Tattoo #1: A Brief Lesson in Semiotics

January 25, 2010

Before you ask:

“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me…he

complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed…I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

–       Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I’m not going to explain why I got four letters that look and sound completely ugly together on my wrist.  I let Mr. Whitman speak for himself.

Let’s get into semiotics for a minute.  Semiotics blows my mind.  It’s so basic and so complex.  It’s the most important concept I learned about in grad school (thanks, Joe Martin!), yet it’s something that we all use subconsciously daily.  It’s the study of how you read the entire world around you – everything from signs and symbols to facial expressions and body language to words themselves. It’s the system of connotations and associations a symbol or word (which is in and of itself an arbitrarily but collectively agreed upon symbol) spools out in the mind of the witness.

Semiotics is the study of communal social meanings which allow us (hopefully) to communicate.  Of course, linguistic denotation and symbolism are not necessarily universally shared, being based on context, culture, and personal experience.

Tattoos are personal in their meaning.  The exact significance behind any given tattoo inked permanently into a person’s skin can never be fully understood by anyone else.

Unless you’re a poser who wants to wear the mantle of tattoo-semiotics, which could be: biker/hardcore/bad-ass/edgy/cool/bold/creative/artistic/trendy/unique/beautiful

Many people will look at my tattoo and see a flower and think: girly/feminine/spring/fresh/new/rebirth/warm/rain/love/beauty/growth

If they are tuned in enough to recognize it as a cherry blossom, the associations get more complex.  Cherry blossom trees mainly grow in Japan, so their semiotic system includes a connection to Japanese culture.  Due to the brief period that they bloom, they are symbols of “the fragility of human existence and also the perfect death, marked by indifference to the world left behind” (The Tattoo Encyclopedia, p. 45). This transience also taps into Buddhist principles, reminding us not to get too attached or emotional about things that will eventually pass. Cherry blossoms are associated with purity, and warriors/samurai, “ever appreciative of the fleeting moment.”

In Chinese culture, cherry blossoms are symbols of feminine power and sexuality.

Cherry blossoms might make Americans think of Washington, DC, where there is a festival each spring to celebrate the blooming of these flowers – gifts from the Japanese to President Taft and his wife (Thanks, Tim!) in 1912 as a symbol of friendship between the two nations.

My references are mostly random interweb reading, this isn’t an exact science.

Why did I choose a cherry blossom?

Because life is short, but beautiful, so don’t waste it.

Yes, you can reverse that: Life is beautiful, but short, so don’t waste it. But my brain aligns more with the first.

As for the semiotics of a tattoo on the wrist: that’s a bold statement in and of itself, no matter what the imagery.  That choice says, “I will never have a corporate, conservative, vanilla job.  I will always lurk around the edges, I will always take the road less traveled.”

And hopefully that will make all the difference.

For information on Daredevil Tattoo, visit their website:

Guy tattooed me, and I intend to go back to him for my next piece, hopefully later this year. Check out his gallery:,com_gallery2/Itemid,26/?g2_itemId=175

Categories: 30x30 | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Tattoo #1: A Brief Lesson in Semiotics

  1. Beth

    love it.

  2. Eddie

    Meg. You are deep. I am awed, bemused, befuddled, and inspired by your thought processes. If I have met anyone more creative than you thay haven’t identified themselves to me. I can wait for the next bit of genius to eminate from you.

  3. Eddie

    I can’t wait. I can’t type either! 🙂

  4. I love it! Especially the cherry blossom as symbol for female power & sexuality. Um, and it’s pretty.

  5. Nadine

    Meggie, as long as you don’t go into the tatoo shop and pick some random crap off the wall, and the piece has a personal meaning for you, i’m game. however, i tend to enjoy my tattoo free body, which to me, (being that most people i know have tattoos) is the most rebelious and significant option i could have chosen. and you know i am a bad-ass rebel 😉

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