Flower tattoos are always a popular choice and the rose is a tattoo motif that just never dies. It’s a classic, in every way, and not just a pretty option for women’s ink. It featured in traditional tattoos sported by men in the earlier 20th century, as in the ‘rose and dagger’ design, which symbolizes the contrasts of existence and the hard realities of life that many working men experienced back in the day.
In the present, the rose tattoo has been given a multitude of modern tweaks that ensure its ongoing popularity.
In the world of gardening, the rose is one of the most prized of all flowers, with many hundreds of glorious varieties. In the world of ink it’s not all that different. Rose tattoos come in an incredible range of styles, colors and image combinations.
Of course you won’t get that wonderfully fragrant rose perfume but, for beauty and a wealth of symbolism, it’s hard to go wrong with a rose tattoo.
What do Roses mean in History and Culture?
The first thing that may come to mind when you think about roses is true love. It’s been over two hundred years since Robert Burns, the celebrated Scottish poet, wrote the famous line ‘My love is like a red, red rose…’.
Today, the red rose is the time-honored expression of romance and passion, and a Valentine’s Day staple in many countries around the world. The rose is linked to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love in Greek and Roman culture, so its association has very deep roots in time and history.
In fact, the symbolism of what may well be the world’s most popular flower goes far wider as well. Fragrance aside, one of the prominent features of the rose is that its sharp thorns contrast with its soft petals and delicate beauty. This striking combination of beauty and danger can also have connotations of the balancing out of opposing forces (which also features in the vintage ‘rose and dagger’ tattoo already mentioned).
In the Greek myth of Aphrodite, the beautiful young man named Adonis, who she protected, was killed by a boar. Where his blood fell, the drops blossomed into red roses. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. In Christianity, roses are associated with the Virgin Mary, resonating with Christ’s crown of thorns. (Think also of the Catholic prayer beads that are known as ‘rosaries’.)
The Symbolism of the Rose
In the language of flowers, color is key to the meaning of the rose motif:
- As already noted – and widely recognized – red is the color of love, lifeblood, passion and the deepest, most heartfelt emotion.
- White roses are linked to purity, innocence and youth, as well as serenity and calmness.
- Yellow roses signify friendship.
- Pink roses may symbolize grace, happiness or gratitude.
- Orange roses can stand for fascination.
- Black roses (which are actually a very deep, dark crimson or purple color) typically have more sinister overtones, of death, despair and hate, but they can also mean ‘in memoriam’, and may be used to remember and pay tribute to a departed loved one.
Other attributes of the rose can also be significant. Gertrude Stein wrote the famous line ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ but, in terms of symbolism, roses aren’t all the same, and can have very different meanings.
Rosebuds, as opposed to full-blown roses, have connotations of youth and unfolding potential. Thornless roses are said by some to mean ‘love at first sight’.
Different varieties of rose – and there are lots of them – may also have different meanings. The simple, five-petaled dog rose that grows wild in the fields sends a different message to the double-flowered cultivars that have been carefully bred and engineered by horticulturalists and devoted rose enthusiasts.
In Europe, roses with five petals were sometimes carved on Christian confessionals. The link is to the Latin phrase ‘sub rosa’, which signified the secrecy and confidentiality of all conversations that took place underneath a representation of the flower. Full-blown, multi-petal roses have almost erotic overtones of sensuality, sultriness and voluptuousness.
Choosing a Rose Tattoo
If you think that a rose tattoo is for you, then one thing is for sure – you’ll be spoiled for choice. Knowing the meanings associated with different roses may help you to narrow it down, especially when it comes to color choice, but then there’s the question of the right style and achieving the visual impact that you’re looking for.
The ideal design may depend in part on the placement of your rose tattoo. A delicate single rose is always beautiful and essentially feminine – though in the 21st century rose tattoos definitely aren’t just for women – it’s all about the styling and design details.
A small rose tattoo is ideal for the neck or behind the ear, for the inner forearm, hand or wrist, or as a discreet ankle tattoo. At the other end of the spectrum are bold, full sleeve tattoos or large-scale designs that are especially suitable for the back, chest, stomach or thigh. If you’re going for big and striking, rather than subtle and understated, then a riot of multi-colored roses could be a good choice.
Naturalistic rose tattoos, which closely resemble the real thing, are always popular. Inspiration can come from classic botanical prints and drawings, for a retro or nostalgic look. More strongly stylized rose designs of various kinds are just as attractive and can help to create a very modern appearance.
If the color symbolism of roses is a secondary consideration, designs in monochrome black are well worth looking at. Crisp and fine black lines create the outline, in a design that is unfussy but always instantly recognizable as a rose.
A long, slender stem can accentuate the delicacy of the design, while its linearity makes this representation of the rose a good choice for the arm or lower leg. Rose tattoos in this style can be given added interest with small touches of color, without making the minimalist design more complicated.
As well as being attractive as standalone motifs, roses are often incorporated into more complex designs. They often appeared in traditional tattoos (now known as ‘old school’ style tattoos), as in the rose and dagger motif already mentioned. Certain contemporary versions of these older designs are known as ‘new school’, and make playful reference to the earlier conventions in the ever-evolving art of the tattoo.
An example is the skull and roses tattoo, which similarly makes use of the contrast between life and death, and beauty and decay. Other variations, which may have a gothic flavor, include roses combined with a crucifix, or with barbed wire.
Roses also often feature in mixed media tattoos, which cleverly mix styles and motifs that you wouldn’t normally expect to see together. These tattoos create novel visual effects that are very contemporary and always eye-catching. The rose is a very versatile image, and can also be added to existing tattoos to give them a fresh update or a new dimension.
It’s the same in ink as in life: the rose is a timeless symbol of life and beauty that never goes out of fashion. Beauty aside, a rose tattoo is a great way to speak of passion, to remember a loved one or just for looking great. Whether your taste is traditional or funky, there’ll always be a rose tattoo design to suit you.