The natural world is a rich source of inspiration for tattoos. Living creatures and floral motifs are always popular, but the world around us provides many intriguing possibilities. It’s not just the small things in life that make great nature tattoos.
Trees are a more unusual tattoo motif drawn from the natural world. Inanimate features of the earth and sky that make eye-catching tattoos include ocean waves and mountains and celestial bodies, such as the sun and new moon.
All these motifs are rich in symbolism in many societies, past and present and across the globe, and have ongoing spiritual and cultural resonances.
The Meaning of Tree Tattoos
Few plants are as magnificent and as long-lived as trees. Researchers have found a bristlecone pine in California that is over 5000 years old. Also in California, there is a sequoia, or redwood tree that is 380 feet tall.
Rooted in the earth, but reaching to the heavens, trees are widely celebrated in myths and folklore as symbols of life itself, and of fertility and prosperity.
In western culture, the oak tree stands for the impressive things that can come from small beginnings – as in the saying ‘Great oaks from little acorns grow’.
Different Types of Trees have Different Cultural Meanings:
- One of the most famous mythical trees is Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, a great ash tree, where the gods would gather.
- The banyan, a type of fig, is prominent in Buddhist and Hindu myths.
- Judaeo-Christian traditions feature ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’, which grew in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat its fruit but, when Eve disobeyed, they were expelled from the garden.
- Oak trees were linked to the god of thunder in Celtic lore.
- In the folk beliefs of numerous cultures trees are the homes of spirits and magical creatures, such as the dryads or tree nymphs, in Greek mythology.
The cultural resonances may be religious (think of the Joshua tree) or secular. A palm tree, for example, evokes sunny days and exotic locations.
Because trees represent long life and endurance, it’s common to plant a tree to mark a special occasion. A tree tattoo could also mark an important life event.
The tree motif lends itself to larger tattoos, but can be scaled down to adorn most parts of the body. For some, it’s the form of the tree and its spreading branches or tangled mesh of roots that are especially visually appealing.
Leafless trees can emphasize this, but the shape of the branches can still be represented in attractive ways if you prefer a tree in leaf or in flower, with overtones of the tenacity of life and its eternal renewal.
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The Symbolism of Wave Tattoos
Who hasn’t sat on a beach and observed the awesome strength of the ocean, with great waves rolling in and crashing to the shore? Waves have been a source of cultural inspiration for centuries.
Probably one of the most famous artworks in the world is the woodblock print entitled ‘Great wave off the coast of Kanagawa’, by the 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai.
Ocean waves, whether they are the playground of surfers or the terrifying destroyer that is the tsunami, are one of the most potent forces in the world of nature.
In traditional tattooing, wave designs have long been part of the visual repertoire of Polynesian peoples and the Maoris of New Zealand, whose livelihoods depended on harvesting the fruits of the sea.
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Wave tattoos can appeal on various levels. The basic form is amazingly simple and classic, and well-suited to a minimalist tattoo for the wrist, ankle or neck.
As well as their visual charm, wave tattoos also evoke the symbolism of water more broadly, as well as the endless movement of the sea – always undulating or surging, as if it were a living thing.
Its rolling waves can represent many things – the flux of consciousness, the inevitability of the currents of life, always moving forward; and continuity even while we are in the midst of change.
Of course, a wave tattoo can also simply be an emblem of someone’s love of nature, the sea and the coast. That makes it ideal for any ocean or water sports enthusiast, or just for someone who likes to chill on the beach.
The classic design is a simple curved line, representing the curling wave seconds before it’s about to crash. Almost two centuries on, tattoos in the style of Hokusai’s ‘Great wave’ print are very often recreated, with variations, typically either in monochrome black or in blue and white.
For admirers of Japanese culture, or anyone seeking a more stylized design, there is another option: the seigaha pattern, traditionally also in blue and white.
To cultural outsiders, this design may look only like nested semicircles that, in combination, are reminiscent of overlapping fish scales, but the geometric seigaha pattern in fact traditionally means ‘blue sea and waves’.
Though the classic and simple curling wave design is perfect for a minimalist line tattoo, it can be elaborated with shading or combined with other motifs. For animal lovers, sea life such as exuberantly leaping dolphins or breaching whales can be incorporated into the design.
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Crescent Moon Tattoos: Symbolism/Meanings
For millennia, people have observed the skies and marveled at the way in which the moon waxes and then wanes to a shining sliver that then grows again, night after night. The word ‘crescent’ derives from the Latin ‘to grow’.
There are probably few cultures, past or present, that haven’t attached significance to this phenomenon. The distinctive crescent form appears in the early writing systems of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In alchemy, it is the symbol for silver.
The curved form of the crescent moon lends itself to many interpretations. It is associated with the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, or her Roman equivalent, Diana, who wore a crescent moon in her headdress; its curved form also echoes the shape of her hunting bow.
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In antiquity, it often functioned as a symbol of femininity and purity. This meaning was carried over into later times in Catholic symbolism, where it is associated with the Virgin Mary.
The crescent moon is also known as a sickle moon, again because of the visual parallel with the agricultural tool used for harvesting crops.
Probably beginning in the Middle Ages, the crescent shape, usually with an accompanying star, became known in the west after Europeans gained familiarity with the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was present-day Istanbul.
The star and crescent became the emblem of the Ottoman Empire and has more recently become loosely associated with Islam.
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In contemporary culture, the crescent moon retains its ancient meanings associated with growth and regeneration. In fact, it is also associated with the waning of the moon, so inverting the motif changes its meaning.
Strictly speaking, the crescent rendered like the letter ‘c’ is a waning moon, whereas the growing moon is its mirror image. However, in tattoo art, the motif is more usually depicted as a ‘c’ shape, even if that is scientifically ‘incorrect’.
The crescent moon can be depicted in scores of ways. A single color version – either an outline, as solid color, or with shading – is great for a minimalist tattoo.
Larger versions can be infilled with whatever takes your fancy – patterns, flowers or a flowing watercolor effect.
Popular versions of the design include the man in the moon, or with delicate chains and jewels hanging from it. Moon and arrow tattoos refer back to the symbolism of Artemis or Diana, goddesses of the hunt.
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Also much loved by people fascinated by the night sky, or perhaps people who are night owls, are tattoos of the new moon surrounded by stars. Conceptually, a sun and moon tattoo works like the yin and yang sign, symbolizing complementary opposites.
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The Symbolism of Sun Tattoos
Without the sun there would be no life, and sun tattoos convey a sense of warmth, brightness, happy days and optimism. A new dawn, when the sun rises again – as it always does – is the essence of a fresh new start. The heat of the sun also symbolizes powerful energy.
Like other major elements of the cosmos, the sun appears in numerous cultures and religious beliefs. In Ancient Greece the sun god Helios drove a shining chariot across the sky each day.
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Many other cultures are known to have represented the movement of the sun across the sky by depicting it in a boat, or solar barge. That included the Ancient Egyptians.
Over four thousand years ago, the most important Egyptian god was Ra, who was identified especially with the strong midday sun. He was depicted with the head of a falcon, but with a sun disk above his head.
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However, the symbolism of any tattoo depends on more than color and subject matter alone. It’s about the visual treatment more broadly, so don’t rule out a tattoo of a sun in black linework.
In design terms, the essence of the sun motif is a central disk with plain radiating lines or simple triangles. The rays of the sun can be richly elaborated wavy lines of or simplified and minimalist.
In color terms, hot hues like yellow, orange and red are well-matched to the motif, but tattoo art is all about imagination and invention, so the sky’s the limit.
One decision to make is whether you want a stylized sun or one with a face, emphasizing the idea that the sun is a living force. Then you’ll need to decide on its details.
Do you want it to be male or female? What expression will reinforce the message you want your tattoo to send? Are you looking to convey serenity or do you want a raging face, emphasizing the incredible power of the sun’s heat?
Or do you want to go classic or traditional? If so, Celtic sun tattoos (with or without facial features) are complex designs that are striking to look at but also have a spiritual dimension.
For a more elaborate or larger tattoo, the sun motif can easily be the centerpiece in a map of the skies, incorporating also the moon, stars and planets – perfect for anyone with an interest in astronomy or astrology.
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The Meaning of Mountain Tattoos
People in all times and places have been in awe of the majesty of mountains. They generate spiritual experiences and a sense of wonder and transcendence: to be on top of a mountain is to be closer to the heavens and to unspoiled nature, far removed from the crazy bustle of mundane life on earth.
Mountaintops are magical places, while their massiveness also evokes timelessness, permanence and indestructible strength.
Like tall trees, mountains are associated with the gods and with important events in the religious beliefs, myths and folklore of many cultures:
- Mount Olympus was the home of the gods of Ancient Greece. In the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God after ascending Mount Sinai.
- In Japanese culture, Mount Fuji has been one of the country’s most sacred places in Shinto beliefs for perhaps thirteen centuries. It is believed to embody a spirit known as a kami and, like many mountains around the world, is an important place of pilgrimage.
Mount Fuji, as with other culturally important mountains, is an extinct volcano. It’s not surprising that the spectacular and terrifying force of a volcanic eruption gave rise to myths and legends, and reinforced the idea of some mountains as living beings. Mount Etna, in Sicily, was believed to be where the smithy of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, was located.
In contemporary culture, mountains have different, but equally powerful significance. To climb a mountain always has overtones of a difficult journey that requires determination, psychological strength and belief in one’s self, as well as supreme physical fitness and great skills of endurance. Among many climbers today, there is still no greater feat than reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
As with most tattoo motifs, mountain tattoos can be given a stylized or stripped down treatment, with the design simplified into its most basic elements. A mountain tattoo can be as simple as a zigzag line or a carefully composed set of adjacent triangles, evoking soaring mountain peaks.
Designs of this kind, with little detail and a reduced color palette, are perfect for a small, minimalist tattoo, but can easily scaled up for a crisp larger tattoo with clean lines.