Tattoos talk. Rather than meaning something literal and universal, the art on our bodies is often personal and complicated. A magnificent panorama of an underwater world is unlikely to simply declare the bearer’s love of trout. However, some designs still shout a very particular meaning – to jaundiced eyes, at least.
True to stereotype, the teardrop appeared in the dock in Britain this week. During the trial of Kiaran Stapleton, accused of murdering Indian student Anuj Bidve in Manchester, the prosecution alleged that tattoo parlour staff remembered Stapleton’s visit two days after the murder because they reminded the 21-year-old that a teardrop below the eye could mean the wearer had killed someone. Teardrops can be associated with death and prison. In gangland, an unfilled teardrop may signify the death of a friend and a person will shade it in when they have avenged their loss. Teardrops may also mean mourning.
By the late 1800s, 90% of those serving in the British navy were tattooed and sailing iconography is still influential – particularly with the trend for retro “romantic” tattoos. “Tattoos display an individual’s membership to a particular group in society,” writes sociologist Tony Lawrence.
Practically, tattoos could help to identify drowned sailors. Their meanings, however, depend on the era and even the specific ship. An anchor could mean crossing the equator, the soul of a dead sailor or symbolise hope – we may no longer take perilous journeys on high seas but still seek to “anchor” our self.
According to Dr Matt Lodder, art historian at Reading University, rather than having a particular meaning the anchor has also become an icon of tattooing – like the broken heart and the swallow.
Swallows never fly far into the ocean and so their sighting was a sign that land was near – a symbol of hope and achievement for sailors.
Endless variations followed: two swallows indicated a journey of 10000 nautical miles, whereas a swallow with a dagger through its heart was a memorial for a friend lost at sea.
A bird on a hand or neck can also say “jailbird”. A friend with swallows flying across his arm lives a respectable life and yet is still routinely asked whether he has “done bird”.
Before the explosion of 21st-century inking, tattoos were “mainly associated with those belonging to a lower social class – criminals, sailors, whores, soldiers, adventurers, perverts and the like – and at the other end of the scale with the eccentrics of high society, the rich and aristocratic,” wrote Schiffmacher and Riemschneider in 1000 Tattoos. Hence our fascination with rich people’s tats.
Dolphins may mean prosperity but also represent duality – a creature of the water and a breather of air. They suggest we are in two worlds at once.
Danzig Baldayev, a St Petersburg prison guard, spent three decades documenting the body art of inmates. His life’s work, the three-volume Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, is captivating. We learn that cats can symbolise a thief’s pedigree. A single cat says they acted alone; several cats together indicate a gang.
Canada’s Border Services Agency has a guide to tattoos that provides amusing evidence of how the authorities may stereotype tattooed gentlemen. AFFA (“Angel Forever, Forever Angel”) on the knuckles screams Hell’s Angel.
A noose is favoured by Ku Klux Klan fans. VL stands for “vida loca” – my crazy life. Then again, never assume the worst: one man claimed “hate” on his knuckles stood for “happiness all through eternity”.
According to the Canadian authorities, clown faces can mean “laugh now, cry later” and “play now, pay later”, which probably sums up the poor gang members’ emotions when caught in customs with an enormous bag of drugs and guns.
When placed on elbows or shoulders, the spider’s web traditionally denoted being caught in prison. Other prison motifs include clock faces without hands, tombstones with numbers and a prison wall with bricks falling outward.
What on earth could that mean?
Psyche is Greek for both butterfly and soul and butterflies are symbols of the soul in many cultures. Through the wonder of metamorphosis, a wriggling worm becomes a winged angel and so butterflies most often denote transformation or change. A butterfly tat need not be girly: a friend knows a tough boxer who sports a tattoo of one of Britain’s daintiest butterflies – the small copper.
One of Miley Cyrus’s 14-odd tattoos, the dreamcatcher, is also sported by Zac Efron. According to Native American mythology, this is a protective covering for infants that stops the bad (in this case: paparazzi, scandal, stalkers) while letting the good (cash, fame, screaming fans) pass through. Urgh. So what are my chances of being mugged if I meet a man with a teardrop falling from the eye of a cat caught in a dreamcatcher? I cannot be sure. “A common mistake made about tattooing is that there is a simple link between a symbol and a message,” said Lodder, who pointed out that there is a third person in the relationship between tattoo and its bearer: the tattooist.
Just like a work of art in a gallery, a tattoo may say more about its creator than the person who displays it. And the meaning of a tattoo may only be created after its bearer keeps being asked, what does it mean?
“Sometimes you just want a cool tattoo,” said Lodder. – © Guardian News and Media 2012