Although some tattoo symbols remain so close to their original meanings that they are virtually unchanged through time, the spider web is a case in point for just the opposite. Once the domain of prisons and gangs, the spider web tattoo has crept slowly into the mainstream.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the spider web tattoo that appears on the elbows of prison convicts is meant to symbolize racism – a racism that is so extreme that this tattoo has also been associated with killing a minority in order to earn the right to wear it. Law enforcement is likely in agreement as they have characterized the spider web tattoo on elbows and shoulders as a symbol of jail time.
However, in today’s tattoo world, where the boundaries between traditional tattoo meanings and modern tattoo meanings have become more and more blurred and permeable, it would be a mistake to assume that a spider web tattoo is anything other than, say, an image of delicate beauty. Today’s tattoo wearers who admire the image of the spider web have a wide variety of historic and present day symbolism from which they can draw meaning.
One of the most well known icons of the spider web in a positive, if abstract, form is the Dreamcatcher tattoo. Although it may resemble a Native American shield, basket, or weaving, it is actually a representation of a spider web. According to the Anishinabe, Spider Woman would weave her magical protective web over the cradleboards of newborns.
Anansi is an Akan word meaning spider and it is the name of an important hero in West African mythology. Although Anansi is a trickster god, playing games with other gods and humans in order to achieve his own selfish goals, he is also credited with creating the sun and teaching humans about agriculture. Like the symbolism of the spider in many parts of the world, there are often two sides to this creature and its web. In Japan, if the spider is seen in the daytime it is good luck, but at night, it represents misfortune. In the Bible, it is the hope of the hypocrite: “What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider’s web.” Job 8:14. However, in Buddhism, Maya is the eternal weaver of the illusions of the world, a creator who uses its own substance to create.
Whether portrayed as a delicate design of the symmetry of nature, or in an old school treatment with dark shading, the meaning of the spider web tattoo is up for grabs amongst modern tattoo devotees. As more and more tattoos from outside the mainstream move into popular culture, even tattoos such as the spider web become less fringe and more personal style.