The Meanings Behind Common Tattoo Symbols and Designs

Introduction and Religious Symbols

Woman in a Tattoo Parlour Showing a Tattoo Design to a Man
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images

Art history expert, Andrea Mulder-Slater, defines a symbol as "a picture or image that tells a story without using words." It has been suggested that symbols such as cave paintings and carvings were man's earliest forms of communication.

Even though we have many ways of modern communication, symbolism still plays a very significant role in our daily lives. Some symbols have deep significance to us or to others, depending on beliefs and personal lifestyle.

When looking for a tattoo design, the question of symbolism often comes into play. If you've wondered what the meanings are to many commonly seen designs, you're not alone.

Words of Caution

For whatever reason you might be searching for the meanings of particular symbols, there is a wealth of information for you to find on many subjects, but very little is cut and dry. Sometimes, you will see the same symbols used by contradicting faiths. You may also find more than one meaning for a particular icon. And sometimes, you just have to ignore everything you read and go with your heart.

Sometimes a Rose is Just a Rose

As you explore the information on the following pages, you may find that a particular symbolic meaning does not match your own values. If this is the case, you need to consider if the association is really that obvious. For example, let's say you have decided you want a tattoo of petunias, because they are your favorite flower and you just love them. But then you happen upon The Internet Florist and search for the meaning of petunias. And to your horror, you see that petunias stand for "anger and resentment"! Relax. Many of these symbolic references are just for entertainment purposes, not some sacred commandment you have to stick to. If you want something and you have your own reason for wanting it, forget everything else you hear and see. It doesn't matter. Besides, how many people do you really think are going to look at a beautiful petunia tattoo and associate it with something negative?

A Look At Symbols & Their Meanings

Now that we have discussed the importance of using discernment while studying symbolism, let's take a look at some of the most fascinating symbols around the world. Since I get more requests for religious symbols than anything else, we'll start with that.

Religious/Spiritual Symbols

If you're thinking about putting a symbol on your body that represents a religion that you are not familiar with, I would suggest you do some serious research. Not only would it be foolish to represent a culture you don't understand, but you might find that the religious beliefs are contrary to your own.

  • Christian FaithChristian Faith Symbols
    This is a really excellent resource. Even though the website uses these symbols as examples for Christmas tree decorations, they are symbols of the Christian faith that can be and are used everywhere.
    Christian Art & Architecture
    A very large database of symbols used in Christian art and architecture. Find out how these symbols are significant to the Christian faith.
  • Jewish FaithJewish/Judaism Symbols
    Although tattoos themselves are considered unacceptable in the Jewish faith, some do get them. These pages go into detailed meanings behind some of the more common symbols.
  • BuddhismBuddhist Iconography
    The study of common Buddhist icons and their significance.
    Buddhism Symbols
    A look at some of the most common symbols and also the significance of certain colors.
    Buddhist Deities
    A look at the different Gods and Goddesses of the Buddhist religion and the roles they play.
  • HinduismHindu Symbols
    About's guide to Hinduism, Subhamoy Das, has created these pages to give you an inside look into the symbols and meanings of popular designs such as the "Om", the Lotus flower, and even the Swastika.
  • Wicca & PaganWiccan and Neo-paganism Symbols
    The most common symbols and tools used in Wiccan practices, as well as what they represent.
  • Alternative ReligionsAlternative Religions/Symbols
    There are so many different religions, it's impossible to include them all here. But our guide to Alternative Religion, Catherine Beyer, has put together a wonderful collaboration of various symbolism used in non-traditional religions.
    Anglo-Saxon Futhark Runes
    Simple and basic listing of the Anglo-Saxon rune set and what each one represents.
    Masonic/Freemasonry Symbols
    Religion, cult, club - call it what you will, but the Masons prefer to refer to their belief system as, "a System of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." Symbolism is obviously a key element, and here you can find out what they mean.

Next page > Tombstone Symbols, Astrological Signs, and the Meanings of Flowers