The heart, in one form or another, may be the most used symbol in all of tattoo imagery. Although the West has made the heart the seat of emotions and feelings, particularly love, much of the rest of the world throughout history has used it to symbolize nearly the opposite.
“The heart is the source of all knowledge” says an ancient Egyptian text. For the Egyptians, the heart was the seat of intelligence and will. At the judgement of the dead, it would be weighted against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of justice, to make sure that the heart of the deceased hadn’t been weighed down by wicked or malicious acts performed during their lifetime.
In the Bible, the heart was home of the true self: “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart (1 Samuel 16:71).
Possibly most famously, the Aztecs viewed the heart, the yollotli, as the seat of life itself. They believed that the rising sun had lost its strength during its nighttime journey through the underworld and could only gain strength from the blood in the hearts of sacrificial victims.
It wasn’t really until the advent of the love poetry of the Middle Ages, particularly in the royal courts of France, that the heart became associated with romantic ideas of love. The Book of the Love Smitten Heart by René of Anjou (1409-1480) is the story of a character named Heart who sets out on a romance quest to find the lady that he loves. During the art of this same period, the heart soon becomes stylized much as we see it today, with symmetric and mounded upper edges.
In tattoo symbolism, the heart is often shown in combination with other types of symbols, some of which are specific, as in the Sacred Heart or Pierced Heart. Many times, though, the heart can be seen with a banner across it, or underneath it, that spells out the literal meaning of the heart for the bearer, usually the name of the beloved. While it’s a tattoo that has nearly become synonymous with classic tattooing and is widely seen, its power as a symbol is not to be underestimated, partly because it is so readily understood.