Few symbols are as resonant as the heart, which signifies three elements that more or less make up the essence of human existence: life, love and passionate emotion. So it’s no wonder that it has featured for many years in tattoo art. The designs have changed over time but the message and the meaning, and the celebration of life and emotion that the heart tattoo represents, remain the same. The simple and instantly recognizable form of the heart symbol makes it a particularly versatile motif, which can be easily incorporated into a huge range of tattoo designs, for both men and women.
The heart symbol in history and culture
Considering how ubiquitous the heart motif is today, it’s interesting that the origins of the motif are shrouded in mystery, with different theories of its origins attempting to account for it. It’s well established, however, that the heart-shaped form has not always been associated with the heart as the seat of emotion and a metaphor for the blessing of being alive. This isn’t too surprising, since the scientific understanding that the heart is the anatomical organ that is most associated with maintaining life hasn’t been around forever.
Examples of heart-shaped forms are known in ancient art dating back to over two and a half thousand years, but it’s thought that these may represent some kind of leaf. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages in Europe that the heart shape acquired the symbolic meanings that it carries for us in the present. Today when you think of a heart you think of a form with the pointed end at the bottom. This wasn’t how it used to be. Initially, the heart motif appears ‘upside down’, with the pointed end at the top, but by the late fifteenth century, this mode of depiction began to fall away.
By the 16th century, the heart shape had come to have something like the meanings that we recognize and understand now. The German priest and theologian, Martin Luther, had a seal designed for him, which became the symbol of Lutheran Christianity. It depicts a rose with a heart at the center, and a black cross within the rose. Luther wrote about the symbolism of the design, quoting the Bible with the words ‘Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace’ and ‘For one who believes from the heart will be justified’. Here the heart represents not just emotion, but emotion of the purest and most noble kind. The heart image was also prominent in Catholic devotions to the Sacred Heart. In this context, the heart image – often shown in flames – stands for the eternal and passionate love of God for humankind.
From the 1500s onwards the heart symbol became more widely used, and in contexts that were not purely religious. Hearts became a suit in playing cards at around this time. One of the earliest examples of the heart being used to signify romantic love, without religious overtones, is a book published in Denmark in the mid-16th century. The book itself is heart-shaped, and contains a collection of romantic ballads.
In modern times the heart motif still retains its traditional connotations. No Valentine’s Day would be complete without hearts on every imaginable bit of merchandise, symbolizing romantic love and heartfelt emotion. Hearts still feature in the names of religious institutions. But the classic heart shape also has new meanings. On packaging, and in educational programs, a red heart reminds us of healthy food and lifestyles, in an age where wellbeing is highly valued. It’s also probably one of the best known logographs (‘word pictures’) ever created, exemplified by the famous motif ‘I♥NY’ slogan, meaning ‘I love New York’, which first appeared in 1977.
Heart tattoo styles and designs – juggling visual appeal and meaning
The time-honored use of the heart tattoo is to express love for a partner or family member. Heart tattoos were popular in traditional (or ‘old school’) nautical tattooing. Sailors would be away for long stretches, and a heart with the name of a sweetheart, or another loved one (‘Mother’ was also popular) would remind the lonely mariner of home. Some say that these tattoos were also useful for identifying those who drowned at sea and never saw their families again. A tattoo featuring the name of a loved one is still a popular choice, partly because the permanent nature of tattoos reinforces the idea of undying love and a lifelong bond with a loved one.
Pretty much everything in life has a flip side though, and heart tattoos can have less happy connotations. A heart with a name included in the design can also commemorate a loved one who has passed away; monochrome black can be an appropriate color scheme for memorial tattoos of this kind. Broken heart tattoos can serve the same purpose, to signify the end of a love affair or the death of a lover. A heart with angel wings can represent a soul who has gone to another realm. The old school heart and dagger design juxtaposes the opposing symbols of life and death, and can represent the timeless truth that life is fragile and filled with often painful emotional trials.
Heart tattoos can also be used without a heavy load of symbolism. Because the form is so classic, and because it has a generally happy and optimistic feel to it, it’s a great motif just for its simple, basic charm. A small, plain, red heart is ideal for anyone looking for a minimalist, uncomplicated tattoo. A single heart can be a small and subtle but still impactful statement that is ideal for behind the ear, the wrist or hand, foot or ankle.
For a more striking design the Celtic heart knot, and its variations, is a winner. At a glance the heart design is less obviously apparent, and it’s the intricacy of the Celtic design that is instantly eye-catching. But look a little more closely, and you’ll notice the heart at the center of the design. Similar to the heart knot is the trinity lovers’ knot, in which a heart is fuzed with a three-petaled flower. This may have religious overtones. For some people it represents the three faces of the goddess, for others it symbolizes the Holy Trinity. For a new parent, the Celtic motherhood knot features a series of interlocking strands that form a heart shape. It’s a beautiful but simple design that celebrates an eternal bond with a child and, despite its name, is actually gender-neutral.
The plain heart shape lends itself to all sorts of elaborations, and goes well in compositions that include flowers or other nature motifs. Instead of a plain heart, or heart in outline, the form can be made more complex when used as a border enclosing a pattern that appeals to you, or a word (‘love’ is the obvious choice! But it’s all down to your imagination).
For a more modern twist, the naturalistic heart is an option, though perhaps not for the fainthearted. This visually realistic style draws its inspiration from scientific illustrations in old anatomical textbooks – but ultimately the message is the same, even if the look is more quirky and contemporary. Hearts can always be incorporated into mixed media tattoos as well.
Whoever – or whatever – you’re passionate about, a heart tattoo can be a statement about your love and devotion, and a celebration of the gift of life.