Need help with tatto symbolism
August 11, 2007 1:16 AM   Subscribe

SymbolFilter: symbols of the idea 'nothing lasts forever'?

I just got out of my first long term relationship (dated 5 years, engaged for 1) and I have come away with the idea that I shouldn't try so hard to hold on to things because everything in life is fluid and temporary.

I would like to get a new tattoo to help me remember that things and people in life come and go and it is useless to try to hold onto it, but that I should enjoy the moment for what it is. As Lester Burnham says in American Beauty, "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life..."

Please help me think of some symbolism that represents this idea.
posted by ThFullEffect to Religion & Philosophy (54 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've used an omega in the past.
posted by stoneegg21 at 1:30 AM on August 11, 2007

I suppose it's a bit of a cliché, but the Chinese character Tao and the philosophy behind it was the first thing I thought of when I read this. Have a look at the Wikipedia page and see if it strikes a chord.
posted by greycap at 1:36 AM on August 11, 2007

I think that in medieval art, skulls and skeletons often symbolise the transitory nature of life, but are maybe a bit dark for your purposes. But I read somewhere that bubbles are used in some art.
posted by jb at 1:43 AM on August 11, 2007

What's the opposite of the infinity symbol... or an infinity symbol with the circle and bar over it?
posted by IndigoRain at 2:11 AM on August 11, 2007

Maybe the Greek delta? It doesn't represent "nothing lasts forever" per se but it's a symbol of constant change.
posted by junesix at 2:23 AM on August 11, 2007

Get a temporary tattoo.
posted by pracowity at 2:41 AM on August 11, 2007 [20 favorites]

My suggestions are less nothing lasts forever and more this is just temporary. A leaf springs to mind. Regarding any ordeal you could say you turned over a new leaf. Or tie it into other types of plants/flowers/nature. Change is constant sometimes things are bleak other times they are luminous and exciting. Or the rock cycle. Or reincarnation. Or a circle. Or an open spiral.
posted by andendau at 2:41 AM on August 11, 2007

why not the word tattoo in a favourite font... somewhere in the future it may come to represent permanency.
posted by de at 2:52 AM on August 11, 2007

How about an infinity symbol inside a zero or an 'o'? Kinda like everything inside of nothing.
posted by thelongcon at 3:00 AM on August 11, 2007

Simply get the word NOTHING tattooed.
posted by Poolio at 3:33 AM on August 11, 2007

A fallen leaf. Maple is nice.
posted by Anything at 3:53 AM on August 11, 2007

..or a sand castle crumbling by the waves, or a melting snowman from one of those Calvin & Hobbes cartoons.

No, wait, a sunken ship. One of those that were mighty in the 17th century, but are now nibbled by fish.
posted by Anything at 4:04 AM on August 11, 2007

I have a contemporary mandala design tattooed on my chest to remind me that everything is transient and nothing, including the flesh that the image is inscribed on, lasts forever.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:05 AM on August 11, 2007

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert.
posted by futility closet at 4:25 AM on August 11, 2007 [6 favorites]

The Chinese character is used to translate "sunyata," the Buddhist understanding that "that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or 'self'."
posted by Abiezer at 4:30 AM on August 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The symbol for entropy is "S".
posted by oddman at 5:41 AM on August 11, 2007

How a temporary tattoo? It fits the "nothing lasts forever" sentiment.
posted by chrisch at 6:23 AM on August 11, 2007

Good quote TheFullEffect, I love the ending of American Beauty. Well, I once saw a 'broken' infinity symbol, one end of the mobius figure left open (my google fu let me down trying to track it down). Although I found this variation (ignore the godawful text!).
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 6:42 AM on August 11, 2007

Best answer: "This too shall pass" in Hebrew.

Or a portrait of George Harrison.
posted by sourwookie at 6:52 AM on August 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Like stoneegg21, I thought about Omega - Ω - right away. There are a few reasons.
First, the symbol - an incomplete circle with a beginning and an end.
Second, Book of Revelations line "I am Alpha and Omega" is short-hand for beginning and end.
Finally, omega is the symbol for electrical resistance - an idea compatible with the notion that "nothing lasts forever".
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:18 AM on August 11, 2007

Also, for symbols, this site is great.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:26 AM on August 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

More info here.
posted by sourwookie at 7:31 AM on August 11, 2007

Get a tattoo in impermanent ink and watch it fade.
posted by fake at 7:32 AM on August 11, 2007

An ouroborous is usually used to symbolize infinity, but if you think of it as "everything gets swallowed up in the end".
posted by notsnot at 7:38 AM on August 11, 2007

A snowflake.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:41 AM on August 11, 2007

I would pick a nice font, and get the text "nothing lasts forever" put somewhere. It echoes your sentiment exactly, plus you get a joke out of it as well (get it? cause it's a tattoo!).

Also, if you're a Vonnegut fan, the text "so it goes." in a good typewriter-style font would be very cool, and relevant.

Sorry about that, I know you wanted a symbol, but I just have a thing for text tattoos.
If you don't think it's too dark, the Danse Macabre has a similar meaning, and alot of artistic potential.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

i like the mathematical equation for change= constant. don't know how to make the symbols here, but it's the little triangle, equal sign, and k.
posted by Soulbee at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2007

a dodo
posted by grumblebee at 7:51 AM on August 11, 2007

I think that in medieval art, skulls and skeletons often symbolise the transitory nature of life, but are maybe a bit dark for your purposes. But I read somewhere that bubbles are used in some art.

You're thinking of the vanitas paintings. Googling gets you a nice wide range of examples, from the 16th century on up to the present.

For some ideas from Buddhist art — with a more cheerful tone, for what that's worth — check out the Eight Auspicious Symbols. The fish (spontaneity, fearlessness, "going with the flow") and the lotus (detatchment, "rising above the bullshit") would be especially appropriate.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2007

Best answer: A dead rose...
posted by wisdom-seeker at 8:07 AM on August 11, 2007

It's not literally the meaning you want, but after my divorce I got this as my reminder that life doesn't always make sense, and trying to figure everything out is a waste of time and energy. This goes more with your quote, about accepting things as they are.
posted by The Deej at 8:08 AM on August 11, 2007

Since you posted in the religion section, how about a moth?

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal."

What is cool is that, as time goes by, if your heart changes, you can tell people that the moth is a butterfly, which is a symbol of new life.
posted by 4ster at 8:09 AM on August 11, 2007

Best answer: A rose.
It's been around since the 16th century in french poetry (Ronsard 1524-1585). :)
posted by Bio11 at 8:38 AM on August 11, 2007

"Nothing lasts forever" in thermodynamicese, (with props to oddman):

dS/dt ≥ 0

That's not unique, but is probably the most recognizable version.
posted by bonehead at 8:57 AM on August 11, 2007

It's kinda ironic, because you want a permanent reminder of the fact that nothing is permanent. If nothing is parmanent, this reminder doesn't exist. To emphasize this idea:

A henna tattoo, maybe of the words "nothing lasts forever." You'll have to restore/refresh it with more henna every three weeks or so. This way you'll remember.

Or, you could henna a little portion of a ring (like around your ankle) every day or week -- over time, this would make a ring with an effect of fading constantly. If you want a symbol, you could do a circle this way instead.
posted by Eringatang at 9:01 AM on August 11, 2007

My vote is either for lower case delta (which represents a small change in math), or S standing for entropy. Either is simple enough on its own that you ought to be able to stylize up a bit with a snazzy font or something.
posted by vegetableagony at 9:03 AM on August 11, 2007


Does such a thing exist? I mean, not like a temporary tattoo, but an actual needle into the skin with slowly dissolving ink?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:24 AM on August 11, 2007

an infinity symbol inside the international symbol for "not allowed" (the red circle with a diagonal line).
posted by blue_beetle at 9:28 AM on August 11, 2007

"Ozzymandias" is probably the most famous distillation of the idea -

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said - Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose from
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that it's sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymadias king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thus - your tattoo is of a shattered stone pedestal in the sand, engraved
"My name is Ozymadias king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
posted by -harlequin- at 10:29 AM on August 11, 2007

A candle burning at both ends?
posted by casarkos at 10:31 AM on August 11, 2007

I was going to add Ozymandias, but -harlequin- beat me to it. Instead I offer mu, from Joshu's mu.
posted by tommasz at 10:46 AM on August 11, 2007

how about an image you love disintegrating. A good tat artist should be able to make it look good.
posted by bkeene12 at 10:48 AM on August 11, 2007

"Memento mori" or any of the symbols used in that type of art (vanitas)...instruments and sheet music (as the notes will eventually fade from the air), skulls, flowers, extinguished candles or incense, etc.
posted by lhall at 1:16 PM on August 11, 2007

A snowman in hell.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:23 PM on August 11, 2007

you can never have too many skull tattoos.
posted by knowles at 5:00 PM on August 11, 2007

A lit candle.
posted by ads at 5:14 PM on August 11, 2007

Water is a good (and very Taoist) symbol of impermanence. Or try a flower with a petal starting to wilt. The moon in its perpetual waxing and waning is another good one.

I am not Chinese, and I am not fluent in Chinese, but I think Dao/Tao fits this notion better than Kong (suggested by Abiezer) does. Dao is about things changing, and accepting the fluidity of the universe; Kong is about things not-really-being.

Sourwookie, that's way too short to be a Hebrew phrase—three letters, or about one word's worth. Is it an acronym? And what's up with the spacing and proportion?

To me the ouroboros has always meant futility and unfruitfulness.

Here are some literary works from which you could pick a symbol. Then memorize the lines, and when people ask you about your tattoo, you can recite! From the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (trans. Fitzgerald, first edition):
13. Look to the Rose that blows about us—"Lo,
"Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow;
"At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
"Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

38. One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste—
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing—Oh, make haste!

49. 'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

50. The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left, as strikes the Player, goes;
And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all—He knows—HE knows!
From Songs of Experience (William Blake):
The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance,
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly.
If I live,
Or if I die.
Of those, I think the checkerboard is my favorite at the moment.
posted by eritain at 5:16 PM on August 11, 2007

eritain - I would seriously dispute your understanding of sunyata (you can peruse the wiki entry I linked above), and you must recall that although in the West we associate 道 with Daoism, in fact it is a concept shared by and argued over by a number of widely differing philosophical schools. See for example Angus Graham's seminal Disputers of the Tao.
posted by Abiezer at 5:31 PM on August 11, 2007

My recommendation is to avoid getting a tattoo that hasn't any personal/cultural relevance for you... I mean, if you haven't read Vonnegut but get a Vonnegut tattoo, or if you know nothing about Japanese culture but get kanji, or if you aren't a mathematician but get a math symbol. Know what I mean? So take recommendations with a grain of salt.

Personally I'd think of something along the lines of a leaf, a tree with the leaves on one side blossoming and the other side's falling, or a sparrow (I remember a bible verse about god knowing and loving every single sparrow who falls to the ground -- but that might be weird because I'm a nonbeliever.)
posted by loiseau at 6:17 PM on August 11, 2007

The number 9 in a nice font. It all starts over after that.
posted by pointilist at 10:11 PM on August 11, 2007

Fair enough, Abiezer; sunyata is not a term I know, and (from your use of the word 'self') I presumed it was a translation of anatta, when (as far as I understand) anicca is more what we're trying to characterize here. Thanks for the link re Dao; I am certainly no Chinese classicist and am really only acquainted with the Daoist concepts of it (and there are several).
posted by eritain at 12:11 AM on August 12, 2007

I wouldn't pretend to be much of an expert either eritain, but it was something I got taught a bit about by some people who were in the course of learning the modern stuff :)
posted by Abiezer at 2:19 AM on August 12, 2007

Response by poster: I'm going to do a wilting rose. Ill be sure to post a pic/video when i am done so you can see if you want.
posted by ThFullEffect at 4:27 PM on August 12, 2007

Good Choice :o)
posted by wisdom-seeker at 8:02 AM on August 14, 2007

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