The Rose Tattoo - Some Thoughts on Symbolism in Tattoos
The image of a rose has appeared since time out of mind, as an emblem of the Mother Goddess and the Virgin Mary, from heraldic device of the Wars of the Roses and the Rosecrucians to businesses, banks and bands; all use the rose as a part of their identity. Songs, movies, fairy tales all have adopted the rose, "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose," "American Beauty," "Snow White and Rose Red."
The first tattoo I ever got was a small red rose on the inside of my wrist, blooming towards my right hand. Over time it grew a longer stem and more roses until its starting point was near my elbow. I imagined my rose growing from within the center of my being and out into the world. At times I’d be asked if I knew what it "meant" - as though everybody else was in on some secret. I’d been an artist all my life but never actually thought much about how some things, like a rose, can signify more than just themselves and that such symbols permeate our lives.
You could spend a lifetime studying all the different layers of meaning. The Tarot for example, is filled with imagery; moon, sun, stars, wheels, water, flowers, fish, dogs and lobsters. I have barely dipped my toe into that stream. Jungian psychology talks about archetypes, universal themes, which are understood on a subconscious level by most cultures.
What could be more fascinating than a great river of collective unconscious where messages leak out into our dreaming and waking lives?
That in mind, I decided to go to graduate school to become a therapist. But alas, the glass slipper did not fit me very well. The world of traditional therapists encourages self realization on the part of its clients perhaps, but invisibility on the part of its members, which is never something I’ve been good at. I lasted about a year before I saw a chance and grabbed it, to become a tattoo artist, which felt a little like joining a circus. Surprisingly though I found tattooing was actually a better way for me to help people with their self esteem issues without getting a bad headache. Oh, but those therapy skills weren’t wasted! They have come in very handy over the last ten years.
You might be surprised to know that when a person is going through a great transition in their life, they might see not only a counselor or a minister or perhaps a lawyer, - but also a tattoo artist. There are always those names to cover up, a mistake to be made better, a new found allegiance or freedom from one. And, the bad choices to be talked out of....
"What is the most popular tattoo?" My clients have so often chosen red roses that clearly something is at work. The rose tattoo is as classical as Greek statuary or Beethoven’s Ninth. It never goes out of style. As appropriate to a college professor as it is to a belly dancer, soldier or grandmother.
Humans have feelings they can’t put into words and so they pick a beautiful image like a rose. And, even if they don’t "know what it means" it doesn’t matter. Their unconscious mind knows.
I don’t know why certain images have particular meanings. There is no cosmic kindergarten teacher assigning them to roses, butterflies, a leaping stag, an apple, the moon, stars and sun. They have all grown organically by themselves from the ground up.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That is why Art exists, instead of being just a bunch of words. Poetry or beautiful prose can also evoke a picture. The picture and its associations are what contain the emotion and take one where words can’t go.
People also have a need for their symbols to be secret. After all, magic cannot exist without hiddenness. Why do you think a person would want a Chinese symbol for "Peace" or "Tranquility" or "Warrior" instead of a word in English? It has to be obscure in order to have magic for the person wearing it.
That also applies to people who get tattoos of animals. They are manifesting their inner wild creature, bringing the protection of that animal’s guardian spirit into their souls, even if they don’t know it. It just would not work as well to tattoo "Inner Tiger at Work" on a man’s bicep.
"Everybody knows a rose means I love you," said a man getting a memorial tattoo for his dead child. Crossed roses, one red and one purple. The rose also has thorns causing pain and bloodshed. The heart of the rose is seldom seen, revealing only twists and whorls and never its inner being until the petals are all ready to fall and you’re left holding an empty rose hip.
Love, life and death, passion, fidelity, and most especially the ineffable unknown, the mystery component that words can’t express. Is it the color, red as blood, or the shape, so like a human heart? The mysterious layers or the hidden pain of thorns unseen? All of the above? If you do find out all of the hidden meaning you might not want to tell everybody, that is,... not if you believe in magic.