When John Donne wrote that “No man is an island”, we can be sure that he knew a human body could not substitute for the submerged mountain tops that rise above the surface of the ocean. Instead, he was referring to the essential characteristics of an island: independent, remote, even alone. With his five word metaphor, he nails a big concept in a small space.
In the business of writing, when metaphors work well, they are to be treasured. I think the same can be said of tattoos. Few types of tattoos are as symbolic, since the metaphoric tattoo completely relies on us already knowing the symbolism. Though not complex, the tattoo below is peppered with symbolism. In fact, the symbols are so familiar that it’s tempting to read them as signs, but they are not, and perhaps it’s time to spell out the difference.
Sign Versus Symbol
A sign gives us information that often points to something in particular. A deer on a yellow signpost at the side of the road is a direct representation of a leaping deer, meant to warn us that deer–real deer–may be crossing the road ahead. It’s literal.
A symbol represents an idea or a thought, something broader. It could very well have no physical resemblance whatsoever to what it represents. It has to be learned.
Get All Emotional
Although the ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the center of knowledge and thinking, the modern West has long used the heart to symbolize something else entirely. The fact that the central symbol of the tattoo below is a heart and not a brain says a lot. As the seat of emotions, and not thought, it represents love above all.
Good and Evil, Pretty and Not
This tattoo portrays the heart as a being, or a person, both angelic and devilish. Often in tattoos, angels and devils are paired as two separate beings. Here, however, they are paired by choosing some of their famous symbolic attributes: the feathered wing and halo, along with a bat wing, horn, tail, and pitchfork.
But, as symbolic layer is built on symbolic layer, we see that this little hybrid creature has two vines that seem to be working as arms, one gripping the pitchfork. Again, the thorny vine, especially when paired with a rose (in this case, perhaps, a red heart), carries a dual quality as well: something pleasant with a hidden barb, something pretty that can also be painful.
Finally, though, the jagged line down the middle of the heart makes it clear that this is a broken heart, a heart that once was overwhelmed with sadness, likely because of love. But why? Because of it’s dual identity as both a devil and an angel?
As you contemplate your tattoo design choice, don’t be afraid to pile on the symbolism and even mix metaphors. Say it with symbols and you’ll stand an excellent chance of packing a lot of power into even a small design. Some of the most inventive, personal, and interesting tattoos are created this way.