People get tattoos for all sorts of reasons. Some are purely decorative, designed to make a strong style statement, but often they mark an important life event and have deep personal significance. The act of getting a tattoo often accompanies a change in circumstances and the beginning of a new chapter in a person’s life. In various world cultures, this was what tattoos were traditionally created for. They might signal the passage from childhood to adulthood, as with initiation tattoos, or they might communicate some other important change in social status and identity. Others are closely tied to spiritual beliefs and a commitment to personal growth and transformation.
The choice to have a tattoo is often prompted by life changes and the desire for a new future, so finding the right motif to represent that is crucial. Societies have celebrated growth and new beginnings for millennia. After all, what is life about, apart from growing and moving forward? This means there’s a huge choice of images available. Most of us will want a tattoo that is beautiful or visually striking, so that will probably be an important consideration but finding the perfect motif for your tattoo means marrying visual appeal with a symbol that has special resonance for you. Sources of inspiration include the world around us, symbols from other cultures and world myths and emblems of transformation that have a powerful spiritual meaning.
The natural world, and the wonderful living things we share the planet with, provide us with many symbols of growth and renewal. One of the most popular themes for tattoos is the butterfly, which transforms from a common caterpillar into a delicate creature of amazing beauty. Flying creatures of many kinds symbolize a new start in life. After all, flying is all about the freedom to take off into new realms and seek out new opportunities. Birds are another popular tattoo choice for this reason. Different species of birds have their own unique symbolic meanings. For example, the robin, with its bright red breast, is associated with resurrection and the blood of Christ but also symbolizes endurance and transcendence. This is partly because in many cultures blood represents new life and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
A variety of plants and flowers are associated with renewal and change. Seeds represent the potential for growth and, although most of them aren’t visually interesting, there are exceptions. An acorn makes for a simple tattoo that is an evocative symbol of growth: think of the saying ‘Great oaks from little acorns grow’. In other words, small changes can evolve into great things in the future. Winged seeds like that of the maple or sycamore do double work in symbolic terms, evoking both the freedom of flight and the potential to flourish.
Another seed-related motif is the dandelion when the flower has died and the delicate seed head remains. The wind blows the tiny seeds far and wide, where they are able to thrive, even in poor soil and in challenging conditions. Many types of flowers also evoke new beginnings and possibilities. Spring flowers, like the daffodils, the iris and the purple tulip, represent revival after the dreariness of a long winter. The narcissus is the symbol of the new year in Iranian culture, whereas the lotus flower stands for the realization of inner potential in Hindu traditions. The Tarot card known as ‘The Magician’ commonly includes images of lilies and roses. This card stands for aspiration, progress and the successful realization of ambitions.
As well as living things, natural phenomena are also associated with growth, renewal and the cycles of life. The rising sun is a universal symbol of a new dawn and a new start (sunflowers can have a similar meaning). The moon is another well-known example, because of the way it waxes and wanes, growing from a silver sliver to a glowing orb. Shooting stars also signify change and progress, or moving towards a better place or new realms. The ocean wave has similar connotations of change and moving forward. Technically, a wave is defined as ‘the transfer of energy through matter, space and time’. The mighty ocean waves rise, gather force and power their way towards the shore. That amazing energy can also represent progress and positive momentum in life.
The rainbow is a powerful and widely used symbol, with many meanings. Rainbows typically appear when the rain is clearing and the sun breaks through the clouds – a sign that things are changing and, both literally and figuratively, becoming brighter. In world religions, it is often seen as a bridge between earth and sky or as some kind of spiritual path. The symbolism is of spiritual progress or ascent to a higher plane.
Symbols of growth, change and rebirth in myths and world cultures
Symbols from nature often have meanings that are almost universal. The butterfly is a good example of this: Its astonishing transformation from caterpillar to beautiful creature perfectly represents ideas about positive change and being born anew. But different cultures throughout history have also created their own unique symbols, or have their own particular perspectives on symbols that are common throughout the world.
As well as naturalistic motifs drawn from the real world, global cultures are also filled with fabulous beings that live only in the worlds of the imagination and spirituality. Shapeshifting or therianthropy is the magical ability to transform from one kind of being to another. Creatures known as ‘therianthropes’, with both human and animal features, are one of the oldest motifs in prehistoric art. One example from European Ice Age art maybe fifteen thousand years old. Though the meaning of that image is impossible to unearth, images representing transformations are very ancient.
One of the most famous of all symbols of positive change is probably the phoenix. In Greek and Roman mythology, the phoenix was a fabulous bird that was forever reborn. In some versions, the phoenix rises from the ashes of its former incarnation. It is also sometimes associated with the life-affirming power of the sun, depicted as a halo or as rays of sunlight.
Another symbol with roots deep in antiquity is the ouroboros, a snake or dragon-like creature eating its own tail. It is found in both Egyptian and Ancient Greek culture, with the oldest known example from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the 14th century BC. The symbolism of the ouroboros works on many levels. Both the motif and its circular form symbolize renewal.
Other reptiles have similar connotations of new beginnings and regeneration. This is because of the ability of snakes to shed their skin and emerge afresh, while reptiles such as lizards can cast off their tails and regrow them. The world egg (or cosmic egg), symbolizing the birth of the universe, is a symbol found worldwide. One version derives from ancient Greek tradition and depicts an egg with a snake curled around it. Though it refers particularly to the birth of an early Greek god, it combines two archetypal symbols of growth and regeneration.
The tree of life is an ancient symbol found around the world, including Celtic, Norse and Oriental cultures. Trees have many different meanings in world myths but because they are sturdy and long-lived they often serve as symbols of growth, rebirth and eternity. As the tallest of plants, they are sometimes seen as linking the realms of the universe: rooted in the earth but reaching to the sky, with connotations of high aspirations. Trees are also linked to knowledge, especially in Judeo-Christian traditions, and so can refer to personal advancement and spiritual growth. In ogham, a fifteen-hundred-year-old Celtic alphabet, the first letter resembles a ‘T’. The character’s name is beith, meaning birch tree, a Celtic symbol for growth, endurance and renewal.
One of the most popular, and most beautiful, tattoo motifs in irezumi (the art of Japanese tattooing) is the cherry blossoms, or sakura. The trees burst into clouds of delicate flowers in spring. In modern Japan, they are associated with the first day of school and, by extension, with the beginning of a new year of learning, knowledge and self-improvement. Originally they were thought to embody mountain gods that transformed into the gods of the rice paddies and so also signified agricultural renewal and abundance. Momiji (Japanese maple leaf) is another attractive motif in irezumi, symbolizing the passage of time, renewal and regeneration.
Also prominent in Japanese lore and tattooing is the koi, a fish of the carp family. As well as being a general symbol of good luck and prosperity, the hardy koi represents endurance, perseverance and overcoming obstacles, as well as transformation. The story goes that a school of koi were swimming in a river against the current. Most failed but one who persisted and made it to its destination was rewarded by the gods by being turned into a golden dragon. That’s why koi tattoos are often paired with dragon tattoos or lotus flowers, in order to emphasize the theme of transformation. Different designs and colors have varying meanings. Black koi, in particular, are linked to change and transcendence.
Abstract signs and designs
Although representational images like flowers and living or mythological creatures are perennially popular as tattoo motifs, geometric and abstract signs and designs can be just as visually striking and richly steeped in meaning. Various symbols from eastern cultures and religions represent growth and a person’s journey to spiritual enlightenment.
Symbols and signs drawn from Buddhism are probably the best known. At the heart of Buddhist belief is the idea of the Eight-fold Noble Path that leads ultimately to Nirvana and the end of suffering. The Dharma wheel (or the Dharmachakra) is a wheel that resembles the steering wheel of a boat. Its eight spokes represent the eight principles of the Noble Path. Among them are the acquisition of wisdom, the strength to persevere in the face of the trials of life and letting go of the past in order to live in the present. This makes the Dharmachakra and other Buddhist signs a popular choice as emblems of personal growth and change.
Spiral designs may have similar meanings. The spiral is associated with movement and although that can be negative (everyone knows the phrase ‘downward spiral’), in world symbolism it’s more often linked to positivity. Some spiral designs carved into rocks and onto buildings date back many thousands of years, though their meanings can only be guessed at. Among the Hopi of Arizona, the spiral form symbolizes the road to higher consciousness, which is never simply a straight line.
One of the most famous spiral designs is the triskelion, or triskele, a triple spiral motif. The oldest examples, dating to around five or six thousand years ago, are known from structures in Malta and Ireland. In Celtic culture, the triskelion is again believed to represent moving towards understanding, though it also evokes the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The unalome sign, in Buddhist beliefs, also incorporates a spiral into the base of its design, representing the struggles that are overcome on the path to nirvana.
A beautiful spiral design that is based on ideas about growth comes from the traditional culture of the Maori people of New Zealand. Known as a koru (the Maori word for ‘coil’ or ‘loop’), it derives from the way a tightly curled young silver fern leaf looks before it unfurls into a huge fronds, which can reach four meters in length. In Maori traditional thought it represents movement, growth potential and new life.
Symbols of growth and change are so abundant because celebrating moving forward is part of being human. Nothing is more constant than change. Archetypal images and time-honored motifs with deep-rooted meanings are an ideal tattoo choice. Whichever design you choose, your tattoo will be a permanent reminder of the life journey you are on, and an inspiration to move fruitfully along your chosen path.