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6 Popular Tattoos That Have Secret Meanings You Never Knew

The permanent designs on peoples' bodies can be much more than skin deep.

No matter what your opinion of them may be, tattoos represent a deeply personal decision to change how your body looks permanently. For many people, turning their skin into a canvas can be a bold expression that takes up an entire limb or a simple act of subtle symbolism easily hidden by clothing. Of course, some may grow to regret their choices, as styles change or their meanings evolve over time. But for certain timeless tattoos you might recognize, there's likely more going on than what's skin deep. Read on to discover the secret meanings behind some of the most popular tattoos today.

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A line drawing of a nautical star tattoo

As faraway objects that shine overhead every night, it's not hard to imagine what star tattoos represent to many people. In some cases, the artistic design can incorporate well-known celestial elements such as major constellations, representing cultural connections to mythical folklore or a deeper tie to someone's zodiac sign.

But long before their newfound popularity, nautical star tattoos have been used in a meaningful way for centuries. Typically, the image represents the North Star, which sailors historically used as a guidance tool to ensure their safe return home, according to Today, the five-point symbol often serves as a reminder of someone finding their way or charting their own course through a challenging period in their life, and may often be designed similarly to a compass for the same reason.


Line drawings of historic nautical anchor tattoos

Specific tattoos may grow and diminish in popularity over time, but some have remained iconic for ages. The use of an anchor has long stood for an obvious connection to sailors and life at sea—so much so that by the late 19th century, around 90 percent of those serving in the British navy reportedly had one or ink of some kind, The Guardian reported.

Historically, the images could symbolize anything from having crossed the equator or an ocean to commemorating a deceased friend—or, more grimly, used to help identify those who drowned, the paper reports. Single and double anchors could also denote civilian merchant marines from military-serving naval sailors, respectively, according to

But as the symbol became iconic over the years in the world of tattooing, some can now use it to represent an element of stability in someone's life or unwavering support. It's also why many can include a banner with parents' or loved ones' names across them.

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Solid Armbands

A young woman getting a tattoo on her harm

Some tattoos can involve intricate line work and shading that takes hours or days to finish. However, other prolific tattoos use nothing more than solid lines filled in with ink to make their impact. One such design is the solid black armband, which appears simple but carries a much deeper meaning.

According to, each tattoo represents a loved one that someone has lost in their life. Additional bands added above or below represent others who may have passed away over time, acting as a permanent memorial and reminder.


A vintage swallow tatoo

Symbolically speaking, birds can be used to represent flight and all of the far-reaching travels that come with it. But swallows were specifically chosen by 19th-century sailors for their known ability to find their way home even after long journeys, according to Popular lore of the time also stated that the birds could help carry or guide sailors lost at sea on the long trip to heaven.

Like many other images with nautical roots, swallow tattoos were also used as a literal mile-marker. Each bird represents having traveled 5,000 nautical miles, with many sailors opting to get them in pairs after completing 10,000, The Guardian reports. Today, many still choose the image for its iconic roots and representation of exploration with the ability to return home safely.

READ THIS NEXT: 6 Popular Tattoos You Should Never Get, Experts Say.


A line drawing of a cobweb tattoo

Urban legends are full of stories about tattoos that could possibly signify an experience in crime or prison. And while it's important to remember that each person's ink has its own background, specific images commonly have connections to incarceration—including cobwebs.

Spiderwebs can sometimes be used to represent "being caught" in jail, according to The Guardian. In this context, they're often placed over the shoulders or elbows of recipients.


A close up of a semicolon tattoo on a person's hand

It's not uncommon for someone to commemorate a significant personal struggle or triumph by getting a tattoo. One recently popularized image is the use of a simple semicolon. The symbolism comes from the relatively obscure punctuation mark's place in grammar, where it's used in place of a period to allow a sentence to continue rather than end it. Today, those wishing to acknowledge moving forward from a battle with addiction or mental illness use the simple symbol as a reminder that there's still more to come, according to

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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