The History and Meaning Behind 10 Classic Tattoo Styles


Tattoos have been around for a very long time. The oldest direct evidence we have about them comes from the 5,300-year-old Otzi the Iceman, whose remains were discovered by accident in 1991 by a group of hikers high up in the Italian Alps. Archaeologists believe that tattooing has been taking place since as early as the Neolithic, probably even earlier. From various remote islands in the Arctic Circle, to as far away as China, Africa, and Polynesia, tattooing has been an integral cultural part of society.

Sometimes plain and sometimes exquisitely elaborate, these permanent markings on the human body were used either as talismans, status symbols, wards, or even as a form of punishment for the wearer. Here, we will be looking at some of these tattoos (both old and new) and understand what they actually stand for.

10. Sailor Tattoos

It’s a commonly-held belief that European sailors developed their own style of tattooing after Captain Cook’s famous voyages across the Pacific during the 18th century. This theory is also partially reinforced by the fact that the word itself comes from the Tahitian and Samoan tatau, which means something along the lines of ‘mark made on skin.’ But even if the Europeans didn’t have a specific word for this practice, they did use others to describe it – words like pricking or staining. Anyway, after encountering the heavily-tattooed Polynesian peoples, sailors began creating their own unique style. Their tattoos were also heavily influenced by the famous sailor superstitions, with various designs depicting things considered to bring good luck while at sea. Other designs, however, stood for various achievements in the oftentimes perilous life of a sailor.

The anchor, for instance, stands for a sailor crossing the Atlantic. A swallow, on the other hand, means 5,000 nautical miles travelled. A shellback turtle means crossing the equator, while crossed cannons represent a veteran on a military vessel. Nautical stars are talismans ensuring a safe journey, while a fully-rigged ship means a sailor who’s been around Cape Horn in South America.

9. Polynesian Tattoos

Located in the Central and South Pacific, Polynesia is comprised of roughly 1,000 islands. Many of these have been inhabited by different groups of people, collectively known as Polynesians, but which share a common ancestry, similar language, customs, and beliefs. Prior to encountering the Europeans, these peoples had no written language, but they did make use of tattoos to express themselves. This practice was so common among the Polynesians, particularly the Samoans, Tongans, and Marquesas, that almost everyone in the community had them. These permanent markings held a tremendous significance, indicating the wearer’s status within that society, as well as their skills in warfare.

Rooted within their own religious beliefs, the different areas of the body also have their own meaning. And in combination with different tattoos, each person became a canvas, telling an individual story. The head stands for wisdom, knowledge, and intuition; the chest is related to honor, sincerity, and generosity; the shoulders and upper arms indicate strength and bravery; the lower trunk, which extends from the navel to the thighs, indicates courage, independence, sexuality, and procreation; while the lower arms and hands relates to creativity and craftsmanship.

As for the actual tattoos, the Polynesians used various stylized designs of objects and creatures they saw around them. Shark teeth, for instance, represent protection, strength, and guidance. The stingray is a symbol of protection, speed, agility, and stealth. The ocean (oftentimes represented by a series of waves) means life, change, and rebirth. The tiki is a representation of a dead relative or chieftain that became a semi-deity and symbolizes protection and fertility. Tiki eyes are a symbol of defiance towards enemies. The turtle is a symbol for longevity, health, unity, and family, while lizards are a good or bad luck charm, depending on the circumstances.

8. Maori Tattoos

Even though the Maori, native to New Zealand, are part of the Polynesian group of people, their tattoo style is notably different than the rest. Unlike the others, the Maori developed their own technique known as Ta moko, which is strongly rooted in local mythology and linked to the many geological features of the region. Similar to the many earthquakes and volcanoes that scar the land, so too the Ta moko leaves permanent marks on the human body. While the other Polynesians made use of certain tools that pierced the skin and applied the ink, the Maori used tiny chisels that literally carved their way through the person’s face and body, leaving behind grooves instead on a smooth surface. And as the head was considered the most sacred part of the body, the face received the most attention.

Each of these tattoos was unique to the wearer, conveying that person’s heritage, genealogy, social standing, and knowledge. All of the symbols had a certain meaning and so did the area of the face in which they were carved. The checks signified that person’s profession; the chin signified prestige; the jaw represented birth status; the forehead designated rank; the area around the temples signified marital status; the area around the eyes and nose referred to the tribe; while the upper lip was used for person’s own personal signature.

7. Chinese Tattoos

It would be wrong to think of China as a homogenous country with the same culture, traditions, and even language all throughout. When it comes to tattoos, the general stance in both modern and ancient China was linked to convicts, slaves, bandits, and the criminal underworld. China is, however, a pretty big place and not all of its regions are the same. It seems that historically, the southern part of the country has been more open to this art form, not attaching so much negative stigma to it. There are also several tribes within China that have embraced the practice over the centuries.

The Dulong people, for instance, have a tattooing history that spans back some 350 years. When they were attacked by neighboring tribes, the women would tattoo their faces as a means to make themselves uglier and escape being taken into slavery. The Dai people, on the other hand, tattoo much of their hands, arms, and backs – and each of these body parts, as well as the tattoos, have a special significance. Their tattoos are said to have protective power, enhance their attractiveness, improve their intelligence and strength, and can even cure disease. As a Westerner, however, it is important to do some thorough research prior to getting a Chinese tattoo, so as to make sure that they’re the real thing, or that they have a positive connotation.

6. Irish Tattoos

Tattoos in Europe were somewhat pushed underground during the Middle Ages, with the rise of Christianity on the continent – primarily because they were linked to previous pagan beliefs. And this was true to a large extent, since many European tribes such as the Celts, Germanics, Vikings, and Picts were all heavily tattooed or painted. Many of their designs were inspired by the natural world surrounding them, and were mentioned by some of the people they encountered. But no detailed examples remain behind – unless you take into account the various stone monuments or other objects from that period. Nevertheless, the Irish seem to have been the primary inheritors of this old European tradition.

The Celtic Tree of Life is deeply rooted in Druidic practices and it’s said to represent a bridge between the worlds. The Dara Knot, or Oak Tree Knot in Gaelic, depicts an intricate root system and stands as a reminder of great strength and stability in the face of adversity. The salmon is considered a symbol of wisdom, introspection, and deep knowledge. The bird represents freedom and liberation, while the butterfly stands for transformation, rebirth, and tranquility. Probably the most iconic is the Celtic cross. It’s not entirely clear where exactly it first originated, but it’s believed to have happened during the 9th century. There’s also the belief that St. Patrick came up with its design by combining the Christian cross with local artistic motifs as a means of Christianizing Ireland.

5. Russian Criminal Tattoos

Branding criminals was a common practice throughout Russia up until it was banned in 1863. These brands were usually applied on the cheeks, forehead, or shoulders, and they were used to indicate their crimes and respective punishments. From the 1930s, different criminal castes emerged, like the so-called Suits or Authoritative Thieves, each with its own tattoos denoting affiliation, rank, and reputation. Misappropriations were seen as a great transgression and could be punishable by death. The prisoner could also be allowed to remove it himself, by using a knife, sandpaper, or a shard of glass. After WWII and the implementation of the Gulag system under the Soviets, the number of political prisoners and petty criminals skyrocketed, leading to a much larger variation in designs.

These Russian criminal tattoos have also evolved over time, taking on new meanings or adding new designs. Among these we have the stars, which indicate a high rank. The bowtie is forcibly applied to pickpockets who’ve broken the thieves’ code. A snake around the neck means drug addiction. A lighthouse or birds on the horizon denote a desire for freedom. A pair of eyes on the stomach or buttocks indicates homosexuality, but if it’s on the chest, it means “I’m watching you.” A church on the chest indicates a thief, and the number of cupolas it has translates to the number of convictions. A rose on the chest means that the wearer turned 18 in prison, while a skull and bones indicate life in prison. The hooded executioner is worn by someone who killed a relative, while the mermaid, in this context, indicates child molestation.

4. Japanese Tattoos

Japan has had a fairly up and down history with tattoos. Archeological evidence points to the fact that tattoos were used as early as the Paleolithic. Chinese documents from around 300 AD also mention that the Japanese used them as a means of differentiating social status. But after that period onward, tattoos began having mostly negative connotations, being used predominantly on criminals as a sort of branding punishment. It was only during the Edo Period (1600–1868 AD) that the current form of Japanese tattoos developed.

It was through the iconic Japanese art of woodblock printing that tattooing also developed in the country – and by using the same tools, no less. As a result, these tattoos are not individual designs with different meanings, but rather large and elaborate scenes inspired by philosophical or mythological stories found in theatrical plays, novels, or historical texts. It was also customary for the tattoo artist to choose what scenes to ink.

The art form was, nevertheless, outlawed in 1868, being viewed as barbaric and disrespectful. It was later legalized, in 1948, but it kept much of the stigma attached to it. Japanese tattoos are thus strongly linked to the criminal underworld, particularly the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia). Tattoo shops are extremely rare in Japan, with most being located around tourist areas or near American military bases. In 2012, the mayor of Osaka launched a campaign where government workers should not be allowed to have any visible tattoos. Most public swimming pools and bathhouses also ban people with tattoos, or ask people to cover them up.

3. Thai Tattoos

Traditional tattooing in Thailand is believed to have originated with the Khmer Empire, sometime during the 9th century AD. Known as Sak Yant, this century-old tradition is a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, shamanistic spells, and old myths that morphed over the centuries into a present-day ritual performed by monks in temples across the country. The powers these tattoos are said to bestow on the wearer do not come solely from the designs themselves, but also by the continuous prayers recited throughout the entire process. The tool used is a 3-foot-long bamboo rod with a metal needle at the end, which the monk uses somewhat similar to a pool cue. There are hundreds of traditional designs, many of them depicting animals such as tigers, dragons, snakes, leopards, or phoenixes. All, however, are surrounded by the appropriate mantras and yantras, so as to imbue them with the appropriate powers.

The placement on the body also holds great significance. The Thai believe that the soul resides in the head, and the closer the tattoo is to the head, the more powerful it becomes. Some tattoos, such as those depicting Buddha or the Lotus, are said to bring luck and keep evil spirits away. A tattoo directly on the scalp is said to ‘flood your head with blessings to protect your soul.’ To improve your confidence and speaking skills, you will need a Golden-Tongued Bird tattoo, which is applied right on the tongue and it’s said to be extremely painful. The tiger is usually found on the lower back, because it’s from here that its spirit will take charge of your life.

2. American Gang Tattoos

Having the largest number of incarcerated people per capita in the entire world, the United States prison system is also home to members of some of the most dangerous gangs on the planet. We won’t be able to talk about each of these gangs individually, but instead will focus on some of the most common gang or prison tattoos out there. The teardrop tattoo, for instance, is mainly indicative of the wearer murdering someone, or spending time in prison.

The cobweb stands for a lengthy prison term. Three dots, either on the hand or face, indicate gang life. Five dots, however, mean time spent in prison, with four dots representing the walls, while the fifth is the prisoner. A clock without hands also stands for “doing time.” The clown mask stands for such saying like “Play now, pay later” or “Smile now, cry later.” The eight ball stands for bad luck. The number 88 stands for “Heil Hitler” – since H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. A tombstone with a number inside indicates the number of years behind bars. Most other tattoos, however, are various designs or abbreviations for each gang’s own name and logo.

1. Old and New School Tattoos

By and large, Old School Tattoos are those with bold black outlines, limited color palette, and defined by a specific imagery. Among the designs, we find the iconic patriotic tattoos such as the American flag, the eagle, the heart and dagger, as well as the previously-mentioned sailor tattoos. These designs were intentionally kept simple, as a way of accommodating more clients.

New School Tattoos began appearing probably sometime during the 1970s, or maybe later, and incorporated pop culture elements such as movie stars, Disney characters, Star Trek tech, and comic book art. As opposed to the old way of tattooing, this style is characterized by vivid colors, caricaturization, and the incorporation of many other elements from different other tattoo styles from around the world. Nevertheless, the Old School heritage is still visible, especially in the use of solid black outlines.

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