Good fortune is a theme in symbolic imagery that gets played out in several ways in tattoos, ranging from four leaf clovers to dice rolled up seven and from “Lady Luck” to a horseshoe. There must be some big mojo at work when you permanently carry your good luck “piece” with you at all times and to all places.
But good luck symbols are entirely specific to the times and cultures from which they are derived. Early Christians would carry saintly relics, Muslims sometimes carry verses of the Qur’an, Egyptians wore scarabs, and even Neanderthals had natural amulets of animal teeth or claws. In China, the numbers 6, 8, and 9 are considered lucky (because they sound like other words that have positive connotations) while in the West, the number 7 predominates.
In tattoo art, one of the more interesting aspects of luck symbols comes through in a way found in few other places: bad luck. We tend to perceive luck as having two sides, two possible outcomes, two ways to look at it. Some tattoo symbols completely depend on this aspect with, for example, a pair of dice rolled up 2 (snake eyes) or with the use of the number 13 or perhaps the presence of a black cat. It’s the type of symbolism that sometimes says that if it weren’t for bad luck, you’d have no luck at all. It’s also a bit of thumbing your nose at the world that you’d dare to wear those types of symbols in the first place.
Related to bad luck — but not wanting any part of it — is the notion of the amulet. It is a type of good luck tattoo design that is almost always focused in part on warding off evil, in addition to bringing good fortune. An amulet can really be any type of charm or talisman that is worn and it has taken many forms throughout time, including the tattoo. From the Venus figurines of Neanderthal man or the Zuni fetish to painted and tattooed images of numerous magic symbols, verses of sacred text, or the modern day lucky rabbit’s foot, amulets take on a special relationship to the bearer. They actually become something that embodies the power that they symbolize, whether they are worn in life or death. The immediacy, permanence, and physical closeness of tattooed amulets make them a special class – a symbol that can not be accidentally lost, a protection that is always present, and power that is constantly in one’s possession.
Tattoo imagery is filled with good luck symbols and they can be found alone or in combination with one another. As you consider your tattoo design choice, consider the types of symbols that may be used less often in tattooing (a wishbone, for example, or a saintly medallion) in addition to the traditional standards (three sevens or a royal flush). Below are some examples to get you started on your search for good luck and your search for ink.
Bowling Ball and Pins
Cat with Halo (9 Lives)
Cards with a Royal Flush
Cards with Blackjack
Ebisu (God of Good Fortune)
Eye of Horus
Maneki Neko (Beckoning Cat)
The history of the nautical star is unclear but it likely derives from the significance of Polaris, the north star. Because Polaris seems to be stationary in the night sky, with the other stars moving around its central north pole location, it is a key reference point for navigation. In nautical charts of today, the position of north (or zero degrees) on a compass is marked with a five-pointed star. While other maritime tattoo symbols deal with different destinations or the voyage and its perils, the nautical star is likely a symbol of the return home and the luck that is sometimes needed to reach it.
The horseshoe might be the best known lucky charm or amulet in the west. Among the ancient Romans–who invented the horseshoe — the “U” shape was believed to ward off evil. Indeed, the shape itself was also associated with a crescent moon and hence fertility. According to more recent tradition, horseshoes hung over doorways protected the occupants–sometimes pointing down (to drain off bad luck), sometimes pointing up (to hold good luck).
The Aztecs considered thirteen a fundamentally important number and part of the long cycle of time as reckoned by their calendar. But in most other cultures, it has been considered unlucky and there are numerous examples given to demonstrate the concurrence of the number 13 with unfortunate circumstance. Because it is the number after the complete twelve, it is an extra which does not harmonize with the universe.