government cooperatives to those who violently lash out at any government. The symbol of a capital "A" inside a CIRCLE is more likely to be used in some type of antigovernment vein than in the infrequent usage it receives from white supremacists. Its origin as a symbol is fairly modern, perhaps going back to its use in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). However, the symbol took hold in a much wider community when it was adopted after the 1968 general strike in France. The fact that in many of the world's languages the word for anarchy begins with the letter "A" and the direct and simple appeal of the circle used as a framing element has helped to keep this symbol in use.


The anchor is one of a handful of symbols in the tattoo world that has remained both popular and true to its origins. The bearer of the anchor is likely a seafarer of some type -- traditionally military (Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard) but sometimes recreational or commercial. In maritime lore, the tattooed anchor showed that a seaman had sailed the Atlantic Ocean. In ancient times among Mediterranean seafarers, the anchor symbolized the sea gods. In early Christianity, the anchor (with horizontal tie bar under the ring) was used as a covert symbol by virtue of its resemblance to a cross. Many times the anchor is combined with other symbols that elaborate something more specific -- various creatures of the sea, ships, life preservers, names of ports. In general, though, it guarantees stability and security in the physical world and, by extension, steadfastness, hope, and trust in the spiritual world.


The anchor cross, also known as the cross of hope, and the crux dissimulata (the disguised or dissimilar cross), was a Christian symbol of hope during the time of persecution under the Roman Empire. In Rome, during the third century, Christians were persecuted to such an extent that they dared not use the cross as their symbol for fear of exposure. The crux dissimulata was created with the intention that a non-Christian would not be able to recognize it as a Christian or church symbol or object of worship. Not surprisingly, Christ himself is seen by these early Christians as the "hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sincere and steadfast" (Hebrews 6:19). This cross was also the emblem of St. Clement, Bishop of Rome (the first pope to succeed Saint Peter), who, according to lore, was tied to an anchor of iron and tossed into the sea at the order of the emperor Trajan.


An angel, in virtually any culture or time period, represents benevolent spirituality. Angel tattoos sometimes take the form of innocent CHERUBS or righteous avengers, but most frequently they are illustrated as gentle guardians, guides, and personal protectors. The word itself comes from the Greek word for "messenger," and angels are most frequently described as intermediaries between the supernatural world and the world of mankind. In some religions, angels are ranked, categorized by specific characteristics, and even personally named (ARCHANGEL MICHAEL). But in general, their existence in these religious systems implies a belief in a certain spiritual order -- one in which humans have their place. Indeed, much of what angels do, even in tattoo symbolism, centers around their relationship to humans. While their activities are not unlike ours (such as playing music, as in this example), their actions remain at some sublime level -- a level for which mankind longs.


The Angel of No Man's Land, sometimes also known as the "ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND," is a military field nurse. Originating from the nickname "angel of mercy," the Red Cross nurses of World War I (for example, Florence Nightingale, "the lady with the lamp") were actually memorialized in a song titled "The Rose of No Man's Land." The two images of ROSE and ANGEL are combined in tattoo art that was popular during both World Wars I and II. Soldiers remembered their nurses by getting tattoos that showed these compassionate women wearing a traditional white nurse's cap with red cross, sometimes with a rose as a backdrop and also with American FLAGS or patriotic bunting. At times these nurses risked their lives to tend to wounded men and, at the very least, they offered kindness to soldiers who were far from home.


The Coptic church, which originated and is still based mostly in Egypt, is the principal Christian church in that predominantly Muslim country. In addition, there is a Coptic Orthodox church in Jerusalem, and a few other churches in the Holy Land, built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as a Coptic bishopric in Khartoum, Sudan. The Coptic tattoos that come down to us today are those recorded by John Carswell in 1956 in Jerusalem and were principally done for Christian pilgrims to that city, reflecting a centuries-old practice there. This particular design shows the Angel of the Apocalypse or the Angel of Judgment. The winged angel with a ray HALO wears a pleated tunic, belted at the waist, and pointed boots. He holds the SCALES OF JUSTICE in his right hand and a SWORD in his left. Per Revelation 10:1-10, the ANGEL stands on the earth. Unlike the benevolent angels so prevalent in Western art, this angel is rendering the last judgment of all souls at the end of the world.


This ancient Egyptian HIEROGLYPH is an example of a symbol that has completely transcended its culture and yet is uniquely associated with it. It was probably in use as early as 3000 B.C.E., a symbol associated with Imkotep, physician for the pharaoh's family, who later became a god of medicine and healing. Also known as the staff sign, the key of life, the key of the Nile, and the symbol for sexual union and for life, the ankh was associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor and even with Christ as a symbol of eternal life. Part of its enormous appeal is the expression of opposites in its composition, as well as the active and passive qualities of the loop over the cross. Both the gods and recently dead of ancient Egypt are shown grasping it by the loop, sometimes upside down, using it as a key. In all its basic uses it is fundamentally a sign of life that is unending.


In the Coptic pilgrimage tradition (see ANGEL OF THE APOCALYPSE for more details), the Annunciation tattoo shows the VIRGIN MARY with hands clasped and head bowed and an ANGEL nearby or descending. It depicts the moment when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive a Son of the Holy Spirit (represented by the DOVE with a ray HALO) to be called JESUS (Luke 1:26-38). Although less used today, the Annunciation once had a more important place in early Christian art, largely because it depicts an event that is the prelude to the redemption of the world.


The ant is associated with industriousness, both in the East and the West, but an industriousness that can be extreme. While in the West the ant is sometimes seen as selfishly greedy, in Tibetan Buddhism it is excessively attached to the good things of this life. Even a casual observation of this busy insect reveals that, although tiny, it is continuously working and lends itself to symbolize active and diligent engagement in this world, energy, and teamwork.


While antlers may not ever be seen as a lone design element in any tattoo, they do appear in noteworthy contexts as part of other designs. For example, the SHAMAN in many preliterate societies wears a headdress decorated with antlers. In fact, the so-called "Sorcerer" of the Paleolithic cave art of Trois Freres is a famous example (which itself has been used for tattoo art). It is possible that antler headdresses and masks were worn during ritual dances and performances. In most any context, the attachment of antlers is likely a link with wild beasts and a symbol of power.


Sometimes also referred to as the Egyptian jackal-headed god, Anubis was the god of the dead and of mummification. He presided over the embalming process and the judgment of the dead, monitoring the Scales of Truth to protect them from deception and eternal death. This god of embalming may be associated with the JACKAL not only because it was an animal of intelligence but also because it would not have been unusual to have seen the jackal roaming cemetery and tomb areas in Egypt. In worshipping Anubis, Egyptians transformed their desire to keep the bodies of the deceased safe into a desire for the preservation of the body for eternity.


In the West, the apple has long been associated with something desirable and yet forbidden. It is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden (and therefore also associated with temptation); it is a source of immortality when Hercules retrieves it from Hesperides; and it is even used by Solomon as the image of the sweetness of the Word of God. In China, the words for "apple" and "peace" (p'ing) sound alike. Even the shape of the apple, with its near spherical symmetry, has been used as a sign for the world rule of emperors and kings as they hold an "imperial apple" along with their scepter. For the Celts, the apple is the fruit of knowledge, but also of magic and prophecy. In the legends of Celtic Britain, Avalon (Appleland) is a symbol for divine joy. Indeed, nearly every Neolithic or Bronze Age paradise of which we know was made of orchards that contained apples.


Aquarius (January 20-February 18) is the eleventh sign of the ZODIAC. Symbolized by a pair of undulating or zigzag horizontal lines representing water, the image for the astrological sign is also sometimes a man pouring water out of an urn. While all the astrological signs have certain psychological and behavioral associations for people born during their intervals (for example, Aquarians might be characterized as sociable, intelligent, and humanistic to the extremes of superficiality, dissociation, and imitative behavior), the sign of Aquarius has also become a symbol of the New Age movement and humanitarianism. That association might be derived from the water that Aquarius pours over the earth -- interpreted as the water of awareness.


Arai Te Uru is the name of the Maori sea god who protected the canoe that brought the ancestors of the modern Maori to Aotearoa (New Zealand). It is one of five taniwha, a group of mythical monsters or dragons. Although given different forms by various artists, they are generally conceived as serpentlike and sinuous, abstract to the point where they may not resemble an actual animal.


The archangel is one of the many categories of ANGELS in the major Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). They are chiefs and even princes in the heavenly hierarchy. In both the Old and New Testaments, the archangels number seven: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, and Remiel. Frequently in artwork they are depicted as emitting holy power, wearing more elaborate clothing than ordinary angels, and sometimes performing their specific roles (see ARCHANGEL MICHAEL).


Representations of Michael, one of the seven ARCHANGELS, capitalize on his warrior nature. His holy soldier imagery is derived from Christian stories where Michael either contends with the DEVIL or where he and his angels fight against a dragon (who represents the Devil). In the early Christian church, Michael came to be seen as the helper of the church's actual armies against the heathens. Probably the most illustrated of the angels, he is usually shown with a sword, wearing armor, and in combat with or triumph over a dragon or Satan (from the story in the Book of Revelation). Of course his angelic qualities are also emphasized with outspread wings and ray HALOS. His conquering of the foe is a powerful symbol of the triumph of good over evil, of right over wrong, and of our higher natures over our lower.


Aries (March 21-April 20) is the first sign of the ZODIAC and corresponds to the ascent of the sun and the emergence of spring in the northern hemisphere. The depiction, which almost looks like a sprouting weed, also symbolizes the curving horns of the RAM, and it is most definitely a "positive," or male, sign. Also associated with the red planet of Mars and the element of fire, and people born during its astrological interval are, not surprisingly, given psychological traits connected with these images. Arians are seen as courageous, energetic, direct in approach, and freedom-loving, sometimes to the point of being selfish, quick-tempered, and impatient.


Adopted as the official "small mammal" of the state of Texas in 1995, the armadillo is known for the nine-banded shield of its back, made up of overlapping bony plates. When attacked, it can roll itself up into a ball to protect its vulnerable undersides. It is a desert animal that has come to be associated not only with Texas but with the American Southwest in general, and it represents survival and toughness in that grueling environment.


The arrow is one of the oldest, simplest, and most common symbols. Like other fundamental symbols, the range of meanings that it can take is very broad and actually tends to be contradictory at times. It has come to be associated with the male sex, lightning, weapons, swiftness, love, intuition, and sudden death. It is a symbol that has also been usurped by numerous disciplines, signaling an exponent in mathematics and a center of gravity in physics. Its appeal is direct in the sense that it can be used alone or in connection with other symbols to construct more complicated meanings. One well-known tattoo symbol -- the PIERCED HEART -- is a fine example of this type of usage.


The letters "AB" stand for the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang that originated in 1967 at San Quentin prison, in California. It is essentially a gang that espouses white supremacist ideology. Tattoos are varied and may include DAGGERS, HEARTS, and/or RIBBONS that spell out their beliefs such as "white pride," or that identify their state of origin.


The Dayak are the indigenous people of Borneo, an island that is part of the Malay Archipelago (southwest of the Philippines near Indonesia). As with tattooing techniques found throughout Polynesia, tattooing techniques in Borneo are likely also of great antiquity. The aso, a mythical animal that is a hybrid DOG and dragon, functioned as a protective image against malevolent spirits, and it was used not only in tattoos but also on shields, baby carriers, and houses.


The multiple elliptical orbits of this symbol represent electrons revolving around a singular central dot representing the nucleus. Together the orbiting electrons and nucleus depict a scientific conception of one of the smallest parts of matter, the atom. It is also, though, a symbol that stands for nuclear radiation, nuclear research, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons. The curved lines that shadow the main orbits heighten the vibratory and kinetic energy that is implied.


The aureole, often seen in religious tattoo iconography, is the luminous cloud or circle of light that surrounds the whole figure (not to be confused with the HALO around just the head). It is symbolic of the glory of the divine -- shining, bright, and beautiful.


When used in tattoo art, automobiles (and really vehicles of all types) are typically symbolic of a person's work, pastime, or hobby. Sometimes luxury car or hot rod and sometimes MACK TRUCK or pickup, vehicles are many times shown in motion -- in fact, at high speeds. These tattoos, like animal tattoos, sometimes become a metaphor for ourselves or our desires. They can also be associated with "fast living" and a certain recklessness, or "living in the fast lane."


Since the Neolithic (or "New Stone") Age, the ax has been particularly symbolic of both battle and work. All ancient peoples seem to have used stone axes, and their use in creating sparks has perhaps led to their prevalent association with storms and with LIGHTNING, thunder, and rain. For some people, such as the T'ang Dynasty Chinese, stone axes actually fell from the sky. In tattoo imagery, the ax can stand alone or be integrated into a larger design -- perhaps a VIKING scene or a Boris Vallejo painting. Their presence in most contexts, though, will draw upon their use as one of mankind's earliest weapons.


The "axis of the world" is not a particular symbol but rather a type of symbol that takes many forms. It comes from the worldviews of many ancient peoples describing how they imagined the physical universe to be arranged -- with the heavens above, an Underworld below, a central world that we occupy, and a central pole or axis that shoots straight through them all. The TREE OF LIFE is such a symbol, as is the CADUCEUS, both with central poles around which other aspects of the design are arranged in symmetry. Precisely because humans tend to arrange their views of the cosmos along such lines, these types of symbols appeal to us instinctively and appear repeatedly in tattoo imagery and artwork in general.


The calendar stone is a combination of numerous symbols, also known as glyphs. The actual Aztec Calendar Stone was carved during the reign of the sixth Aztec monarch in 1479 and dedicated to the principal Aztec deity Tonatiuh, or the sun, whose face is in the middle. It was uncovered in Mexico City in 1790, measures almost twelve feet in diameter, and weighs some twenty-five tons. Surrounding the Tonatiuh are four square panels honoring previous incarnations of the deity that represent the four previous ages of the world. Circumscribing these are glyphs that represent the twenty days of the Aztec month. The central panel depicts the date "4 Ollin" (Ollin meaning "movement"), a day on which the Aztecs anticipated that their current world would be destroyed by earthquake. In addition, it holds the dates of previous holocausts: 4 Tiger, 4 Wind, 4 Rain, and 4 Water.


Much of Aztec life revolved around war, the taking of captives, and sacrifices of those captives to the gods in order to achieve the perpetuation of the universe. But the echelons of the Aztec warrior caste were very explicit and visually, as well as socially, distinguishable. Only when he had captured prisoners could an Aztec warrior wear FEATHER headdresses and leather bracelets. At the end of his career a warrior could attain one of the two upper military orders: that of the "jaguar-knight," whose war costume was a JAGUAR skin; or that of the "eagle-knight," whose helmet was an EAGLE head. In tattoo art, it is the proud eagle-knight warrior that we see depicted most often.


According to the Aztecs, the universe was composed of distinct cosmic eras. They believed that four suns had been created in four previous ages, and that each had died at the end of its era. Tonatiuh was the fifth sun and the present era is still his. His name meant "He Who Goes Forth Shining" because he was the first moving sun. Tonatiuh was responsible for supporting the universe and therefore his weakness could bring the end of the world. Human sacrifices were regularly offered to him in order to nourish him and maintain his strength. Tonatiuh was also in charge of the Aztec heaven called Tollan, where only dead warriors and women who died in childbirth could enter.

0 Copyright © 2003 by Terisa Green

About The Author

Terisa Green, PhD, is an archaeologist and Research Associate at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. She also has a tattoo covering the length and width of her back--in the eyes of the tattoo community, there is no substitute for being "inked" and no more vital qualification for being able to do the topic justice. She teaches regularly, participates in public outreach projects, and speaks at museums and archaeological societies.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (December 1, 2009)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439188699

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