Tattoos can be seen everywhere these days. Many people have them and just about every style or theme is covered by designers, but what exactly do some tattoos mean? Find out what lies behind some popular motifs with this guide to tattoo terminology.

Anchor designs in tattoos, which are most usually found on the forearms and biceps, were traditionally the mark of seamen such as fishermen and those in the navy. In the late 1800s, 90 per cent of sailors were tattooed, not least because on a practical level they could be used to identify a body. The message conveyed by the tattoos differed depending on the era and ship in question, but often it ranged from representing a trip across the equator to being in memory of a dead friend.

Swallows are another common tattoo with naval connotations, as they never ventured far from the coast and so sailors who saw them knew that land was nearby. There are many variants on the theme with, for example, a swallow depicted with a dagger through its heart being in memory of a colleague lost at sea.

In the Sea and Out

Dolphins are one of the tattoos most likely to be found on women. They are often located on the ankle, as in the case of the Prime Minister’s wife Samantha Cameron, or on the inside of the wrist. Dolphins, which breathe air but live in the water, historically represent duality as they appear to live or function in two worlds at the same time. Often delicate and graceful, these motifs have also found their way into packaging sold by beauty wholesalers.

Dolphin Tattoo on Foot for Teenage Girls

Dolphin Tattoo on Foot for Teenage Girls

The Native American dream catcher is a popular symbol sported by celebrities, including Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron. In mythology, this protects infants from the bad in life while allowing the good through. Spiders’ webs, particularly those on the shoulders and elbow, are thought to denote being caught in prison. As large tattoos, these are not for the faint-hearts.

Butterfly tattoos are most often found on women. As butterflies metamorphose from caterpillars to beautiful winged creatures, so a butterfly tattoo denotes change or a transformation of some kind.

Butterfly Tattoo on Back

Butterfly Tattoo on Back

Gang Symbols

Teardrops under the eye are thought to have gangland connotations, often denoting that the wearer has killed someone. Teardrops can also symbolize mourning, prison and death. Historically, unfilled teardrops show the loss of a friend, with the teardrop being filled in once the death has been avenged.

Clown faces, most often found on the arms and legs, often represent fun and laughter on the outside and tears and sadness on the inside.

Man displaying his Tattoos

Man displaying his Tattoos


Many tattoos, particularly on gang members and criminals, feature hidden codes. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, are said to favor a noose, while Hell’s Angels often have AFFA (Angel Forever, Forever Angel) on their knuckles.

In Russia, cats are a favored tattoo of certain types of criminals, mainly thieves. It is thought that single cats represent solo jobs, whereas tattoos featuring two or more of the animals represent a gang heist of some kind.