Getting a tattoo is an exhilarating experience, especially if it’s your first time. They are a permanent statement, well relatively permanent as the colors will fade in time and you can always chicken-out and go have the tattoos removed surgically with lasers, but still they are a very long-term commitment. There are many reasons a person decides to get one, and despite what some people think and how the media sometimes portrays it, for most people it is a carefully thought out symbol, a representation or a reminder of a time in their life or a person. In fact a lot of the tattoos I have seen are a combination of a lot of things, especially if it is done to honor a lost family member, a fallen brother in arms or to signify a great change in one’s lifestyle.
However, there are some things you need to know before you sit in that chair and let someone prick your flesh for several hours with a tiny needle. If you don’t have a clear plan, some knowledge on symbolism or a deeper understanding of a particular culture from which the imagery stems, you might just be in for a big, unpleasant surprise that will require you to spend your hard earned money on tattoo removal.
Understand the symbolic significance of the imagery
There are certain creatures that are associated with pretty much the same things across cultures, for instance serpents. I like to use the example of serpents, which include dragons and snake-like creatures as well as snakes themselves to demonstrate the diversity of meaning, because they are found in imagery all around the world, as part of many myths and legends.
Serpents are some of the oldest symbols associated with humanity, representing the duality of good and evil. The snake sheds its skin as it grows which in itself can represent emotional and spiritual growth, change as in casting away of a previous life and starting anew, and also rebirth. In Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’í Faith) can represent sexual desire and temptation (the snake in the Garden of Eden for example).
On the other hand there are snake like creatures in the Buddhist traditions called Nagas that have their own specific significance, the Jörmungandr of the Nordic tradition which is a huge sea snake associated with Loki the trickster god or the feathered snake god of the Aztec tradition. All of these carry with them specific connotations, and require a certain level of familiarity with their respective cultures to be fully understood.
Another frequently used symbol is the Ouboros, a snake forming a circle with its body and eating its own tail. Here we have symbolism that is several layers deep, especially if the tattoo has the Ouboros outlining another motif. It will carry with it the meaning of cyclical change of the circle, but also recreation of the self, a never-ending state of evolution. This symbol has a similar meaning to that of the Phoenix, but it can have added layers of meaning by simply adding another symbol within the circle, so you end up with a tattoo that is simpler to do, and therefore cheaper and less painful, yet has a more personal touch and deeper meaning. So just imagine you lived a couple of hundred years ago where any mention of tattoo removal and lasers would have you burned at the stake as a witch, where something like this was permanent, and you will get the motivation to spend a few hours on research.
Know what each specific symbol means
This mostly refers to Chinese calligraphy. The signs are often found on their own, forming a short thought or sentiment and in the form of Kanji within some Japanese tattoo designs. The problem arises when people just come up to a tattoo artist point at some random character in a book that supposedly means “Vigilance” or something similar and fail to understand that these characters can often have multiple meanings depending on contexts and a lot of the time the people doing the tattoo don’t really know what something means – they just have a bunch of random, cool-looking characters with some powerful sounding word next to it, that have no relevance whatsoever.
Another big problem with these characters is that people try and string them into a sentence without any previous knowledge of the grammatical rules of the language they are trying to scribble on their back. This leads to the equivalent of a broken English sentence that Tarzan would shake his head at, something along the lines of: “Powerful, Wave, Change, Energy, Life, Warrior, Horse”. If you think that looks funny to someone who speaks the language (and you will eventually run into a Chinese person who will laugh at you) think about the poor souls that have things from a random restaurant menu tattooed on their body.
There is the famous case of the US army medical corps wanting the Rod of Asclepius, a snake coiled around a rod which represents healing and medicine, on their badge, but ending up with a much cooler looking two snakes entwined around a staff with two spread wings on top. The problem was that that particular sign was called the Caduceus, and it was a staff originally carried by heralds, messengers of Hera. In Roman mythology it is associated with Mercury, protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves, and is today used often as a symbol of commerce. Imagine making a mistake like that and having a symbol of thieves and liars on your arm, when all you wanted was to show how proud you were of your medical profession.
You can get rid of mistakes, but it’s best to avoid making them
So let’s say this advice about the importance of research has gotten to you too late and you already have the Chinese word for “fried cat with rice”, an Assyrian God of death and despair holding a piece sign or just a big old tattoo of your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend that you feel ashamed of. Well the good news is that laser scar removal treatment is available for a variety of problems, including tattoo removal.
These are, after all modern times and if you can spare some extra cash you can go and get yourself zapped with some lasers until your skin agrees to cooperate (OK, fine I don’t really know how these things work, I’m not a doctor) and you can be back to your old, ink-free self in a matter of weeks. I would still strongly advise you to do some serious research on the various images and symbols, specifically the ones borrowed from other cultures and thinking everything through before making any permanent changes to the way you look.
About the Author:
Maya Johnson is a passionate author and a guest blogger on many sites where she shares her experience. Her work at a cosmetic surgery clinic in Sydney, Australia gave her the inspiration to write this post. Boy, did she see some interesting cases.