The Hidden Meanings of Tattoos

The real stories behind popular body-art symbols.

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!

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I've always wondered why scorpion tattoos are so popular. I guess I can kinda understand if that's your astrological sign, but they're still pretty freaking ugly.
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Community is probably the most apt word in the absence of a better one. The "internet community" is a community of people who use the Internet on a regular basis and identify themselves as being part of that group. The "latino community" is a group of people, not necessarily located physically in one place, but who identify with a larger group. Same for the "homosexual community".

scottdaris is being touchy.
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"...the homosexual community". Please, no more writing like that! Not on a blog like this. For example, if you say "latino community" you're talking about possibly a neighborhood in the Bronx. Gays and Lesbians are all over the world - not a freaking community! Would you say the "heterosexual community"? It's the 21st century, internet community. Oh wait, the internet is everywhere.
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