Tattoos You’ll See in Bangkok and Their Meanings
In the beginning, there were tattoos, and every tattoo had a meaning – or certainly a purpose. It is only in relatively modern times that people started to ink tattoos on their bodies purely for artistic and aesthetic reasons.
Tattoos date back thousands of years, across countries and cultures throughout the world and there is no doubt that ancient man (and woman) had their bodies tattooed with symbols or drawings that contained deeply spiritual meanings.
Some tattoos were for the protection from evil spirits, others for good fortune and health, yet others reflecting beliefs in ancient religions and some were reserved for the chosen few who were revered as gods or Kings or Queens.
Ancient tattoos usually consist of intricate symbols and geometric signs or drawings of animate and inanimate beings and things – both real and mythical – such as mammals, fish, flowers, the ocean, the sun, moon, stars.
Ancient ‘man’ often combined symbols with drawings of beings and objects, much in the same way as many of us do today. But the one vital difference was that in ancient times every single tattoo had a meaning.
There is evidence that ancient Japanese tribes who lived more than 10,000 years bore tattoos with mystical symbols on their bodies. Then there is the 5,000-year-old man discovered in the Alps with 57 tattoos on his body, not forgetting the 2,500 “Ukok Princess” found in Siberia whose body contained many amazing tattoos.
People from ancient Egypt, North & South America, Africa, and just about every corner of the world show evidence of tattoo cultures at some point in their history. Clearly, all these ancient tattoos had meanings.
In Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, the Sak Yant designs consisting of sacred geometrical, animal, or deity designs, often accompanied by Pali phrases, date back over 2,000 years, and are still in use.
They have their roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. To this day people in the region believe the symbols give the bearer magical benefits, such as power, protection, fortune, and charm.
The Polynesian Islands have a long and rich tattoo history. Their famous turtle shell designs have many different meanings, depending on the complexity of the tattoo, but in general terms, represent a long life, good health, fertility, and peace.
Other commonly used tattoos from Polynesia include the Marquesan cross, which symbolizes the balance between the elements and a harmonious existence; the sun which means wealth, splendor and leadership; ocean symbols represent the bearer’s final resting place; shark teeth symbolize shelter, direction, control and ferocity, and the oft-used spearheads represent bravery and fighting spirit. Lizards and geckos are called ‘moko’ and are an integral part of Polynesian beliefs as they represent the gods.
The Japanese have a wide range of symbols and drawings that have a multitude of meanings – far too many and too complex to detail here. The general rule is if the tattoo is very big, it usually has Japanese origins, but of course, there are also some beautifully small and delicate designs that are of Japanese origin.
Japanese tattoos can range from dragons (a force for good) to the Phoenix (rebirth) to the Tiger, lion or fu-dog (protection) to snakes (many meanings, but mainly good luck), to skulls (cycle of life), koi fish (struggle and success over adversity), water and waves (life, sustenance and also danger) and of course, the myriad flowers and blossoms all with their individual meanings.
All Day Tattoo have a resident artist who specializes in Japanese Tattoos, both old and new school as well as one that specialises in Maori and Polynesian designs.
In Europe, there are the ancient symbols such as the Celtic Knot, composed of three loops joined together, which has been used by many different cultures from pagan, to Celtic, to Christianity. It can mean everlasting love and protection and the three loops are often taken to mean the trinity or unity of combined forces – e.g. the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” in Christianity.
Other well-known ancient European tattoo symbols include the famous pentacle – 4 interlinking triangles in a circle – which indicates the circle of life. It has been used by pagans and Wiccans (believers in witchcraft) for centuries, with the five points of the triangles representing, North, South, East and West and self.
In Scandinavia and Germany, there are many ancient rune tattoo symbols which have a wide range of meanings, including the Runic compass which is a Nordic protection rune, the ‘Othala’ Rune, which is a rune to pay homage to ancestors, and the ‘Thurisaz’ Rune, also known as ‘Thor’ which represents resilience, power, and strength.
But what is so fascinating about the meanings of these ancient symbols and recognizable drawings of mammals and other things, is that an individual tattoo may mean one thing to one group or society, and may have a completely different meaning to another culture from a different part of the world.
Even in the same region, the meanings of tattoos can change over the centuries. The same symbols are re-adopted by succeeding cultures or religions and even by political groupings and are often given whole new meanings.
So if you wish your tattoos to have a meaning, you really need to do your homework and find out the true meanings of your chosen design. Or you can start off with a ‘meaning’ and then choose a design that fits your chosen sentiment.
Again, at All Day Tattoo in Bangkok, we will be have extensive experience in a wide range of styles.
We are happy to advise you and help you with your selection to ensure that it not only looks good, but also is in line with the original meaning.
Tattoos used today and their meanings
There are literally thousands of tattoos that you can choose from, and to get you started, here is a smallish selection of popular tattoos that are currently being inked across the world, together with some of their most common meanings.
A few tattoos have contemporary meanings but most of them still retain the meanings they held in centuries-old cultures.
If any tattoos on the following list spark your interest, we suggest that you check out their meanings in more detail before you commit your skin to ink.
- Ampersand – continuance of happiness, or movement to a better path.
- Anchor – Strength and stability, loyalty, honor, hope, protection.
- Birds –freedom.
- Butterfly – rebirth, love, transformation, femininity.
- Cherry blossom (Asian) – beauty, feminine sexuality, and love.
- Circle – circle of life, the cyclical nature of the universe.
- Clock – passage of time.
- Compass – protection in rough waters.
- Cross – Christianity, death and resurrection, eternal, creative, active.
- Crowe – Death and the occult.
- Dagger – protection.
- Diamond – invincible.
- Dove – peace & tranquility
- Dragon – wisdom, good luck, longevity, power and prosperity, circle of life.
- Dragonfly – contentment and peacefulness.
- Eagle – Hunter, tenacity.
- Feather – freedom, truth, flight, speed, lightness.
- Fleur de Lis Tattoo – honor, nobility, dignity and integrity.
- Fox – cunning and wit.
- Guitar – music and musicians.
- Hourglass – patience or mortality.
- Infinity – never-ending or limitless possibility, rebirth or reincarnation.
- Japanese Jellyfish – ancient wisdom and an acceptance of cosmic fate.
- Japanese Samurai – strength, bravery, insight, discipline and honor.
- Key – a secret or mystery.
- Lighthouse –safe passage, stability, strength, and reliability.
- Lion – courage, strength, royalty and pride.
- Lips – passion.
- Lotus Flower – new beginning and estranged love.
- Mermaid – thriving aquatic soul, or an omen of danger.
- Moon – feminine divine, female deity.
- Moth – nature and the rhythm of the universe.
- Native American Arrow – protection from harm, movement or direction.
- Owl – guardian of the underworld, protector of the dead.
- Panther – (including most big cats) – ferocity, savageness.
- Peacock – beauty and grace.
- Phoenix – rebirth.
- Rose – love, femininity, sacrifice.
- Sacred Heart – the love of Jesus Christ for humanity.
- Scorpion – sexuality and arousal, boldness, mystical power, seduction.
- Seahorses – protection, good luck, and fertility.
- Ship – water lover, away from the stresses of daily life.
- Skull – death and the realm of the dead.
- Snake – warning or danger.
- Sparrow – long lasting love.
- Spider – death and danger.
- Star – honor, hope, intuition, dreams, and guidance.
- Sun – life, fertility, happiness and power.
- Sunflower – summer, sun worship, and a bright disposition.
- Tree of Life – life and the interconnections of the universe that sustains life.
- Triangle – the trinity.
- Wolf – perseverance, loyalty.
- Yin Yang (Chinese) symbol or ‘Taijitu’ – harmony, balance of the universe.
Tattoos to Avoid
The selection of the ‘wrong’ tattoo design can lead to problems. The last thing you want to have on your body is a tattoo that gives offense or engenders anger amongst certain groups or cultures.
Here’s a few that you might do well to avoid.
- Russian Prison Ink – this could include epaulets on shoulders, ornate rings on the fingers and stars on the knees.
- A spider web on the elbow or shoulder joint signifies a long association with prison and time served, or membership of a criminal gang.
- A teardrop below or in the corner of the eyes signifies membership of a criminal gang, a convict or a murderer.
- A five point crown is the symbol of some of the largest gangs in America.
- Dot clusters. Three dots in a triangle around the eye or on the hand can mean membership of a gang, and five dots in a ‘dice’ formation can signify that the bearer has spent time in prison
- Hells Angels Death Head might not be a good idea if any members of the infamous motorcycle gang are in the vicinity.
- Certain Numbers – different numbers can mean different things. “White power” skinheads and racists generally use the numbers 88 and 14, and 666 with a shamrock symbolizes the Aryan Brotherhood.
- Swastikas – although in time past the swastika meant well-being and good luck, in recent times this sign has forever become associated the criminal Nazis.
- Buddha Image – If you are not Buddhist – and even if you are – be careful about having this image on your body, especially in certain areas, as you may give offense to practicing Buddhists in Asia, especially in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent, Thailand.
- Face Tattoos – there is a tradition in the tattoo community that before you have any tattoos on your face or neck, you should ‘earn the right’ by first having a substantial amount of ink on your body. Many artists will refuse to tattoo people’s faces if there are no tattoos on their bodies.
There it is, and you would be quite correct if you thought that sometimes the art of tattooing is a maze of contradictions. So all the more reason why you should go to All Day Tattoo in Bangkok, where our experienced artists can advise you on tattoo meanings and the designs it might be better to avoid.
Just click the button below for a free, no-obligation personal consultation at our beautifully equipped studio in the heart of Bangkok.