The Jerusalem Cross and the Dragon: A Royal Fad
England's King Edward VII started the royal tattoo craze in 1862. During a trip to the Holy Land, the then-Prince of Wales had a Jerusalem Cross inked on his arm. His son, the future King George V, followed in his father's footsteps and got a dragon tattoo while visiting Japan. Then, on his way back to England, the prince stopped by the same Holy Land tattoo parlor his father had visited and got a Jerusalem Cross of his own. Other royal families soon followed the trend. During the Victorian era, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, Prince and Princess Waldemar of Denmark, King Oscar II of Sweden, and Queen Olga of Greece all went under the needle.
The Anchor: A Sailor's ID Card
Nothing says "ahoy!" quite like an anchor tattoo. Popeye has one on each arm, and Sir Winston Churchill sported one on his right bicep. The tried-and-true symbol conveys the bearer's love for the sea. But in the late 18th century, the tattoo also served a practical purpose. During that time, almost all sailors received a "sailor protection certificate," which carefully documented the tattoos on their bodies. If a sailor went overboard, the tattoos were a lingering proof of his identity, should the body be recovered. Today, most military navies still catalog their sailor's body art for the same reason. (Image credit: Flickr user K Sandberg)
The Teardrop: A Prisoner's Tale
An entire genre of tattoos can be found behind penitentiary walls, and one of the most famous is the teardrop. Until the 1990s, the tattoo typically meant that the inmate had killed someone. But in recent years, the significance of the teardrop has softened. Prisoners get the tattoo to commemorate someone who had died while they were locked away, or simply to represent the time they've served behind bars. The design has also ventured outside the prison population in the past few years, although not all that far; you can see teardrops on the faces of rapper Lil' Wayne and singer Amy Winehouse. (Image credit: Flickr user Photog*Phillip)
Asian Characters: Lost in Translation
If you're going to get Chinese or Japanese characters permanently inked into your skin, consult someone who reads the language. Basketball player Marquis Daniels of the Boston Celtics thought he'd gotten his initials on his arm, but instead he got a tattoo that reads "healthy woman roof." And when singer Britney Spears got a tattoo of the Chinese word for "mysterious," it turned out to mean "strange."
So why is it so many tattoos get lost in translation? Flash sheets -the patterns used by most tattoo artists- are rarely fact-checked. Instead, they're passed around informally from one professional to the next. Legendary tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, who started inking people in 1949, was known for a more cautious approach: He refused to tattoo foreign characters at all. If he didn't understand it, he wouldn't tattoo it. (Image credit: Flickr user Bobby Edwards)
Lambda: Gamer Pride
Recently, fans of Half-Life, a computer game series, have begun showing off new tattoos based on the series' logo -a stylized, lower-case lambda. In the game, the Greek letter symbolizes resistance, but in the wider tattoo community, it signifies something quite different: "I'm gay and proud." Back in the early 1970s, when the gay liberation movement was still growing in force, the homosexual community adopted the lambda as a symbol of pride.
__________________________The article by Clay Wirestone is reprinted from Scatterbrained section of the January-February 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe today to get it delivered to you!
Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!