Got my first tattoo at 18, then waited 32 years to get another. Meanwhile, I'm the editor of TatRing, a body art website.
What Does an Arrow Tattoo Mean?
Arrows are very old and familiar objects, probably recognizable by anyone who can talk. They've been around since before recorded history, after all, and were invented long before the wheel. Although Neanderthals probably didn't use arrows, early humans did, and that might explain what happened to the Neanderthals.
If we found someone who didn't know what an arrow was, how would we explain it? It's like a little spear you shoot into the air—a long bullet made of wood, stone, and feathers. But it's more than that. It is a bespoken sculpture, an elegant geometric tool, as beautiful as it is useful as it is deadly.
Early bows and arrows offer some insight into the origins of human intellect. The fact that they were invented more than 71,000 years ago is evidence that we humans began to think and act like modern people early in our evolution: understanding materials, observing physics, inventing and using new technologies, conniving smarter ways to prevail and endure.
One trick of human intelligence is converting ideas to symbols. We like to translate big ideas into simple marks that represent those things, like how a musical note illustrates a particular sound and the action a musician must perform to make it. Thus, the weapon-arrow has morphed into the graphic design you see on street signs. Most keyboards offer an array of style options: ➡ ➸ ➮ ⌦ ⟿ ⭄ ⭆ ⇟ ⇪ ⤿ ⥁.
The arrow tattoo represents all this—history, utility, beauty, intellect—and more.
What Do Arrows (as in Weaponry) Represent?
What the arrow means depends, of course, on how it's depicted. Below, you'll find interpretations for many different arrow tattoo designs.
Arrow on a Bow: A nocked arrow being pulled back on a bowstring might represent potent readiness, a high point of tension, or intense focus or aim. If it was just released from the bow, it marks the end of waiting and stillness, a sudden transition to motion and forward momentum. An arrow can only shoot forward after it has been drawn back on the bow, so it could also represent the momentary setback before a blast of activity. A nocked arrow might also represent the zodiac sign of Sagittarius. A bow on your bow arm is a perpetual within-reach weapon or means of defense.
Arrowhead: The arrow's tip is, obviously, its business end, the deadliest part. It's also the part that will last the longest.
Arrow-Stabbed Heart: Obviously, the bloody, painful, violent end of love might be evoked by this symbol, but it might also represent Cupid's arrow since Cupid was the Roman god of erotic love and desire (aka Eros in Greek mythology), and anyone stuck by his arrow fell immediately in love. A tattoo depicting any body part being pierced by an arrow could show that the wearer is in love.
Broken Arrow: A snapped shaft might represent pacifism or peace. If a marksman breaks an arrow intentionally, it might signify the end of the battle or a resolution to stop fighting. It could also mean impotence or thwarted desire. Someone might get this design to show they are breaking away from old patterns and starting anew.
Bundle or Quiver of Arrows: This might mean you're armed and ready for any battle. This arsenal might be inked in an easily-accessed spot (on the arm, leg, or back). Five arrows was the symbol for the five nations of the Iroquois League and represented strength, unity, and shared goals.
Compass Arrow: An arrow bisecting one of the compass’ points might represent a definite plan, plot, scheme, or a brave new direction. The addition of the compass turns the arrow into a guided missile, one that can travel a long distance and still hit its mark.
Crossed Arrows: When the arrows cross to form an X, this is traditionally a sign of friendship or truce. Many friends get matching tattoos with this design.
Diamond-Headed Arrow: Since diamond is one of the hardest materials, an arrowhead made of diamond might represent invincibility.
Feather-Arrow: Feathers and arrows seem to go together, both aesthetically and symbolically. They are both straight, fine-pointed things that convey delicate precision. Feathers are traditionally used as fletching to guide arrows and make them fly more accurately. Literally, the feather guides the arrow, and symbolically, a bird might act as a spiritual guide.
Pen-Arrow: Another pair of symbols that go well together, and can cut equally deeply. This symbol combines physical and verbal threats—the pen's marks on the page are mental, while the arrow's are physical.
Single Arrow: All it takes is one well-aimed arrow, after all. The lone arrow might represent self-defense or protection from harm, independence, power, purpose, direction, or aim. It might also be a phallic symbol.
Two Hands Pierced by the Same Arrow: Blood brothers (or sisters), comrades-in-arms, two people who have faced the same battles or threats; they are bound by a violent past or share the same wounds.
If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it: Every arrow that flies feels the pull of the earth.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Arrow Icon
The arrow is probably the most universally-recognized symbol of all. No matter which airport you land at, anywhere in the world, you'll find arrows to guide you to where you need to go.
Graphic symbols use pictures to represent actions, objects, or ideas abstractly. Think of how gender is conveyed on a bathroom sign, or how you know which button to use to turn down the brightness of your screen. Think of how many different things a simple arrow can express on an elevator button, a street sign, or a map.
As discussed, these signs evolved from early weapons. Although they look tamer than their ancestors, graphic arrows have accumulated even more heavily nuanced meanings. In other words, even if the arrow pointed at you isn't the kind that can hurt you, you still need to pay attention. With just two lines or a couple pixels, they indicate something important. What is the the arrow icon telling you?
What Does a Graphic Arrow Mean?
- It helps you find your way. It's like a manicule or pointed finger telling you where to go. Compasses and maps have arrows to help you find north. Two lines (< or >) can tell you to go left, right, up, or down. The back button takes you one step back.
- It tells you how to go. An arrow can tell you to merge, loop, go upstairs, turn clockwise. In other words, it gives physical clues for how to accomplish goals.
- It's an invitation to play. The play button, an arrow without a tail ▶️ tells your device to start or continue playing a game, song, or movie.
- It allows you to control and navigate virtual space. Gamers know what those arrows mean.
- It indicates who's speaking or to whom we should listen. A speech bubble's tail is like an arrow indicating who's speaking.
- Other things an arrow says: Get to the point. Go straight there. Pay attention to this. Here's the spot. Here's the next step.
- Ideas conveyed by arrows: Direction. Motive. Movement. Play. Control. Purpose. Stop. Go. Intent. Penetration. Precision. Flow. Direction through time.
A tattoo of a graphic arrow might also convey all of these things.
In user experience design, the arrow can play multiple roles, depending on the circumstances, and it has a variety of meanings. It can focus our attention on a specific point, demonstrate action, indicate flow, and connect objects and information.
— Jonathan Follett, Beautiful Information
Which Direction Is the Arrow Pointing?
For the tattoo's design, it matters very much where the arrow is pointing. Here is what various orientations might mean.
Downward: In Native Indian culture, an arrow pointing at the ground represents peace. It draws the eyes down to the ground, indicating that there's something important below. This might signify being grounded or point to something buried. A tattoo of an arrow pointing down one's arm toward the hand might indicate a flow of energy out into the world (like an arrow being shot by the arm).
Upward: If it's pointing to the sky, it might be a reminder to look up and consider the bigger picture, an omniscient perspective, or a bird's eye view. You might shoot an arrow into the sky to send a message or a warning.
Horizontal: This might signify the horizon itself, or distance. There's an implied threat to anyone the arrow points at, so it could also indicate protection or defense.
Two arrows pointing in opposite directions: This often represents war or conflict, having to face two directions at once in an alert and vigilant defense. It might mean that someone is battling someone or something in their lives.
Two-headed arrow: Like a sign placed in an intersection telling you to yield the right-of-way or stop progressing forward and turn right or left, this might indicate a crossroads or a decision to be made. The amphisbaena (from the Greek words amphis, meaning "both ways," and bainein, "to go,") is a mythological serpent with a head at each end. It might show someone being torn in two directions.
Circular: It might indicate time (moving forward clockwise or counterclockwise), evolution, or returning back from where you came. Ouroborus, a snake swallowing its own tail, as a symbol of wholeness and infinity.
It concerns us to know the purposes we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we want.
Is the Arrow Stuck or Moving?
Another thing to consider with the design is whether or not the arrow is stuck or moving: is it waiting to be used, is it flying through the air, or has it already hit its mark? A skillful artist can devise clever ways to indicate movement in ink by drawing sequential shadows, lines of action, motion blur, speed lines, dots, and (of course) arrows!
The Arrow in Lakota Tradition
According to writer and craftsman Joseph Marshall, author of The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow, in his family's tradition, the story went like this:
"The moon gave us the bow and we had to wait until that cycle of the month when that new moon was just a sliver in the sky and then she said, there's the bow. And, because the moon is a woman, she gave us the bow and, if you do look at that thinnest sliver of a new moon, you'll see that it's thinnest on the ends [...]. And that is the configuration of the Lakota bow and, interestingly enough, that design, that configuration—that can withstand the drawing of that piece of wood time and time again. It's a unique engineering marvel, if you will. And then it was my grandfather who said that the arrows came from the sun and he pointed out through a grove of trees late in the day and you can see the sun's rays were very, very straight. And he said, those are the arrows and your arrows have to be as straight as the arrows of the sun. So, the sun being a male, the arrows are male and, of course, the moon being a woman, the bow is female, so in that sense, they fulfill that balance that we see in life."
Symbols and Designs That Go Well With Arrows
Bow or String
Monster or Animal to be Slain
Even as the archer loves the arrow that flies, so too he loves the bow that remains constant in his hands.
— Nigerian Proverb
© 2017 Joanna Fonté
JR on November 26, 2019:
What does 2 arrows running parallel and the same direction mean?
Bjlowe99 on May 09, 2018:
i love the eighth one or the fourth to last one