Tattoo Motif and Symbolism


Purists would say that a tattoo is not a true biker tattoos unless it contains the Harley Davidson logo. Although the Harley Davidson symbols are pretty much the same, many of them are dressed up with other symbols such as jaguars, eagles, feathers, skulls, dragons, bats, flames and hot babes.

Many bikers simply opt to get a photo of their custom chopper tattooed on their arm. Often those into customizing choppers will boast tattoos of nuts and bolts, screws, wheel hubs and other motorcycle parts on their bodies. The wheel of a bike or the bike itself roaring in a bouquet of flames is a very popular image.

Three dots found anywhere on the body are a common indicator of a biker tattoo as is the use of Old English Goth script.

Although weapons and anti-authoritarian statements are also common to biker tattoos, many of them are surprisingly complacent and involve the usual roses, poker hands, tributes to Mom and flaming skulls that are seen adorning the body parts of nonbikers.


Biomechanical tattoos often depict machinery intertwined with human flesh. The father of all biomechanical designs is H. R. Giger, who designed the creature from the Alien movies. A typical piece of biomechanical work might depict a human hand, arm, or chest tangled with pieces of machinery such as screws, wheels, or and pulleys. The result is an image of a creature that looks half-robot, half-human.

Biomechanical tattoos are considered to be fetish tattoos and take their cues from painting by Salvador Dali, fetishism and Satanism.

Bones Skulls and Skeletons

Tattoos of bones are as old as shamanism, healing and magic. This probably originates in the ancient superstitious belief that wearing death wards off death. The idea is that any evil that may approach the bearer of such a tattoo will be frightened away by the image of death on the body.

Images of skulls also represent occult wisdom and psychic powers. Skull tattoos are very popular among bikers, Goths, Wiccans and in the military.

Butterflies, Insects & Bugs

On the lighter side of the "bug" motif in tattooing are butterflies and dragonflies. Butterflies are popular because they represent inspiration, freedom and transformation. The three phases of the butterfly's life symbolize the three cycles of life (birth, death and rebirth) in just about every culture. In Native American Indian cultures the Monarch butterfly represents safe journeys thanks to the insect's ability to fly thousands of miles during its annual migration season. In some pagan and Celtic traditions, butterflies are thought to carry the spirits of the deceased to heaven. Butterflies are a very popular motif with women.

Dragonflies are truly magical creatures whose shiny bodies and luminescent wings make a great uni-sex tattoo. Dragonflies are a symbol of harmony, luck and ancient knowledge. They are also thought to bring prophetic dreams and protect against nightmares.

On the darker side of things are spiders. Spiders are a popular Goth, biker, pagan and punk symbol. In Greek myth the spider was associated with the Greek Goddess Ariadne who was responsible for magic and myth making.

Cartoon and Animated Characters

Stock cartoon images that are licensed for the express purposes of tattooing are now big business in North America. On the Internet one can now purchase images of Betty Boop, Scooby Doo, Mickey Mouse, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, the Tasmanian Devil, Babar the Elephant, Nemo and just about any other animated character you can imagine.

Anime action figures, which most of us are familiar with from manga cartoons are also big business in the tattoo industry and feature such popular characters as Hello Kitty, Emily and Sailor Moon.

Of course, tons of individuals have bypassed the licensing procedure and gotten their own personalized versions of these cartoon characters. Cartoon characters in sinful positions is also a popular motif in tattooing and are often used as a creative way to express one's vices to the world.

Caricatures and cartoons have always been an integral style in tattooing, beginning with the invention of animation itself in the 1920s when cartoons of Betty Boop and the stick-figured Mickey Mouse were popular with sailors visiting New York. Mostly however, any portrait or figure can be made into a cartoon.

Celtic & Irish

Celtic tattoos are mainly characterized by their interlacing knots that are complete loops with no end or beginning. Sometimes the motif also features animals or a zoomorphorphic design that is stylized into a spiral.

Knotwork designs are emblematic of the Celtic nationalities, even though the symbolism of many of the images have been lost through time. Trees, cauldrons, shamrocks, spirals, horned gods, wheels, mandalas, serpents, druids, dark jewels are signatures of the Celtic tattoo style.

The repeated crossing of the physical and the spiritual are expressed in the interlacing of the knots. The never-ending path of the strands may represent the permanence and the persistence of life, love and faith.

Celebrity Tattoos

What better way to pay homage to your favorite celebrity than to make him or her a part of your skin. This can be done through portraiture, as in the classic portrait of Elvis or John F. Kennedy that is done in black and grey work, or you can emulate the tattoo of another famous celebrity.

Tattoos have rapidly become part of the personae of the rich and influential since the 1960s and it seems that everyone from Gillian Anderson to Ben Affleck boasts a tattoo. Even the normally complacent Barbie Doll was marketed with a large flower tattoo beneath her ribs in the early 1970s.

Some famous tattoos include the AC/DC band logo, the Rolling Stones' red lips and tongue logo and the KISS band logo. Favorite portraits have included Gene Simmons from Kiss, Brian Jones (formerly of the Rolling Stones), Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra ("I got you under my skin") and Jim Morrison. In recent times, Kurt Cobain is also a favorite of the "Teen Spirit" set.

Another way to go is to emulate the tattoo of one of your favorite celebrities. Celebrity tattoos are the subject of tabloid folklore. Angelina Jolie who boasts about seven tattoos on her body just had a tiger inked into her skin in Tibet, although many wonder if she will ever get the big black Billy Bob tattoo she has on her forearm removed. Drew Barrymore, Courtney Love and Cher are two other female celebrities who are known for their ink addiction.

Johnny Depp made headlines ten years ago when he had his Winona Forever tattoo changed to Wino forever. Pamela Anderson is well known, not only for her barb-wired forearm but also changing a tattoo on her left ring finger from "Tommy" (a reference to her ex-husband Tommy Lee) to "Mommy."

Celestial Stars, Planets and Suns

Depictions of the planets and stars and their symbols are very common motifs in tattoo art. Perhaps one of the most famous planetary glyphs and symbols is the symbol for Mars and Venus that is interlinked. This mark symbolizes the eternal dance between male and female energies.

The sun is a motif from early childhood that represents glory, achievement, wealth, love and prosperity. The moon is an occult symbol symbolizing the subconscious, intuition, sexual and esoteric mysteries and the mysterious forces of the supernatural. The planet mercury symbolizes the Roman God of communication and the creative arts. Venus represents love, Mars represents war and Saturn represents discipline and the acceptance of one's lot in life.

Each of the planets in the solar system also has its own equivalence to the Western Zodiac symbols. For instance, a glyph of Venus or depiction of the planet is appropriate for those born under the signs of Libra or Taurus. The glyphs for the astrological symbols also make wonderful tattoos, especially if you are sick of people using "what's your sign?" as a pick up line.

Stars are often encountered as esoteric symbols, and the meaning of any particular star symbol depends upon its number of points. The five-pointed pentagram is a powerful symbol of protection and balance. It represents the human figure and is connected to pagan and Wiccan traditions.

The six-pointed hexagram is a potent symbol of the interaction of the Divine with the mortal, of God with Humankind. It is linked to the Kabbalah and is often called the Star of David

The septagram or seven-pointed star is a symbol of integration and the mystical due to its links with the number seven. It is associated with the seven planets of classical astrology and to other seven-fold systems, such as the Hindu chakras.

The octagram or eight-pointed star is a symbol of fullness and regeneration. It is related to eight-fold systems such as trigrams of the I Ching, the pagan wheel of the year and the Ogdoad of ancient Egypt.

The nonagram or nine-pointed star is a symbol of achievement and of stability, though this is a stability that is subject to change. It can also be related to nine-fold systems, such as the nine Taoist kanji.


Commemorative tattoos are used to remember or mark an important event such as a death, world disaster or triumph in war. Most commemorative tattoos are "custom tattoos" that incorporate several elements to make it a personal item.

Commemorative tattoos can also mark the passing of a loved or celebrate a birth or the eternity of a special relationship.

Criminal and Prison Tattoos

The symbolism of prison and criminal tattoos is an area of real esoteric interest to some and of real interest to the police. An article written by Sergeant Ken Whitley called Tattoos: Recognition and Interpretation" claims that a tattoo can tell you three things about a convict: "who he is, where he has been and what he has done."

As these kinds of tattoos are usually done in prison, freehand with ink from a pen. A sewing needle is used to form a picture or a word. Prisoners also make a homemade tattoo machine out of a ball point pen, a guitar string and a nine volt battery.

Police often use the images in a tattoo to identify parolees and suspects. For instance, a gun pictured downwards means the man prefers to be armed. Images of walls, towers and barbwire signify he has been in prison for some time.

Below is a list of some of the symbolism associated with classic prison tattoos.

♦ Clock faces without hands = Doing Time
♦ Spiders or cobwebs on shoulders = Doing Time
♦ Tombstones with numbers on them = The number of years they were in jail'
♦ Tombstones with R.I.P. on them and numbers = Mourning the death of a friend who died on the inside
♦ Eight balls = Means being "behind the eight ball" or bad luck.
♦ One laughing face, one crying face = member of a gang, "play now, pay later."
♦ The anagram SWP = Supreme White Power
♦ The word Peckerwood = Male White Pride
♦ Featherwood= Female White Pride
♦ "100% Pure" = White pride tattoo
♦ Granite block walls + Time in Old Folsom Prison
♦ Cell Window with sun or bird = Waiting to get out.
♦ Face of female crying = Has loved one waiting for him to get out.
♦ SUR = Southerner
♦ Norteano = Northerner
♦ Prison block wall with bricks falling outward = On the inside wanting to get out.

Demons and Monsters

As tattoos, the creation of demons and monsters on the skin work psychologically and spiritually in the same way that images of skulls and bones do.

The symbolic purpose of the monster is to protect the wearer from evil spirits who may identify the beast as being part of or a guardian of the person.

Devils, gargoyles, winged creatures and dragons are the most popular type of monster motif. Many of these types of tattoos are custom designed to create anthropomorphic creatures.

Eastern Symbols

There are literally thousands of Eastern Religious symbols that find their origins in countries such as China, Japan, Tibet and Thailand.

Perhaps one of the most popular of these symbols is the lotus flower that symbolizes the oneness of being with universal consciousness. The symbol stands for the six syllables of the holiest mantra of Tibetan Buddhism ("OM Mani Padme Hum") together form a very powerful symbol of balance, liberation and enlightenment.

Another popular symbol is the OM symbol, which consists of many curlicues. The symbol represents is the highest name of God and is the most venerable Hindu symbol of spiritual knowledge. Many traditions use the symbol for meditation, and its corresponding syllables as a powerful mantra.

The Yin-Yang is a dynamic symbol representing the flow and interaction of the two polar energies of male and female whose totality encompasses creation. An Enso is Japanese 'circle', and is painted in a single brushstroke. It is a Zen symbol of the true nature of existence and enlightenment.

The beauty and antiquity of Chinese Symbols make them attractive for meditative, decorative or talismanic use today. These include Chinese characters such as the "Double Happiness Sign" and the characters that comprise each of the Chinese astrological signs.


Egyptian tattoos are usually an expression of an affinity with the occult. The most popular tattoos are the eye of Horus, which is a powerful symbol of protection, health and wisdom. Goddesses such as Isis, the Goddess of Wisdom and Bastet, a goddess with the head of a cat are also popular Egyptian tattoo motifs.

Fairies, Pixies and Nymphs

These mythic creatures that have existed in every culture since before the birth of Christ are especially popular choices for tattoos for women. Most designs find their origins in Celtic or British art.


The most popular fantasy figures are dragons, wizards and unicorns. Images of wizards, with their long cloaks and white beards are associated with pagan and Celtic magic. Modern versions include images from the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

The Dragon is a potent Celtic, Greek, Roman, Japanese and Chinese symbol of protection. They represent an affinity with the occult and magical powers as well. Unicorns represent the uniqueness and fragility of the individual and is a tattoo image very much favored by young girls.


Whether they represent the purifying aspect of holy fire or the burning flames of Hell, flames are a huge motif in tattooing. Part of the reason for this may be that flames provide a brilliant background that allows a tattoo to really stand out. Common motifs include motorcycles in flames, babes in flames, sacred hearts in flames, crucifixes in flames and skull in flames.


The Goth culture is identified by its fascination with existentialism, depression and anarchy. The tattoos tend to be black, Nordic or Germanic in style and feature a fascination with medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history.

Common Goth symbols include the Christian cross, the Egyptian ankh (a symbol for eternal life), the Egyptian "eye of Horus", the German Iron Cross and the Satanic inverted pentacle. Bats, griffins and images of the "undead" and howling spirits are also identified with Goth culture.


Formerly adornments that guarded the turrets of ancient architecture these mystical winged creatures are also now the spiritual guardians of the human body. Griffins are most popular with bikers, Goths, Wiccans and pagans. Hearts and Love Symbols

The Heart symbol is self-explanatory, having been the universal symbol for love between the sexes for aeons.


Logos can be words of wisdom, such as the classic Hell's Angel's logo "Born for Fun, Loyal to None" or they can actually mean the real corporate thing. In fact, the latest fad amongst corporate types is to have the logo of their company tattooed somewhere. This is true of the computer company Apple that now boasts something called "The Apple Tattoo Cult."

Just about any logo or catch phrase can become a tattoo. In fact perversions of logos are also very hip in tattoos. An example of this is the image of the cocaine spoon with the Coca-Cola beneath and the words "It's The Real Thing."


Mermaids represent a lot of things to different people. For sailors they represent rescue from death at sea. For women, mermaids represent female sexuality and a reliance on intuition. The tattoo below has a definite South Pacific flair to it.

Ocean and River Life

The most popular oceanic tattoos are fish, whales, crabs and dolphins. Fish are associated with messiahs and saviors. The ithycus fish, which is a Christian symbol, represents the renewal faith and is constructed from two simple curved and crossed lines.

In China, carp represent love and courage. Goldfish represent gold coins. In North American Native Indian lore, salmon love and courage as well because of their ability to swim upstream to spawning grounds. Fish are also associated with the Western zodiac symbol of Pisces.

Crabs are also a common subject of tattoos, simply because they represent the astrological sign of Cancer. Whale tattoos are often borne to support the ecological causes of the creature. In most cultures, whales are identified with an emergence from depression and "the dark night of the soul" as well aligning oneself with the water element.

Dolphins represent joy and harmony in Western culture. In South Pacific and Native American cultures the animal is thought to carry departed souls to their next incarnation.

Pin Up Girls Good and Evil

Pin up girl tattoos have something to do with the phrase "a sailor has a lady in every port." Explorers in the South Pacific came home with tattoos of their exotic feminine finds on their arms. Some of these tattoo designs were morphed into goddess like creatures who were thought to protect the men while they were at sea. The pin up tattoo hit it big during World War I and World II, at the same time as magazine pin up girls came into fashion. Image of the Gibson girl and Betty Grable adorned the forearms of fighting men. During the Korean War images of Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth were also popular.

The lighter pin-up girl tattoos were based on popular celebrities. The dark side of this motif was represented by images of goddesses, witches, Viking Queens, Amazons and anthropomorphic creatures.

Portraits Realism

Simply an expression of affection for one's family, it is a popular custom in the South Americas to have one's children and wife tattooed some place on the body so that they can be carried with you everywhere. Usually these are photo-realistic portraits done in fine-line and black and grey.

Religious - Symbols of Faith & Spirituality

Crosses, praying hands, flaming sacred hears and doves characterize religious symbols. Also quite common are full reproductions of the Crucifixion and other wellknown scenes from the Bible. Devout followers will often have fully landscaped myths tattooed on their backs, chest and arms depicting such scenes as The Last Supper or t0- scale reproductions of famous works such as the Sistine Chapel.


The tribal tattoo is based on primitive traditions and is usually black and white with strong organic references such as horns and branches. The tribal style can be informed by a number of cultures include Native American, Maori, African, Celtic and Viking styles.

Wiccan and Pagan Tattoo Motifs

Everything Celtic, angelic, flaming, bony, satanic, druid-like, natural or celestial can comprise a Wiccan or pagan tattoo. Images of Gods or Goddesses or their symbols also comprise the vast array of symbols that represent the many sects to do with these religions.

The Rose Cross is a very important symbol in the Western Mystery Tradition, originating with the Rosicrucians. It is a holistic symbol incorporating elements of the Kabbalah, alchemy, astrology and esoteric Christianity, among others.

The Eye of Horus is a powerful symbol of protection, health and wisdom from ancient Egypt. It has its origins in the legendary battle between the gods Horus and Set, over Set's murder of Horus' father, the god Osiris.

The symbol of an 'eight on its side' is sometimes known as the lemniscate and is a symbol for infinity, eternity, the numinous and the higher spiritual powers. The Triquetra is a beautiful symbol of trinities, often encountered in Gothic and Celtic art. It is usually found in Pagan or Christian contexts, but it can be used to represent many three-fold systems.

The Spiral is a common natural form and an ancient mystical symbol. It represents the forces and patterns underlying creation, as well as evolution and self-transformation.

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