The Hamsa has gone by many other names including the eye of Fatima, the hand of Fatima, and the hand of Miriam to name a few. In terms of visual appearance the Hamsa is an open hand with an eye in the middle. The Hamsa is usually worn as protection, specifically against the Evil Eye.
Today this design is mainly seen as an important Jewish symbol but it has been interpreted by many scholars as Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and even as a pagan symbol of fertility.
Two of the Hamsa’s other names (referencing Fatima or Miriam) link this ancient symbol closely to Judaism and Islam. Fatima is the daughter of Mohammed, and Miriam is the sister of Moses.
One of the oldest depictions of the Hamsa comes from a 14th-century Islamic fortress in southern Spain, on the Puerta Judiciaria, or, “Gate of Judgement.” There are also those who believe the Hamsa has its roots in Christianity through the virgin Mary whose hands are often seen in a “fig” pose. Then there are historians and professors who believe the Hamsa doesn’t come from religion at all, because there are Palaeolithic caves in France, Spain, Argentina, Algeria, and Australia with paintings of the hand.
As a tattoo the Hamsa is often done in a black and grey or fine line, but neo-traditional and geometric patters thrown into the mix are also popular. Many people wonder if it’s ok for them to wear a Hamsa, whether it’s a tattoo, on a necklace, or a t-shirt, and the short answer is yes. It can be culturally insensitive to wear it without understanding what it means, but as so many religions and cultures have ties to it, it really can be for anyone, as protection is a universal theme.
Hyottoko and Okame are an endearing and comical pair of peasants that have been a part of Japanese folklore for centuries. They are two of Noh theatres most beloved characters and both are portrayed using very stylized masks.
Hyottoko is a male character with an oddly shaped face, prominent cheeks that are red from drinking too much sake, with one eye larger than the other, pursed lips, and a white handkerchief with blue dots tied and knotted around his head and under his chin.
He is a kind peasant spirit who according to legend could remove gold from his navel and spit fire through a bamboo tube that he always brings with him. This tube is also why he is usually depicted with pursed lips as though perpetually ready to blow fire through his tube. He is also described as a drunkard who enjoys dancing and parties. The handkerchief around his head is also a nod towards him being a drunk as toothaches were common from drinking too much.
Okame is a female character (also sometimes called Otafuku) with a smiling face and large cheeks. She also has white makeup and red lips, in the style of a geisha.
She is meant to bring happiness and enjoyment, and also embodies the ideal of feminine beauty. Okame is also often associated with geishas because of her playful nature and more silent and secondary role in theatre and folklore.
The Battle Royale is an old school design that consists of an eagle, a snake, and a dragon, all battling it out to be number one (sometimes it is depicted as an eagle vs a snake, or even other animals fighting).
This design has been passed down for generations through tattooers and tattoo collectors, usually as quite a large design like a full back piece, chest, or stomach, but also as smaller work on arms and legs.
This most famous design was tattooed on D.C (Dave) Paul by Huck Spaulding and Paul Rogers, though there are a few older designs that are bit different. One was tattooed by George Burchett when he was working with Japanese artist Hori Uno in his shop in London, and the other by Percy Waters in Detroit. Ben Corday’s version is also quite popular.
The Battle Royale is an American traditional design that has clear roots in Japanese tattooing as well as American. It was designed to represent the eternal struggle of keeping balance, particularly between the East and West, but life in general as well. Everything in life requires balance and hardship. This is a battle that will never be won.
Most people choose to get this piece in full colour as the first wearers of the tattoo would have, but it also looks great without colour, or as a more neo-traditional piece.
Tattoos have long been an important part of Myanmar (Burmese) culture. Legend has it that tattoos were first introduced to what was then called Burma around 200 BCE by ethnic minorities that migrated to the area from southwest China.
Tattooing was/is a very important part of belonging to Myanmar, and everyone from the kings to commoners would get work done, and continue to do so even today. Early on tattoos were a way of showing off masculine strength as well as feminine beauty, on top of cultural identity and aesthetic appeal. Lots of tattooed people also believed (like many ancient cultures) that tattoos would serve as a protection from evil and that they (tattoos) could protect the wearer from harm. Being largely a Buddhist country (90% of the population is Buddhist), Buddhist tattoos have also been important in the area. Tattoos related to Buddhism would often be created at temples by monks, thus ensuring that the wearer would be protected from harm.
Early on in Myanmar’s history it was mainly the Shan, A Ta’I ethnic group that were getting tattooed the most frequently. The Shan States still dominate Northeast Myanmar today. Men would mainly get their waists down towards their knees tattooed as a sign of virility. Early on it’s believed that both men and women were tattooed frequently, but by the mid 1600’s only women were mainly receiving facial tattoos, particularly women of the Chin State in Western Myanmar. The women of the M’uun tribe are easily recognizable with the looping “P” or “D” shaped tattoos on their faces, along with the “Y” on their foreheads. The M’kaan women have lines on both their foreheads and chins. There are six tribes in total in the area where facial tattoos were popular for women, though sadly in the 1960’s this practice was outlawed and when these women pass away a piece of history will die with them.
Below are a few charts that show what kind of person was getting what kind of tattoo, and where on the body, with regards to military action.
Other common motifs for tattooing in Myanmar include cats of various sizes from house cats to tigers, dragons, geometric patterns, and figures from Myanmar’s and Buddhism’s history and culture.
Information from “Tattoo Art in Myanmar Culture: Special Reference with State Bondsmen of Cavalry Corps 2016” written by Moe Moe Oo from the Ministry of Education, Myanmar, and
Tattoo Art in Burmese Cultures: History, Technique, Design, and Symbolic Functions of Tattooing in Burma/Myanmar
9/1/11 to 11/20/11 Northern Illinois University School of Art DeKalb IL
Scorpions have been popular in tattooing for a long time, and have been tattooed in many different styles, including old school American traditional, black work, black and grey, realism, neo-traditional, and more.
Scorpions make for a popular design largely because of their tough look. The animal is deadly with a tough exterior, and can reflect this upon the tattoo wearer as well.
Because it is a creature that can take care of itself, it can also represent strength and protection.
Another obvious reason for people to get a scorpion tattoo, is if their zodiac sign happens to be ‘scorpio.’ Scorpios (October 23rd-November 21st) are described as being calculating and striking; able to know what they want and do what it takes to get it.
Kewpie dolls have been seen on old school flash sheets since the early 1900’s, and have gone through fazes of popularity. The original creator of these cuties was Rose O’Neill, an American poet and artist who was famous for being the best-known and highest paid female commercial illustrator in the US at the time. The original designs were made for Ladies Home Journal in 1909 as cupid dolls, with “Kewpie” being a fun variation of the word “Cupid.” They were then put into comic strips also written and Illustrated by Rose O’Neill, and were also used in multiple advertisements such as Jell-O and Kellogg’s corn flakes, among others.
Some notable tattoo artists that first started putting Kewpies in tattoo flash were Percy Waters, Milton Zeis, and Bill Moore. They were very popular designs in the early 1900’s, but faded in popularity in the 1950’s.
It was tattooer Mike “Rollo” Malone that brought Kewpie tattoos back into popularity, drawing many variations of the Kewpie to suit all sorts of tattoo collectors.
Kewpies were also made into the famous dolls we know now, also originally designed by Rose O’Neill. Some notable features of Kewpies as dolls, drawings, and tattoos include a (usually) nude Cupid-like child with a chubby belly, a kind of topknot hairdo, and originally, a red heart and blue wings painted on the chest and back. Rosie cheeks and a mischievous smile were/are also key elements. These dolls were made of many materials including hard plastic, vinyl, cloth, and more. The original dolls are still recognizable with Rose O’Neills name on the bottom of their feet, and are often worth quite a lot.
While most Kewpies were nude, in the 1920’s they started being made with clothing and uniforms such as firemen, cowboys, soldiers, musicians, and more. Today, as tattoos these impish characters are usually still done in an old school American traditional style, and feature most of the same original features previously listed. Many artists get creative and turn famous celebrities or characters into Kewpies, or make them a bit darker by giving them weapons or even making them into horror icons.
Snake ladies have been around for centuries, and we’re still fascinated with their beauty and danger. We know they exist as towering Greek statues, paintings on Japanese woodblock carvings, medieval paintings in France and throughout Europe, words and paintings in ancient Chinese texts, and of course, as beautiful tattoos. The four snake ladies we’re going to take a look at today are Medusa, Nure-Onna, Bái Sùzhēn, and Mélusine, though more cultures have their own as well. For many modern feminists, snake lady tattoos have become a common motif, which is not surprising given their subject matter. These mythological snake ladies all have their own beauty, and danger, and that danger is aimed towards those who would harm them.
According to research by Max Plank, humans have an automatic fear of snakes, dating back to our cavemen ancestors for pretty obvious reasons. Stay away from things that bite you! But snakes in the myths of many cultures are not just evil creatures, they are also symbols of fertility, hence why we have so many snake “ladies” throughout history. Granted many snake ladies are also described as twisted and horrible monsters, but they are almost always wronged by men in some way, and are just trying to live their best lives, even if it means killing and/or eating the occasional man (relatable though, right?). Even the Christians jumped on the snake lady bandwagon when Michelangelo depicted Satan not as a man in his painting “Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” in the Sistine Chapel in the 1500’s, but as a snake with the torso of a woman. So why do people keep getting these snake lady tattoos if they’re often depicted negatively?
Let’s have a look at our first snake lady Medusa, and why people might get snake lady tattoos of her. Medusa is immediately recognizable and is seen in all kinds of pop culture. At a glance, Medusa looks like a terrifying monster, but her character is much more complicated than that. According to Ovin’s Metamorphoses, Medusa wasn’t always the monster that she’s usually seen as. Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, and the only mortal one, was extremely beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that she caught the eye of the god of sea, earthquakes, and horses, Poseidon. Turns out Poseidon was a real scum bag and actually raped Medusa in the temple of Athena. When Athena found out what had happened in her temple, she got angry at the wrong person and cursed Medusa for desecrating her holy space.
This curse turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, making her so horrible to look at that any who did would be instantly turned to stone. Medusa went from being written about like this, “Medusa once had charms; to gain her love. A rival crowd of envious lovers strove. They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace. More moving features in a sweeter face. Yet above all, her length of hair, they own, in golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.” To this, “In the middle is the Gorgon Medusa, an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.” So Medusa was forever transformed into a monster, one that could even get a hero some street cred if they were to slay her. Enter, Perseus. Perseus was the son of Danae, a mortal princess, and Zeus, mightiest of the gods. When Perseus grew up he was sent on a quest by King Polydectes, to bring him the head of Medusa. This was a trick though, as old King Poly really just wanted to sleep with Perseus’ mother, and was expecting Perseus to be killed by Medusa. But Perseus is the son of a god, so of course he’s not going to fight a monster empty handed and without a few tricks up his toga. He was given an invisibility cap from his uncle Hades, a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a reflective bronze shield from Athena, and a new sword from Hephaestus. Our story of the poor cursed Medusa ends here, as Perseus was triumphant and snuck up on her while she was sleeping and chopped her head off.
For many people, Medusa is a relatable character, so it’s no surprise that when you search for snake lady tattoos, she’s going to be one of the first examples you see. Medusa was wronged by someone more powerful than her, but was then given the power in the form of a curse to keep people from hurting her (unless you’re Perseus). Medusa tattoos can be seen as a kind of armour, as Medusa turned people to stone with her gaze. If you rock a Medusa tattoo, she can handle glaring at that weirdo on the bus for you.
Our second snake lady and corresponding snake lady tattoos, Nure-Onna, comes from Japan. The name Nure-Onna means, “wet woman.” As such, I’ll give you three guesses as to where she lives, and the first two don’t count. Quite simply, the water; coasts, rivers, and lakes. Really any body of natural water that can fit a giant snake lady. Traditionally she is native to Kyushu, Japan’s south-westernmost of the main island’s. But she can also be found as far north as Niigata and farther east in infamous Fukushima. Now unlike Medusa, Nure-Onna was never human, she’s pure creature, though not necessarily “evil.” She’s described as being large enough to flatten trees with her tail, strong enough to overpower men and eat them, and is quite a fast swimmer. In some legends she has arms like a human, and in others the only human thing about her is her head, plopped on top of a snakes body. Though all legends describe her face as quite snake-like, forked tongue and all. According to some legends, she really just wants to be left alone as she’s quite solitary and goal oriented. Usually coming ashore to wash her hair and eat. Her diet consists of both blood and entrails (delicious), but not specifically human blood and entrails, though don’t piss her off and test that. Now even though she’s way stronger than you or me, she doesn’t like to rely on brute strength when she is in the mood for some man meat. She’s smart and tricky. Nure-Onna uses magic to disguise herself as a distressed woman carrying a crying baby. She herself cries out for help from passing fishermen, sailors, or anyone unlucky enough to be passing by. If someone does stop to help her, she convinces them to take the baby, just for a moment, to let her rest. If she gets that far, the fake baby magically becomes extremely heavy, and she changes back into a snake lady, drains their blood, and eats their guts.
Nure-Onna snake lady tattoos are another design that can be worn as a kind of armour, as we now know Nure-Onna is a force to be reckoned with! She’s also more creepy looking than Medusa, so for horror aficionados she’s a cool choice. For those who also enjoy Japanese tattooing, Nure-Onna can be paired with Japanese flowers, and background such as waves or clouds as she is a creature from the sea.
Our third snake lady and her tattooed form is more of a romantic one than our first two. Bái Sùzhēn is a snake spirit from The Legend of the White Snake, one of Four Classic Folktales from China. These are old written works of historic and literary significance. Bái Sùzhēn was born as a magical sea snake that, after practicing Daoist magic, learned how to transform herself into a human. So, still a snake lady. This story takes place in beautiful Hangzhou, and begins with a boy named Xǔ Xiān, who accidentally purchases immortality pills that make him sick. He’s so sick that he throws up the pills into the lake. Bái Sùzhēn just happens to be swimming in the lake and swallows the immortality pills, but because she’s a spirit, she’s able to digest them. She is so happy and gracious that she immediately falls in love with Xǔ Xiān.
Bái Sùzhēn acquires a sidekick of sorts while traveling in human form. She sees a green snake being hurt by a man, and saves her by transforming her into a human as well. The green snake, now named, Xiǎo Qīng, swears to follow Bái Sùzhēn until the end of time. By huge coincidence, the two snake ladies come across Xǔ Xiān again, and shortly after their chance encounter, they get married. Years after their marriage, a jealous turtle spirit also turned human named Fa Hai, sabotages the marriage by telling Xǔ Xiān that his wife should try realgar wine during a festival. This wine repels spirits and and harmful creatures, and as soon as she drinks it, she is transformed back into a giant snake, giving her husband a heart attack that leads to his death. Loyal as ever, Xiǎo Qīng helps Bái Sùzhēn take Xǔ Xiān’s body to a sacred place to revive him. So happy to be revived he declares his love for his wife again, not caring that she’s a snake lady. Fa Hai of course finds out that his plan didn’t work, and he ends up, after various unsuccessful attempts to capture or kill the trio, manages to trap Bái Sùzhēn in the Leifeng Pagoda after her and Xǔ Xiān’s son Xǔ Mèngjiāo is born. Many years later, Xǔ Mèngjiāo passes the extremely difficult and competitive imperial exams with flying colours. He returns home with the title of top scholar, and is now a pious Confucian. He visits the Pagoda where his mother is trapped, to pay his respects. The heavens are so touched with his filial devotion that they finally free Bái Sùzhēn and allow the family to reunite. Another story featuring a bunch of men trying to bring a snake lady down.
Snake lady tattoos aren’t just for those who love the gritty and gruesome stories, they can also be for romantics. Though Bái Sùzhēn is a snake lady, she’s also a true romantic, falling in love Disney style (ridiculously fast), and fighting for her family. If you’re wanting a snake lady tattoo with a bit of a romantic flair, but still has a strong fighting spirit, you can’t go wrong with her.
Our fourth and final snake lady is another familiar one to all, though you may not know it. Her name is Mélusine, and while she is often described as a snake lady, she’s also sometimes more like a mermaid, but with two tails. If you’re starting to get an image in your mind, you might think of one of the most well-known coffee logos in the world. Starbucks uses the effigy of Mélusine on their cups, a smiling two tailed mermaid, or snake lady. In some myths she is described as a witch, but in many she’s more of a fairy. Mélusine was a French mythological creature coming out of the late 1300’s in France. She is the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and King Elynas of Albany.
Now Mélusine was perfectly normal in appearance, despite being part fairy, except on Saturday’s. On these days she unwillingly transformed into, you guessed it, a snake lady, usually described with the two tails and a bit more fishy than strictly serpentine. One day Mélusine met a young man named Raymond in the forest nearby. As most fairytales go, they were married extremely quickly, in this instance, by morning. But Mélusine had one condition, Raymond was not to see her on Saturdays. The couple had many children, but each child was born with a different deformity, including mismatched eye colours, an ear larger than the other, only one eye, and even a son who was born with a lion’s foot growing out of his cheek and another with a great tooth. This was of course because of her fairy blood, but Raymond didn’t know that. One day Raymond’s brother visited, and made him suspicious of his wife’s lonely Saturday’s. So of course Raymond betrayed his wife’s trust and spied on her the next Saturday, and though he was horrified at seeing her in the bath with her two serpentine tails, he didn’t say anything. Until their one son with the great tooth attacked a monastery seemingly unprovoked, and killed one hundred monks. Raymond then accused Mélusine of passing on her serpentine blood to their children, and of course alerting her to the fact that he had betrayed her trust. So distraught, Mélusine turns into a 15 foot snake, circles the castle three times, wailing loudly, before flying away. She continued to visit her children, but only at night.
This story has something for everyone, as Mélusine is also a romantic, but her child is also a murderer, and she’s still a giant snake lady. As a snake lady tattoo, we can see she often looks more like a mermaid then a snake, but 3/4 of these stories feature water as a common theme, so that’s not too surprising. Mélusine also makes a great snake lady tattoo if you’re a fan of Starbucks, but you don’t want that classic “death before decaf” piece! She’s a bit more subtle than that, and only true Starbucks fans (and anyone who reads this) will know who she is.
While these snake ladies might seem like monsters, they’re really just women wronged by men, and stories of feminist power. So guys, don’t be assholes! And when in doubt, get yourself a snake lady tattoo. They look badass, and they might just protect you from unwanted advances if they’re scary enough.
The Sun Dancer tattoo is an easily recognizable American traditional design, first painted by Bert Grimm, a pioneer of American traditional tattooing who worked from around 1916-1970. An important part of Indigenous history and culture, the Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that was and is still very important to different groups, primarily to those of the plains cultures in America and Canada.
The ceremony is a gruelling but important one, primarily (though not entirely) performed by males. The dancer fasts, going without both food and drink for days at a time, while dancing around a sacred fire and traditional pole meant to represent the sun. Others drum and sing prayers while the dancer dances until exhausted.
As part of the ceremony, piercing and suspension is also common. This involves a leader piercing rods into the chest or back of the dancer, while they drag a bison head until the skin rips. Other variations involve horses pulling at the rods, or the dancer being suspended from the pole by the rods in their skin. This inspired modern suspension.
Often times the dancer would become delirious and hallucinate both from the physical and mental exertion, topped with dehydration and extreme hunger. Unfortunately the ceremony was banned in Canada in 1885 under the Indian Act, but the ban was dropped in 1951, though Indigenous people continue(d) to be treated unfairly. Today the Sun Dance is still performed by some communities.
One of the first examples of this ceremony being painted is Bert Grimm’s Sun Dancer flash and tattoo. The original painting depicts a girl dancing with her left knee raised, right hand holding a spear, with a shield depicting a bald eagle in her left hand. A red sun and traditional roses make up the background.
As the design was first made by a pioneer of American traditional tattooing, it is mainly tattooed today in the same style. Though people do take artistic liberties, sometimes including animals or other flowers, and even changing the subject of the tattoo. It is often done as a back tattoo, but can also be seen on arms and legs, usually as still large pieces, though through adaptation artists have created smaller pieces as well.