ironchef

Superstitions and Tattoos

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Hey Folks,

We all obviously have our personal reasons for getting tattoos. I thought it would be fun and interesting to hear thoughts and experiences regarding getting or not getting a tattoo because of some superstitions, personal beliefs, cultural customs or taboos. Apologies for my very long-winded dialogue below.

My own perspective is a bit of a double-edged sword. I’m American born Chinese, raised in the Lower East Side/Chinatown of NYC. My parents and grandparents are/were Buddhists. My maternal grandmother (Grams), who had a major role in my early upbringing, was a devout practicing Buddhist. I’ve never been religious but was always respectful of the customs and beliefs. It was Grams who naturally started me on the path of some of these beliefs and informed me of some of the more peculiar superstitions that ended up influencing my tattoo choices later on in life.

As most of us know in Asian cultures, tattoos are still a taboo subject and subculture. However I’ve never been one to go with the grain so much but I ended up getting my first tattoo in my early 30’s. My first tattoo was a koi with water and cherries, done in a Japanese motif. I’ve always loved goldfish and koi as a kid and I remembered begging my grandmother to get them for me. Grams would flat out refuse. You see, while goldfish and koi are considered good luck, if they die, the Chinese believed your luck dies with it. Being very conscious of that, I figured a tattoo is permanent and the koi would “live” forever. It just so happened that when I got this first tattoo, it was at the end of the same year Grams had passed away. Part of it was in honor and remembrance of her.

My next tattoo was of a dragon, my Chinese zodiac sign. I received a stern lecture from my mom on this. Even though she accepted this path I was on with getting tattooed, she had indicated it was bad luck to get my own zodiac figure tattooed on myself. It would be in conflict with one’s self. Too late I explained to her and we’d just have to see what the eventual outcome with be in my destiny, hahaha.

Now when I had decided to get my back tattooed, a lot of odd things popped up that I had to consider. First, the literal connotations of getting my back inked, the Chinese would say you are getting stabbed in the back, bad karma. Of course didn’t take too much stock in that and plowed forward. Next, while I am in complete awe of most back pieces and overall tattoos for that matter, I had made a decision not to get any religious or associated figures tattooed on me. No Kannon, Buddha, demons, Monkey King, etc. You get the idea. It is considered bad luck and disrespectful to get a deity tattoo, let alone on your back where you would be “resting on them”. It broke my heart as I adore the powerful and serene image of Kannon riding a dragon and although life is short and one should always try to get what they want, I just couldn’t see myself breaking away from this belief. To the point I was scared I would “anger the gods” and have bad luck for the rest of my days. Hence you’ll notice in my gallery, my tattoos comprise of creatures and florals and will continue with this theme until I’m “done.”

One thing that’s never been spoken of in a negative light is that it is okay to get a mantra or chant or just Buddhist scripture tattooed on yourself. These would act like talismans or amulets to ward off evil or bad luck. I’ve recently been researching Sanskrit and Bonji characters that I will eventually incorporate into my collection.

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Interesting topic, @ironchef!

I don't have too much time to post at the moment, but it brings to mind a few things I've been chewing on for awhile now, mainly: what impact do the images you permanently mark yourself with have on your life/life energy, if any? Robert Ryan had some interesting things to say about this in his interview in the most recent Tattoo Culture Magazine (voodoo symbols and a guy dying soon after the tattoo was finished) (I'm writing this quickly, forgive me for any sloppiness!), and I remember at some point, somewhere (don't remember where!) reading that Horiyoshi 3 was tattooing his son and had not finished either one of the symbols or some of the characters...dammit...I don't remember and now I will be looking for this article to post here. The point is that something wasn't finished, something 'bad' or unlucky happened, and once the characters were finished the imbalance was righted.

Soo...this is a good topic, and I will look for more interesting and specific references before posting again. And I'm definitely looking for the Horiyoshi article, grrr!

Forgive sloppiness and quick posting! Will right THIS imbalance soon enough!

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@beez I've noticed that with most tattoo artists working in the Japanese motif, when tattooing animals and creatures, most won't highlight or fill in the eyes until the piece is nearly completely. We've heard the old saying that, "the eyes are the windows to the soul" and the Chinese take this literally. They believe when you "dot" the eyes or fill in the eyes, the creature should be complete and would come to life as it were. If it wasn't complete and "brought to life" it would bring bad lucky and imbalanced as you've indicated. If you ever been in a Chinese community and witnessed the Lion dances during the Chinese New Year or other special occasions, the event is started by the "dotting of the eyes" of the Lion with incense, thereby waking up the Lion to start the dance that wards off evil.

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Interesting topic, @ironchef!

I don't have too much time to post at the moment, but it brings to mind a few things I've been chewing on for awhile now, mainly: what impact do the images you permanently mark yourself with have on your life/life energy, if any? Robert Ryan had some interesting things to say about this in his interview in the most recent Tattoo Culture Magazine (voodoo symbols and a guy dying soon after the tattoo was finished) (I'm writing this quickly, forgive me for any sloppiness!), and I remember at some point, somewhere (don't remember where!) reading that Horiyoshi 3 was tattooing his son and had not finished either one of the symbols or some of the characters...dammit...I don't remember and now I will be looking for this article to post here. The point is that something wasn't finished, something 'bad' or unlucky happened, and once the characters were finished the imbalance was righted.

Soo...this is a good topic, and I will look for more interesting and specific references before posting again. And I'm definitely looking for the Horiyoshi article, grrr!

Forgive sloppiness and quick posting! Will right THIS imbalance soon enough!

If I'm not mistaken, Beez, the story you're referring to regarding Horiyoshi III and his son's tattoo was from Jill Bonny's book: Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner's Journey into Japanese Tattoo. I can't remember exactly either about the specifics, but I think his wife's eye swelled up like Oiwa and other things happened to Horiyoshi III and his son also.

This is an interesting topic @ironchef, thanks for sharing. My experience was a little dis-similar from yours but I understand your path and appreciate it. Instead of superstitions influencing tattoo choices, being Japanese, I looked to traditional subjects and supposed "rules" to dictate some of what I have. Like maintaining a specific season and the idea that water elements are on the lower body, air elements are for the upper, and specific pairings of creatures. As such I have a koi/peonies on my leg, a phoenix and dragon on my arms, and a soon to be finished image of Oda Nobunaga for a backpiece. The koi/peonies is a quasi memorial to my mom who loved flowers. My dad loves koi ponds. And I grew up watching samurai/yakuza movies with my Dad and Uncle. So my history/heritage influenced me too but in a different way. A bit more generically I suppose. My whole family is a bit gringo-fied so superstition and religion didn't factor in as much. So no superstition, but influenced in other ways pertaining to culture. It's interesting to hear how yours was. I rushed through this so hopefully this all made sense.

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I've heard not filling the eyes in until the end is a way to motivate flaky clients into returning for future appointments.

Hmm, I have no idea. He only mentioned it at the end of my third sitting when everything was done except for the eyes.

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I've heard not filling the eyes in until the end is a way to motivate flaky clients into returning for future appointments.

Not neccesarily just the eyes, but when somoene is getting a backpiece, usually work on filling in the background before the main image, because most people would be willing to walk around with a finished dragon and unfinished background but not vise versa.

I personally like what @reverend1 said better though.

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Interesting topic.

I'd like to examine the issue from a different point of view, namely, not the traditional asian one that has been discussed already.

I'm a young white woman that comes from parents with roots in Nebraska. But I live in California, and this has created me to behave and believe differently than the older generations of my family.

They have their own superstitions, not clearly defined but still there. For example, their views of what is womanly, and what religion allows, have passed down tattoo taboos to me that I am afraid to shake.

The idea that even the act of getting tattooed is somehow wrong is something I cannot shake from my dad's side of the family, who are extremely religious. Then, once I got over that, I had to deal with what they had taught me was appropriate for women to get put on their bodies, if they dared to get tattooed at all.

No woman should get anything too 'manly'. no options left open to me to except pretty flowers, maybe a butterfly, nothing big and would detract away from what a woman was supposed to be and look like. Even then, to them my tattoos would be best if they were covered all the time, unnoticeable and unobtrusive. So that it would seem that I didn't even have them and therefore I would be acceptable to the world. Also, I've been strongly warned by my father that no man wants a woman with alot of tattoos, so I should be prepared. And finally, a woman with too many tattoos looks like a lesbian, so I should be careful.

These 'superstitions' if they could even be called that, (I prefer taboos), have lead me away from alot of things I would consider getting tattooed. Nothing that would offend the tastes of my family, while still remaining myself. It's hard. Even now when they look at my tattoos, they only like the one with my grandmother's name. it's safe, its plain, I can hide it and it "has meaning". Everytime they see my Ganesh tattoo, or my Gatsby tattoo, they tell me how pretty they are, but that I shouldn't have gotten them, that it isnt "meaningful"and that I have too many tattoos. I only have 3.

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I believe that was me @Dan S

@Delicious To the extent of my knowledge i am the only woman in my whole extended family apart from one cousin (who has a tiny trible symbol on her chest) that is tattooed... That includes men.

I started to get the usual grief when i began getting tattooed.. a few colour realism butterflies, a little script that was all seen as acceptable however when i began getting larger tattoos people began to pipe up with their opinions.

are you joining the circus?

are you going to be a pirate?

you are going to look so butch?

what are you going to do when this early midlife crisis is over?

you look like a lesbian!

you WERE such a girly girl and now...

etc etc.

There comes a point in life when you have to make the choice between expressing yourself how YOU choose to because frankly other people might not be around for nearly as long as your tattoos will be. I've always had hella low self confidence but now when i look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of my tattoos i smile. They make ME happy on MY body. Other people will get over it.

Sorry for digressing from the point of the thread.

I have had a length discussion about native american indian tattoos at my local shop today and i've realised i am 'supersticious' enough to feel the need to have my indian girlhead and cheif wearing the correct headdress... that's as far as it goes for me though. Tattoos are things i perceive to be beautiful that i want to wear on my body.. n thats about the size of it :)

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@Delicious I would add that just because people love you and our on your side, doesn't mean they know what is right for you. At some point I think we just have to gain the confidence enough to disagree with our family and understand that their preconceived notions of what society deems appropriate is not going to determine your happiness, only you can do that. And disgreeing with them doesn't mean you love them any less, just that you have become your own person.

Their is that old saying, you live under my house, you follow my rules. Well I have my own house and I say fuck rules.

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@David Flores, I see what you mean. I told my brother I wanted to get Kali Ma tattooed on me, only being half serious. I shouldnt have told him that, because within a day he called my mom and basically ratted me out, told her I was going to get some weird bs (according to him) and that she should talk to me. He hates my Ganesh tattoo so much that even the thought of the Kali tattoo freaked him out enough to ask my mom to intervene. I wasn't even really gonna do it, but then he earned me a long lecture about how many tattoos will be enough for me, and that getting Hindu gods on myself was stupid. I don't know why, but it really hurt my feelings. Like he felt it was his duty to prevent me from getting something Hindu inspired. yet all his tattoo ideas are super shitty and trendy and religious, though he has never really been to church, doesn't read the bible, but somehow my Hindu tattoos are more stupid.

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@David Flores, I see what you mean. I told my brother I wanted to get Kali Ma tattooed on me, only being half serious. I shouldnt have told him that, because within a day he called my mom and basically ratted me out, told her I was going to get some weird bs (according to him) and that she should talk to me. He hates my Ganesh tattoo so much that even the thought of the Kali tattoo freaked him out enough to ask my mom to intervene. I wasn't even really gonna do it, but then he earned me a long lecture about how many tattoos will be enough for me, and that getting Hindu gods on myself was stupid. I don't know why, but it really hurt my feelings. Like he felt it was his duty to prevent me from getting something Hindu inspired. yet all his tattoo ideas are super shitty and trendy and religious, though he has never really been to church, doesn't read the bible, but somehow my Hindu tattoos are more stupid.

What a nosey douchebag! Are you guys both adults? Sounds like a 5 year old tattling on someone in the sandbox.

As for me and superstition, I used to be a Muslim and of course when I converted to Islam my tattoos were all sins. The ones I got before I converted could be excused but any future ones were sins. Also there was a stigma about getting living creatures because there are some super traditional hadith verses about it being an insult to God to draw a living creature because only God can live life. Humans can only make imitations and cannot give life. So after I converted I was very guilty about my tattoos (though I still got them) and would not get living things. Also I would pray everyday for forgiveness for my ink. No offense to the religious here but goddamn the organized religions really have a way of making people think they're s*** bags who need forgiveness. I would wake up every morning and ask God to forgive me for being me. Glad I'm past that and can get tattoos with reckless abandon.

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Some superstitions make me mad because people can do cruel and demented things out of fear. When I was about to get my owl tattoo, I was reading about owls online and I came across this:

"While the Greeks believed that sight of an owl predicted victory for their armies, the Romans saw it as a sign of defeat. They believed that a dream of an owl could be an omen of shipwreck for sailors & of being robbed. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, it was believed that the offending owl should be killed & nailed to the door of the affected house."

So, people would actually kill owls and nail them to their doors... There were others too, people killed owls in the hopes of either warding off bad spirits or gaining magical powers.

So sad. It just made me want the owl tattoo all the more because this is bullshit!

No offense to anyone who has harmless superstitious beliefs. I don't believe in them, but it's just the ones that cause people to live in fear and/or do terrible things really bother me. Less offensive superstitions still bother me a little.

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Interesting topic, @ironchef!

I don't have too much time to post at the moment, but it brings to mind a few things I've been chewing on for awhile now, mainly: what impact do the images you permanently mark yourself with have on your life/life energy, if any? Robert Ryan had some interesting things to say about this in his interview in the most recent Tattoo Culture Magazine (voodoo symbols and a guy dying soon after the tattoo was finished) (I'm writing this quickly, forgive me for any sloppiness!), and I remember at some point, somewhere (don't remember where!) reading that Horiyoshi 3 was tattooing his son and had not finished either one of the symbols or some of the characters...dammit...I don't remember and now I will be looking for this article to post here. The point is that something wasn't finished, something 'bad' or unlucky happened, and once the characters were finished the imbalance was righted.

Soo...this is a good topic, and I will look for more interesting and specific references before posting again. And I'm definitely looking for the Horiyoshi article, grrr!

Forgive sloppiness and quick posting! Will right THIS imbalance soon enough!

Thank you for bringing this up! Reading that Robert Ryan interview in TCM really affirmed some personal superstitions about tattoos for me. I don't like to tattoo symbols of evil, as far as my own comfort zone goes. Simply speaking, a symbol is a distilled image intended to invoke a very specific idea/memory/feeling/desire. Because of this immediate association, symbols are very powerful visual tools. Brand logos are an accessible and modern example of how a symbol can instantaneously trigger a reaction in a person. Alphabets are also a good example. I think the reason why most clients have a hard time understanding this is because it is a very ideologically superstitious practice on my behalf, and also because the idea of a tattooed symbol of evil having real-life repercussions seems magical at best.

If symbol X triggers reaction a, b, or c in nearly anyone who looks at it, and all of which are negative reactions/feelings, I don't want to be the means by which that negativity is brought into the world. That's really all that it comes down to I guess.

(on a side note, I think that there is a huge difference between the power of symbols and the power of illustrations.)

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Saint Christopher is considered the patron saint of travellers. My grandfather had a Saint Christopher medallion which he wore throughout WWII (including getting shot down and parachuting out of a flaming lancaster and evading the gestapo with the help of the Danish underground, but that is another story.). The medallion got passed down to me which I wore instinctively at all times and felt safe or protected by it.

My other grandfather and my parents always had a Saint Christopher statuette on the dash of their vehicles. They all believed that it protected them from the dangers of the road because the one time the statuette was not in the car was the one and only time each of them ended up in severe car accidents.

My first tattoo was of Saint Christopher. May 6, 2003 to be exact. Hours later I am leaving the tattoo shop all bandaged up. A friend of a friend picks us up. 2 blocks from the tattoo shop, some dude runs a stop sign and T-bones the car on the passenger side. Nobody was injured thankfully but the car was a write-off.

To this day I can't settle on whether that post-first-tattoo car accident was either

a) God punishing me for getting the tattoo of a religious icon OR b) Saint Christopher protecting me from serious injury. It still haunts me. But at least I got some fodder for the story of my first tattoo :)

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My family is mainly Greek Orthodox. Though my parents aren't really religious, all the extended family's weddings, christenings and funerals happen in the Orthodox church. Greek superstitions are a mainstay amongst my older relatives.

The first to come to mind is the "evil eye". Basically, there's a theory that someone, intentionally or by accident, can transfer bad luck or a jinx to you just by looking at you. Lots of Greeks carry (usually as jewellery) a blue eye symbol, which is meant to stare back at the giver of the "evil eye" to ward off the bad luck. My grandparents have a heap of these little eye symbols in the form of small paintings and random knick-knacks all over their houses. I've always thought it would make for a kind of cool tattoo.

My other favourite is about bat bones being lucky (but never kill the bat, that's unlucky!). I think a little bat skeleton tattoo would be cool. Same goes for moths - a moth above your door means you'll get visitors, and moths are said to be a kind of protector (depending which village you're from). I can definitely see myself getting a moth tattoo.

I've always wanted a crow tattoo, and I actually feel crows are good luck (we have a lot of them in my city, they're awesome), but most older Greeks I know will do anything to ward them off, and spit/say certain words when they see one for fear of being cursed by it. I just can't shake that old superstition of crows being bad luck, despite the fact I'm a total non-believer.

I also have a tattoo based on Greek mythology. Even though it's not exactly superstition-related, the imagery feels very comforting to me.

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cant be coincidence that this video wont even play!!!

- - - Updated - - -

very interesting thread! I love reading about superstitions with regard to tattoos as well as the traditions. I also love tattoo symbology. it was for this reason I went for 7 butterflies first, stars with my kids initials and changed my idea of getting a masked owl to instead wanting an eared owl- preferably the European eagle owl. I love reading into different cultures and discovering powers behind animals or symbols or flowers etc.

no doubt I will continue downthis path with all future tattoos!

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I think superstition is relevant only when you believe or partly believe. It's intellectually interesting to me to read about (for example) Asian superstition or religion in tattooing terms, but it doesn't worry my reptile brain or cause unease to me... Because I simply don't believe, on any level.

I'm not even really too worried about Christian iconography... Devils even! Maybe reflective of the very a la carte Catholicism of my upbringing.

What worries me would be jinxing myself in the sense of tattooing something that signals hubris, complacency etc. 'Counting my eggs before they hatch' and so on.

To give an example, a lot of Martial artists / soldiers / cops seem to get warrior-themed tattoos or macho tattoos. My mentality is that I try to avoid something like that because on some level I think it almost dares the universe to come along and give you a crushing injury of some sort that puts paid to all that.

The closest I have to a macho tattoo is my shin dagger, probably.

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I know someone with a tattoo of the number of the beast on their head. It seems every time they have something good going for them it seems it all comes crashing down, or ending not so well. I feel similarly with @ironchef's originally stated sentiments regarding religious figures on the back, even though I'm not particular to religion it doesn't jive/feel right to me. I'm apprehensive of written statements, for similar reasons to the "mark of the beast" tattoo, it would feel like a trap for me (aside from the fact I don't think they make for particularly creative tattoos.)

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I don't know if you can call it Superstition and i'm not narrow minded or racist, but I personally like when people stay whitin their own culture.

I'm not Japanese so I don't get a koi, and I'm not from New Zealand so no maori for me.

I just want traditional and that's not a matter of taste, while I like all GOOD Tattoos.

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