Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Tattoo Dictionary

tattoo-2Tattoos have been part of human culture since the Neolithic era. The methods used and the quality of tattoos have progressed and changed, but the reasons behind choosing to have a tattoo don’t vary much. You might want to show loyalty to a person or a group, to commemorate something or someone, or simply to look pretty. Trent Aitken-Smith’s The Tattoo Dictionary gives the background to the designs, and stories to fill in the gaps.

Some tattoo groups are designed to scare and intimidate. The straight-edged razor is associated with gangs and violent behaviour as it was often displayed by the men who would come to collect debts owed to the gangs they belonged, a symbol of their toughness. Quite often the razor would be tattooed in conjunction with knuckledusters or switch-blades, to add to the intimidation factor. Tattoos of the Japanese mythical Oni are portraits of demons who carry out torture and punishments in Hell.

But both these symbols have developed a contrasting, less violent meaning as tattoos. In the 1980s the straight-edge razor was taken up by the punk subculture that abstained from drugs, alcohol and tobacco, hence ‘straight’. The Oni was seen by some Buddhist monks to be a kind of protector, giving rise to the belief that after death they would turn into Oni to protect their former temples. Whatever your own personal reason for getting a tattoo, there is nearly always a meaning or a history behind the most common designs. Who knew there was such a specific meaning to getting a tattoo of a knife? Or that the infinity symbol that has become so popular with young girls in recent years actually has a much deeper meaning than they might think?

As someone has spent over £1500 on tattoos and has racked up roughly twenty hours sitting in a number of those chairs, this dictionary was an interesting read. I was surprised to learn that a couple of my tattoos have more to them than the simple aesthetic effect I wanted. The ornate key I have on my leg, for example, is apparently a symbol of unlocking the secrets of life. This was not what I had in mind when I asked a friend to design it for me but hey, there could be a worse history to attach to some of my permanent ink.

tattoo-1This dictionary delivers a surprising amount of information, given how concise the entries are, and with so many full-page designs drawn by Ashley Tyson. These illustrations to entry that may not be known to the reader are eye-opening. I would have had no idea what a jackalope looked like (a mythical beast from a folklore unfamiliar to me) if it wasn’t for the helpful drawing depicting the bizarre mix of rabbit and deer on the opposite page.

The entries cover tattoo designs from many world cultures, including Japanese, Maori, Greek, steampunk, Indian, Celtic, Native American, old school sailor designs and some niche references to classic novels. With each entry you get suggestions for similar types of tattoo classified under different names, reliably cross-referenced with the history or description of the meaning behind the design and its illustration.

The dictionary covers styles of tattooing as well as the designs themselves, because just as there are style and genres of art, there are styles and genres of tattoos as well: traditional, neo-traditional, tribal, dot work, realism, black and grey, cartoon, kawaii, mehndi, and many others.

For such a broad subject this dictionary is informative, easy to read, and covers a wide range of concepts and designs. It’s a must-buy for a tattoo enthusiast and ideal for anyone doing research into their next piece of ink.

Trent Aitken-Smith, The Tattoo Dictionary (Mitchell Beazley, 2016), £15

Holly’s tattoos give her some faint credibility with the kids when she’s doing school teaching practice. 


One comment on “The Tattoo Dictionary

  1. Jackie
    November 15, 2016

    Though I don’t have any, I’ve always liked tattoos & often ask store clerks & the like about theirs if I see them wearing one. This would be a fascinating book & sounds like a reader couldn’t help but learn a lot. I’m going to look for it at my local library.

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2016 by in Guest, Non-fiction: Art, Non-fiction: psychology, Non-fiction: sociology and tagged , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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