The Definitive Ten Symbols
April 15, 2005 1:04 AM   Subscribe

I've got a cool idea for a tattoo, which I may or may not actually get done. But I need your help. More inside.

You know the classic "love / hate" tattoo, like the Blues Brothers had across their knuckles? I was thinking it would be mega cool and uber original to get little symbols, one on each knuckle, that more or less summed up the entire history of human thought and endeavor...

So what I need are the ten most important symbols / icons in human history, and they need to be basic and simple enough to fit on a knuckle, and be easily recognisable.

Here's what I've come up with: 1) Star of David, 2) Christian cross, 3) Muslim crescent, 4) Yin-yang, 5) Dollar sign, 6) five pointed star (not so sure about this one) 7) Hammer and sickle, 8) Swastika, 9) peace sign 10) no ideas...

Any help, comments, ideas, suggestions most welcome.
posted by Meatbomb to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Why the swastika? Whatever the reason, I'd suggest picking a different symbol for the concept you've got in mind — having a swastika on you permanently is not a good idea. If it's fascism you're trying to represent, why not use the fasces itself as the symbol?

More generally, it looks like you're picking symbols for ideologies. When you get right down to it, the Star of David isn't much different from the Yankees logo or the GOP Elephant — it invokes a specific group, not the larger ideal behind it. You might think about symbols for ideas instead: a set of scales for justice, say, or an aleph for writing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:15 AM on April 15, 2005 [1 favorite]


@
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:17 AM on April 15, 2005


(Oh, also — I've never seen anyone include their thumbs in a knuckle tattoo set. The knuckles on your fingers make a nice straightish line, but including your thumbs would break the pattern. You might want to cut the list down to eight.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:17 AM on April 15, 2005


hope: anchor
love: heart
sun symbol maybe?
male female?
@ symbol ;)
posted by mailhans at 1:22 AM on April 15, 2005


Pink hearts
Yellow moons
Orange stars
Green clovers
Blue diamonds
Purple horseshoes
.
.
posted by nightchrome at 1:54 AM on April 15, 2005


?
posted by fixedgear at 3:01 AM on April 15, 2005


This idea could be pretty cool if you had five symbols in different colours interlinked as an armband on each upper arm. Just a thought. At least that way you wouldn't have to walk around with a swastika on your hand (yuk!).

While this is a cool idea, I would encourage you not to have it on your hands. If you discuss the idea with a good, imaginative tattoo artist I'm sure they could come up with a really cool presentation on another part of your arms.
posted by dodgygeezer at 3:13 AM on April 15, 2005


I would have the Buddhist wheel of dharma over the yin yang or peace symbol.

Would you have them in chronological order?
posted by bruceyeah at 3:25 AM on April 15, 2005


The swastika isn't necessarily a bad choice, especially if you don't live in the West. In any case, prepare to be misunderstood (or worse) a lot.

Imho, the following aren't in the same league of "most important symbols in human history" (in order of increasing lameness): dollar sign, hammer and sickle, peace sign.

Imho, tattoos aren't generally a good idea.

posted by Turtle at 3:38 AM on April 15, 2005


How about [!] ?

There are plenty of swastikas you can pick that don't look so Nazi-ish, but I suppose it depends on what you wish to represent.
posted by fire&wings at 3:50 AM on April 15, 2005


Sounds like a good way to show a future employer that you spent several years in prison, tossing the salads of whichever gang won you in the weekly cellblock poker game.

Seriously dude. You asked for advice, here's some advice: Use your fucking head. Life is long, and full of random social interaction. At some point you're going to be sitting on the bus next to some frail old woman who's going to take one look at your Nazi Knuckle and she's not going to ask you what clever statement you're trying to make by having both a Star of David and a swastika tattoo. She's going to freak the fuck out on you. She may even show you her tattoo. You know, the numbered one on her wrist.

I also don't think any Muslim folks you may encounter will take too kindly to seeing the crescent sandwiched between a Star of David and a Crucifix. They can be touchy about that sort of thing. Same with Christians seeing a Holy Cross sharing billing with a Pentagram.

Also, consider travel. Want to take a nice, cheap, holiday in Turkey? No you don't, not with that Star of David on your hand. How about Germany? Can't do it. No swastikas allowed. It's an arrestable offense to even possess one, much less display it.

I know I sound harsh. That's intentional. I don't want you to make a mistake that you'll regret for the rest of your life.
posted by Optamystic at 3:55 AM on April 15, 2005


I'd have to second the suggestion to get this work on your arms, and not your hands.

Any fine line tatto will blur out over time as the ink is slowly pushed up and out by your body. After maybe ten years those nifty designs on your knuckles aren't gonna look so sharp.

Also ink on your arms you can largely cover up. Getting a 'tat on your hands takes the statement to an entirely different level.

I'm heavily tattooed (by law enforcement standards!) but it's all arms with the exception of one on my chest. I work in Investment Banking and it's good to be able to cover them up once in a while.
posted by Mutant at 3:57 AM on April 15, 2005


The ankh is of course the ancient Egyptian symbol of life.

The Hand of Fatima is used by Muslims, but pre-Islam was a magical symbol to ward off evil.

Optamystic: "I don't want you to make a mistake that you'll regret for the rest of your life" -- I thought that's what tattoos were all about! Also, an important issue which ones you choose for the middle finger of each hand.
posted by Turtle at 4:03 AM on April 15, 2005


The triquetra is an ancient Celtic/Nordic/Christian symbol of the essential threeness of all things.
posted by Turtle at 4:09 AM on April 15, 2005


One day I was on the metro when I noticed a man in his late thirties who had a swastika tattooed on his arm. I'm not jewish and I know when I was in Asia I saw plenty of swastikas on buddhist temples, but this was Canada and so I called him out for it in the following manner. At the next metro stop, which happened to be the one where the most people get on during that time of day, I stepped off the metro and let others get on. Then I pointed to the man with the tattoo and bellowed "That man has a swastika tattooed on his arm." as the doors closed and everyone began to turn and look at him. I expect he felt rather uncomfortable, and that everyone in that car took the time to think about what exactly that meant.

If you want to put a symbol that is associated with hate, discrimination, genocide and murder on your hand, then by all means do so. But I can guarantee that people will be calling you out for the rest of your life.

How about a nice e=mc2, or the symbols for the planets, or a radioactive/nuclear symbol instead.
posted by furtive at 4:25 AM on April 15, 2005 [1 favorite]


I expect a lot of the people on that train would have thought you were the annoying one, but hey....
posted by dydecker at 5:00 AM on April 15, 2005


I suggest you dont do it for the following reasons.

1. Tatoos are now a way of conforming.
2. You will never be completly happy with the final list.
3. Tatooing your knuckles will damage you employment prospects.
4. Your aim of Summing up the entire history of human thought and endeavor... is not achieveable.
5. You will most probably regret it.
6. It seems like and attempt to gain the admiration of other like minded people, who would find it mega cool and uber original . However I think that most people will find it (for want of a better word) stupid.


I know I am not answering the question you asked, but I am giving you another perspective.
posted by kenaman at 5:38 AM on April 15, 2005


Since this is about opinions... I'd like to second 'nebulawindphone' and 'Turtle' - perhaps consider some abstract, metaphysical symbols of human thinking. Perhaps if they are less recognizable you could encourage some interested questions/conversations with strangers...

Also, perhaps you could have the tattoos on your wrists. I know a fellow who has them on his wrists and covers them with a watch and bracelet/band when he works in an office. You may never work in an office, but there may be times when you don't want to discuss the symbols...
posted by Slothrop at 5:48 AM on April 15, 2005


Naqoyqatsi covers iconography in great detail, and has several scenes where nothing but logos constantly appear.

Corporate logo montage: BP, Mercedes, IBM, General Electric, Audi, Shell, Dupont, McDonalds, Disney, VW, Pizza Hut, NBC, Ford, Apple, Pfizer, Enron, AT&T, Pepsi

Other montage: Star of David, Christian Cross, Cresent + star, some arabic squiggle, the michaelangelo outstretched man, red communist star, korea sign, Soviet hammer and sickle, atheist symbol? (like a scrawled A in a circle), star in circle, nuclear atom sign (dot with loops around it), swastika, hippie/peace symbol, @ symbol.
posted by wackybrit at 5:54 AM on April 15, 2005


Scrawled A in a circle is the symbol for Anarchy...which I think some atheists would not necessarily agree are related. A more appropriate atheist symbol would be the Darwin fish (Jesus fish with feet).

Also, I would definitely agree that of all the symbols you select you can be sure to get a reaction to the swastika. I think you have to remember that, even though it is an historical symbol, there are many people alive even now who have lost family members to supporters of that symbol. Even though you may be trying to represent the good, and bad, of history, we have not moved past that point in history to look at it in the unattached way you would be asking. In other words, you argument for tattooing may be logical, but emotions are such that a reaction to it will always be guttural. You might actually experience an a small amount of fear as well as anger directed at you. People who react to it will not see any of the other symbols, and will certainly not be willing to accept your explantion as to why it is there.
posted by ebeeb at 6:11 AM on April 15, 2005


some arabic squiggle

Like, a word? In Arabic? I trust you realize they actually have meaning. I know, I know, they look like squiggles. Other languages are funny!

atheist symbol? (like a scrawled A in a circle),

Is that...am I missing the famed British humour in that? A scrawled A in a circle = Atheist? Because, just for the record, when the rest of the Bloc threw me over the fence onto federal property and the Ranger ripped off my arm-band and threw it in my face, the fucking A in a circle did not fucking stand for Atheist.

Meatbomb, I will respectfully note that your question was not, "Should I get a tattoo on my knuckles?" It was about content. And I'm going to have to agree with kenaman, Your aim of Summing up the entire history of human thought and endeavor... is not achievable.

You should try, instead, to sum up your relationship with the entire history of humanity. What is your heritage? Who do you relate to? All of my tats are these bizarre gnostic symbols I thought it would be sweet to get carved into my back after I found Jesus in a cornfield. They are meaningful...but only to me. I'm infinitely glad that I didn't put them on my knuckles.

On preview: ebeeb beat me.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:20 AM on April 15, 2005


Tatoos are now a way of conforming.

Tattoos have always been about conforming in one way or another. From the earliest times they would denote what tribe you belonged to. Later they were forced upon prisoners or slaves so they had to conform if they liked it or not (amusingly enough Roman slaves had "Stop me I'm a run away slave" tattooed on their foreheads). Very often when tattoing wasn't forced upon prisoners, the prisoners would voluntarily tattoo themselves involving all sorts of bizarre symbolism. Very often tradesmen would be tattooed with a symbol representing their trade, including missionaries. Members of royal families were often tattooed because it was traditional for them to be in the navy, and if you're going to be in the navy then it's traditional to be tattooed - how's that for conforming!

Tattooing is less and less about conformity now than it ever was before - designs change radically from one tattooist to the next, and people often get custom designs that weren't even dreamt of twenty years ago. Now that tattooing has penetrated the middle classes the range of people getting tattooed and their reasons for doing so has diversified immensly.

There's an assumption by many around here that people only get tattooed to impress those around them and shock everyone else, but really there are as many reasons for getting tattooed as there are for bungee jumping, getting married or becoming an accountant.

So you know, everytime there's a tattoo thread on AskMe I'd appreciate a little more respect and a little less assuming.
posted by dodgygeezer at 8:13 AM on April 15, 2005 [3 favorites]


It should be noted that left-handed and right-handed swastikas are two different symbols, although most people don't know that.

Perhaps you could get a forehead tattoo to go with it, that says "I'm not a nazi, I'm just trying to be open minded." That way, when people complain about the swastika, you can just point to your head. (Note: a forehead tattoo will mean you will never be employed again as anything other than a mexican wrestler. This may be an acceptable tradeoff for harnessing the entire history of human thought and endeavor.)

Or, even better - a back tattoo with the first few hundred thousand digits of pi, starting with a 3 on the back of your neck and working its way down.
posted by Caviar at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2005


You could get the Om symbol.
posted by chunking express at 9:07 AM on April 15, 2005


How about a double helix?
posted by Soliloquy at 9:12 AM on April 15, 2005


dodgygeezer :

All the reasons from the past, for tattoos you list are valid, however they are less likely to be behind people's getting a tatto nowadays. Like most people I know who have tattoos I assume Meatbomb is neither a member of a tribe, a prisoner/slave, royalty, missionary or a member of the navy.

He is trying to be mega cool and uber original. What he is proposing to do is (more or less summed up the entire history of human thought and endeavor...) pure folly. While some tattoo threads would be well defended by your ,not all tatoos to impress those around them and shock everyone else arguement, this is not one of them.
posted by kenaman at 9:26 AM on April 15, 2005


Trying to answer this question will be a lot more fun if I don't talk about what seems to happen every time there's a body-modification-related discussion here. Instead, here, in no particular order, are eight symbols to consider:

1. a zero
2. a Venn diagram
3. a 'therefore' sign
4. a double colon
5. a cube (or another 2d representation of a 3d object)
6. an infinity symbol
7. pi
8. phi

That said, I feel like I must join the chorus of people saying 'not on your hands' and 'not a swastika.'
posted by box at 9:46 AM on April 15, 2005


How about just a big fat question mark on all digits?
posted by baphomet at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2005


I stepped off the metro and let others get on. Then I pointed to the man with the tattoo and bellowed "That man has a swastika tattooed on his arm." as the doors closed and everyone began to turn and look at him. I expect he felt rather uncomfortable, and that everyone in that car took the time to think about what exactly that meant.

That's a pretty cowardly way of "confronting" someone. Why did you wait to say it instead of asking him when you first saw it?

As far as the tattoos go, I think that in order to encapsulate the entirety of human thought, you'd need to borrow quite a few digits to do it. But for the love of god, do not get a swastika, as others have said.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:04 AM on April 15, 2005


Also, kenaman, you have no idea why this person wants a tattoo, and for you to attempt to generalize their reasons, or mine, or anyone else's, is disingenuous. Tattooing is part of our cultural heritage as humans- it was being practiced not only by our ancestors, and our recent relatives, but even by species ancestral to ours. That means that people have been getting tattooed for tens of thousands of years without the phrase "mega cool and uber original" ever entering into it. Hell, the idea of originality doesn't even belong in the poster's concept of a tattoo, since he's explicitly saying he wants to reuse symbols that have been beaten into human consciousness.

Now, make whatever judements you will over the contents of this person's proposed tattoo, but as far as their reasons are concerned, let people explain for themselves. Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean you have to disparage it. None of my tattoos are about being "mega cool and uber original," you can't even see them unless I show them to you. They're about my preferences, my beliefs, my body, and my style. The only part where you factor into it is in the context of, "...and if you don't like it go fuck yourself."
posted by baphomet at 10:11 AM on April 15, 2005 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine has the golden mean on his upper arm, and it's a good all purpose symbol as symbols go, also fairly inscrutable to most people, bonus points. However, I have to weigh in on the knuckle thing: don't. I am a "heavily tattooed" person myself, and I love mine, would never go back - but nobody has to know I have tattoos unless I feel like exposing them, and that has proved to be a very useful thing in many situations, from job interviews to elderly relatives.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:15 AM on April 15, 2005


Why don't you get it on your toes instead of your fingers?
posted by mokujin at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2005


As an alternative to the swastika, you could use the Basque Cross, or Lauburu. It looks like a swastika but the curves soften it a bit. With the arms bent clockwise, it is a symbol of life, bent counter-clockwise it is a symbol of death (more typically seen in Basque-country graveyards).

Here is a guide to constructing the curves (yin-yang-like, isn't it?), but I also encountered this disturbing discussion.
posted by Araucaria at 11:09 AM on April 15, 2005


Hell yeah, golden mean. Let me second box's suggestion of math symbols. That way you have something that doesn't look like the top row of Wingdings.

You could even write Fermat's Last Theorum across your knuckles. I can think of plenty of jobs where the boss will LIKE your tattoo.

For that matter, you could use other sets of symbols: weather symbols, symbols for months or years or days...check out some pre-existing sets at tattoo parlors -- but for the love of God, nothing Chinese, Japanese, or Celtic.

Especially not a Celtic Swastika.
posted by NickDouglas at 12:33 PM on April 15, 2005


I think this is a very interesting concept for a tattoo. I don't have any suggestions but, would love to see the piece when it is finished.
posted by SuzySmith at 1:23 PM on April 15, 2005


Note: best friend of college got a greek key tattooed around her upper arm. She went to have it removed, and it now looks like a grey, raised greek key. If you go with this, it's likely a one-way trip into tattoodom.

If you're going through with it, I would strongly vote AGAINST any sort of religious or political symbols. Those are traditionally not cool topics for conversation even, so to mark yourself forever is just asking for trouble. If trouble is what you want (for the rest of your life), by all means. Otherwise, I'd go with math, science, astronomy, and other symbols. You could do a stick-figure with a circle and square around it...
posted by lorrer at 1:46 PM on April 15, 2005


baphomet :
kenaman, you have no idea why this person wants a tattoo, and for you to attempt to generalize their reasons, or mine, or anyone else's, is disingenuous.

Hell, the idea of originality doesn't even belong in the poster's concept of a tattoo,

let people explain for themselves.


Quote from Meatbomb's question at the top of this page :

I was thinking it would be mega cool and uber original to get little symbols, one on each knuckle, that more or less summed up the entire history of human thought and endeavor...

I was not speculating as to his motivations, he expressed them fairly explicitly.
posted by kenaman at 2:36 PM on April 15, 2005


All the reasons from the past, for tattoos you list are valid, however they are less likely to be behind people's getting a tatto nowadays. Like most people I know who have tattoos I assume Meatbomb is neither a member of a tribe, a prisoner/slave, royalty, missionary or a member of the navy.

He is trying to be mega cool and uber original.


Even trying to be mega cool and uber original, that in and of itself denotes membership in a group - one that believes that tattoos are a valid expression of their bearer's mega coolness and originality, a tribe by any other name.
posted by juv3nal at 2:43 PM on April 15, 2005


juv3nal

Are you leading me to believe that desired membership of any group validates the acquisition of tattoos? My comment is a valid expression of my opinion that such a group is dumb. Its just another perspective.
posted by kenaman at 3:27 PM on April 15, 2005


I'm not saying anything whatsoever about whether getting a tattoo is a worthwhile endeavor. Just that the notion of tribe has a different meaning in a contemporary, urban context.
posted by juv3nal at 4:57 PM on April 15, 2005


Thanks everyone who posted, lots of good ideas and things to think about here. Just for the record, I don't have any tattoos yet, and the "not on your hands" and "not a swastika" crowd have knocked some sense into me. Plus, the drugs wore off.

I tend to do more thinking than acting anyways, so from now on anytime I announce an intention to do something you can assume I am probably just talking out my ass. But nevertheless there were plenty of interesting links here I wouldn't have found on my own, and I again thank all who posted.

If anyone would like to steal this idea, please limit yourself to 9 (or 7) symbols, so that the 10th (or 8th) digit can accommodate "uber original idea copyright Meatbomb, 2005". ;)
posted by Meatbomb at 8:49 PM on April 15, 2005


Your point was that "Tatoos are now a way of conforming." My point was that they are less about conforming now they ever have been before. I'd also note that your point is particularly ridiculous in this context - unless you see people every day walking around with swastikas and a star of david on their hand I'd say this idea is about as far from conforming as you can get. Even hardcore tattoo nuts would balk at that idea.

You made point number one because that's your knee jerk reaction to all tattoos regardless of what they are - to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

Meatbomb: I'm glad to hear it.
posted by dodgygeezer at 2:17 AM on April 16, 2005


Dodgygeexer the point I was trying to make is that the very idea of non-conformity is now so popular and stripped of meaning that it is in itself almost conformist..certainly something as harmless as getting tattos.

'rebels' of society are really just scouts for the new trends and fads of consumer culture, whether they know it or not. H

Comment on this book from Amazon


Discussed in the blue here.


thanks for the best answer meatbomb.
posted by kenaman at 6:32 AM on April 17, 2005


You know the classic "love / hate" tattoo, like the Blues Brothers had across their knuckles?

For the record, that originated with The Night of the Hunter, long before the Blues Brothers.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:09 AM on April 18, 2005


right: a s k .

left: m e f i
posted by Caviar at 7:13 PM on April 18, 2005


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