The simple text tattoo is not often considered part of overt symbolism, even though many of the most famous tattoos depend on it. Take, for example, “Semper Fi”, short for the U.S. Marine corp slogan Semper Fidelis or “Always Faithful” in Latin. While the symbolism of a text-based tattoo seems like it should be obvious, this two word slogan carries an immense amount of history, military esprit de corps, and camaraderie with it. Given the vast range of textual sources from which these types of tattoos can come, their variety is enormous. Even in today’s burgeoning tattoo culture and the spread of ever larger tattoo pieces, textual tattoos continue to be a staple in the syllabary of tattoos — a choice that likely goes back to the dawn of the first writing systems.
An interesting anecdote from a Chinese writer named Kong Pingzhong, who flourished during the Song Dynasty in 1065, tells of an official in the Bureau of Military Affairs in the Palace Secretariat who was tattooed with lines of poetry. However, we also know that tattoos in China also included penal tattoos, marks of identification, as well as proclamations of loyalty. The parallels with modern military tattooing are uncanny. Particularly in tattoo parlors near military bases, identification tattoos on the upper inside of the arm that may include military serial numbers, religious affiliations, or blood types are still being done. Even commemorative tattoos with only a name, plus birth and death dates, can tell a poignant story of loss.
Military mottos, indeed mottos of all sorts, have made many appearances, from “Death Before Dishonor” to “Carpe Diem.” Mariners from the age of tall ships would tattoo a reminder on the fingers of their hands: “hold” on the one hand “fast” on the other hand, something they or their comrades might see as they climbed the rigging. Today’s variants on that tattoo include “love” and “hate” or even “rock” and “roll”.
However, one of the most regretted tattoos is also a textual tattoo, specifically the name tattoo. While tattoo artists will say that the name tattoo often comes at the beginning and end of relationships, there never seems to be a shortage of demand for the name game. A visit to any tattoo shop on Valentine’s day is ample proof. The name of a significant other is one of the few tattoos where I urge people to think twice. While a name tattoo could possibly be relevant forever, they often are not. That said, many people find the name tattoo irresistibly romantic. And even when the romance is gone, the name tattoo is just a part of the past, in the same way that person is part of the past, and not something to be denied. Nevertheless, many a tattoo shop can count the name cover-up tattoo among the constants in the business.
Your choice of font and color may stem naturally from the text you’ve chosen or you may need to look at font samples in order to decide. Your text may stand alone or it may flow through a scroll or field of flowers. But from puns to prayers, names to poems, and from “911” to “HIV+”, the choice of text tattoos seems to be limited only by the imagination.