top of page

The Language of Tattoos: 130 Symbols and What They Mean

Updated: Jan 5

Book by Oliver Munden & Nick Schonberger

Published by Frances Lincoln

Book Review


This month we’re happy to be reviewing 'The Language of Tattoos, 130 Symbols and what they mean' by Oliver Munden & Nick Schonberger. Getting our hands on a copy of this beautifully illustrated hardback book has been a pleasure and the perfect end of year assignment.


The book explains the history, origins, and meanings of 130 well known symbols common in modern European/North American tattooing. Much loved and replicated symbols are brought to life through the skilfully rendered tattoo illustrations of artist Oliver Munden (Rock Steady Tattoo, Worthing U.K.), and the carefully researched accompanying text by writer/critic Nick Schonberger (whom you may be familiar with via publications ‘TTT: Tattoo’, and ‘The Graphic Art of Tattoo Lettering’).


The thoughtfully made depictions of each symbol are testament to Munden’s almost two decades worth of experience within the tattoo industry, and also working on commercial art projects ranging from murals, to tarot cards. Schonberger’s text explains the associated history, origins, and cultural significance, offering a brilliant insight into tattooing history and lore.


As tempting as it is to skip straight to skimming through the beautiful tattoo illustrations (done in american traditional, fineline, and traditional Japanese style), one of our favourite things that sets this book apart, is the introduction. Essential reading for any aspiring tattoo artist, apprentice, tattoo collector, and even worth a revisit for the most experienced artist - the introduction touches on the cultural appropriation of imagery. The introduction (and wider text) provides an often missed but essential honest insight into appropriation, cultural theft, and historic mis-use of symbols, which unfortunately cannot be separated from modern European/American tattooing. So often, the symbols derive from religion, cultural practice, ancient mythology, the horrors and hardships of military conflict and service, or imagery made for mass consumption for political or commercial purposes. Having a book which shines a light on the global influences behind symbols is a refreshing change in an industry which can sometimes be reluctant to pay mind to those difficult conversations.


The book also highlights the contributions of generations of tattooists who shared tattoo designs via post across cities and countries, and documented them at a time before information sharing was available at the click of a button. It reminded us of tattoo history legend of tattooists omitting certain details or lines from the symbols and designs they shared, as a test of skill for the recipient, or just to make sure their own version remained a better rendering! Variations abound, whether deliberate or accidental.



For Tattooists


As tattooists, the very least we can do is to understand and respect the symbols which due to their continued popularity still serve to pay our bills today. It’s good to view ourselves as custodians of tattoo history and lore, and to be interested and enthusiastic about passing on knowledge and awareness to others.


For those of us who had a tattoo apprenticeship, one of our first tasks was likely the painstaking copying of these symbols from the flash designs held by the studio. Back in the days where tattoo studios were covered with endless brightly coloured flash sheets to pick from, each studio needed corresponding 'linework versions', so that a line stencil could be made if a design was picked. Over the years, ready made linework sheets were sold alongside the colour ones. However the job of making stencils by hand in its most modern form has only relatively recently died out. It's only over the last 10-20 years that stencil machines have become the norm. So for many tattoo artists, the painstaking practice of copying out designs was in retrospect an invaluable part of the introduction to these symbols, and again another way that they took on slight changes and interpretations.


The most simple of symbols contain a wealth of information and learning for the apprentice. Understanding the importance of the amount of black used in a design. What order to apply linework, shading, and colour. Subtle shortcuts or tricks of light, shade and texture. Symbol replication taught us how to colour a rose, carefully observing gradation from black or colour to skin, with no two petals having solid colour bumping up against each other. How to curl a banner nicely around a heart, and the maddening task of equally spacing the letters of a name within. Looking for and recognising simple 's-shapes' upon which the flow of a design depends. Learning (and forgetting again) how many beads appear on a rosary and in what order. Accidentally using

the wrong colours/number of claws etc, as a blunder into the complex rules of Japanese Irezumi. Just some of the lessons hidden within these sym