The Meaning of Tree Tattoos
Designing Your Own Tree Tattoo
I got my first tattoo when I was 18. It was a little heart on my lower back, and it hurt less than I thought it would. But the pain was less important than the point behind it.
Getting a tattoo is permanent, and while some people like just to grab something that catches their fancy because it’s pretty or scary or popular, others like to do research and spend time figuring out exactly what they want and why they want it. This article is not written for those who want to copy someone else's tattoo, but rather for those who are looking for ideas and inspiration while they design their own unique and thoroughly meaningful tree tattoo design.
Below, you'll find interpretations of what trees mean and some links to resources for images to use to help jump-start your imagination.
If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.— Hal Borland
Religious and Cultural Meaning of Tree Tattoos
As a general rule, trees are thought of as long-lasting and resilient. They survive a long time (from 50 to 5000 years), weathering storms and elements, which makes them a sign of strength and adaptability to many societies. They offer safety to creatures who live in their branches, travelers who rest in their shade, and anyone building their home with lumber. Trees provide apples, pears, and stone fruit and provide medicine to many cultures. These nutritious and medicinal trees have accumulated additional layers of importance and meaning.
Tree worship (aka dendrolatry) is the age-old, multi-cultural practice of worshipping or otherwise mythologizing trees. Some people found certain trees to be sacred, such as the Celts and Greeks who revered oak trees. The Celts honored many trees that were thought to have special powers and also to serve as fairy houses. Druids (and other pagans) met in sacred groves, especially the oak, and the term "druid" may come from the Celtic word for oak. Germans felt that way about lime and linden, Scandinavians about ash, and Lebanese about cedar trees. Buddha reportedly saw Bodhi trees as the symbol of enlightenment; for Hindus, the peepal (or sacred fig or Bodhi tree) is also spiritually and holistically important and is used to treat asthma, jaundice, diabetes, epilepsy, gastric problems, inflammation, and infections. The Hindus also worship the banyan, Ashoka, and sandalwood trees. In the Bible's story of Genesis, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden contained all knowledge of good and evil. In Judaism, in the Kabbalah, the tree of life represents a sacred geometry represented as a diagram of ten points.
Today, a form of tree-worship can be seen in the Christmas tree, which many people (Christian and not) bring into their homes during the holiday season and decorate with ornaments and lights. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil.
In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful.— Alice Walker
Tree of Life Tattoos
The mythology of the tree of life can be found in various religions, philosophies, histories, and cultures, and while its meaning and design varies, the general thought behind it is the same. This tree (also known as the sacred tree, the tree of knowledge, the tree of immortality, the world tree, or the cosmic tree) alludes to the interconnectedness of living things and serves as a metaphor for the idea that we all come from the same life source.
The tree of life symbolizes immortality and eternity, knowledge and wisdom, strength and protection, abundance and growth, forgiveness and salvation. In many tattoos, the tree of life is drawn with its roots and branches intertwined in a circle.
Cherry Blossom Tree Tattoos
In Asian cultures, cherry blossoms are thought to symbolize feminine beauty. Because of this, and because it’s easier to have a simple cherry blossom bough instead of a whole tree, they are popular choices for women.
It’s good to know, though, that to the Chinese, the cherry blossom tree is more about femininity and grace, while the Japanese see it as not just a symbol of womanhood but also as a symbol of life, as the tree itself displays its annual evolutions in a very showy way and in the spring, the blooms only last a few spectacular weeks.
The Meaning of Leaves, Roots, Branches, or Flowers in Tree Tattoos
There is meaning in a barren or leafless tree, just as there is meaning in a tree with leaves, flowers, or roots.
- Roots: Symbolic signs of a connection to the past, roots can also represent the deep, complicated, and invisible ways the tree supports itself and finds nourishment. Roots can indicate that the tattooed person is connected to their past, their ancestors, or their family. Roots can also show that the person with the tattoo feels well-grounded and strong.
- Leaves: On the other hand, leaves can have very different meanings. To some, leaves stand for growth and rebirth because the tree gets new leaves every year. To others, though, the leaves stand for impermanence and things that fade, the cyclic shedding of the old to make way for the new. The size and color of the leaf matters, too. Fresh young leaves are most often used to show new growth while full-size mature leaves may represent an accumulation of years. Using fall colors can also reflect maturity or growth. Decaying leaves are the most negative of the leaves as they show death or dying.
- Flowers: Often represent literal and figurative blossoming, particularly when referring to a woman, and often represent a sexual awakening. The blossoming of a flower is an apt symbol for the blooming of a girl into womanhood. Flowers also signify innocence, virginity, tranquility, and springtime (or youth) in general. Flowers are visual reminders of nature's bounty (as flowers are the first evolution of fruit), beauty, and also life's transient nature (which is why you see them at funerals).
- Bare branches: Like the unadorned arms of the tree, bare branches reach out and upward toward the unknown. On a family tree, the branches represent individuals. There's something rather vulnerable and eerie about bare branches, which invoke the cold and darkness of winter. To extend an olive branch represents an attempt at repairing a broken relationship and a desire for peace.
Many people use the tree to symbolize the stages, cycles, and seasons of life; with this in mind, a tree with buds might represent youth, one with flowers might represent adolescence or sexual awakening, one with fruit could symbolize maturity or fecundity, and bare branches may represent old age.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.— Anais Nin
A wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away, and the trees stand. I think, I too, have known autumn too long.— e. e. cummings
Tree Tattoos: Yay! or Nay!
Would you ever consider getting a tree tattoo?
Types of Trees and Their Meanings
Depending on the culture, there are multiple interpretations for the meanings of different types of trees. However, here are some basic thoughts to keep in mind for tree tattoos.
- Apple trees: Apples appear in many religious traditions, often as a mystical or forbidden fruit. They can be dual-natured: They represent evil and temptation due to the Biblical use of the apple tree in the fall of Adam of Eve, but they also represent knowledge and learning.
- Ash trees: Ash trees can be huge in diameter and towering in height, some over 200 feet tall. You can imagine the root system required to support this kind of growth. Its heft, size, and deep and complicated root system can all work as metaphors: The ash speaks of growth, expansion, and higher perspective. Ash trees also often have spiritual significance and are used as offerings to the god(s) or as symbols of spiritual awareness or enlightenment.
- Aspen trees: In literature, lore, and legend, you'll find many mentions of quivering aspen leaves. Anyone who's familiar with this tree has seen it dance in the wind. Druids went to aspen groves to watch nature dance and used aspens as auguries. Aspens symbolize a positive end of something (conquering fear or doubt, overcoming hardship), but can also represent mourning or lamentation.
- Bay trees: Bay Laurel was believed to aid in communication with the spirits of prophecy and poetry. Bay trees surrounded the temple of Apollo to cleanse souls before they entered. Bay is thought to bring awareness of past lives and buried memories and stimulate psychic awareness. It's a very positive tree that symbolizes glory and honor or rewards.
- Beech trees: A sturdy and impressive tree with smooth, grey bark, a short trunk, and wide-spreading branches, the beech is often seen as a representation of lost wisdom and the knowledge and teachings of ancestors or the past. The beech may be a sign of prosperity, knowledge, or patience.
- Birch trees: Another positive tree with many medicinal properties, they are often used for new beginnings, rebirth, renewal, and cleansing. With its characteristic white bark, the birch was used for protection: on Midsummer's Eve, boughs were hung over doors to ward off bad luck, and on Mayday, birches were decorated with rags to ward off evil. The traditional witch's broom was made of birch twig.
- Cedar trees: The cedar tree has been revered by many for thousands of years, its wood used to make doors for sacred structures and burned in cleansing rituals of purification. The tree was thought to house gods and serve as a passageway to higher realms. Think of your cedar closet—these trees are about protection and incorruptibility.
- Cypress trees: The Egyptians used cypress to protect mummies, and the Greeks and Romans used it to make coffins or urns to bury the dead and also buried branches of cypress with their dead. Muslims and Christians both planted cypress in cemeteries to ward off evil spirits. While the aspect of protection is positive, the cypress also represents mourning, death, and sorrow.
- Dogwood trees: Prized for its delicate flowers and scent and known for its hard wood, the dogwood makes an interesting choice for a tattoo because it is said to represent indifference and apathy.
- Elm trees: These show commitment and dignity.
- Fig trees: A fig leaf is often used to convey the figurative covering-up of something that is embarrassing or distasteful, probably stemming from the Bible story in which Adam and Eve used fig leaves to hide their nudity after eating from the tree of knowledge. Many paintings and statues use fig leaves to cover the genitals of their subjects. Thus, fig trees, which are known for their longevity and overabundance, can represent fecundity or an attempt to hide it, but they also might represent a lack of shame.
- Hawthorn trees: Another of the positive tree symbols, these are about contentment, happiness, and hope for the future.
- Hazel trees: Often thought of as feminine and natural, they can represent wisdom or concealment.
- Holly trees: Because of the religious overtones, they are used to symbolize faithfulness, protection, and spirituality.
- Joshua trees: Another tree with biblical and religious overtones, they are used to show praise, worship, and strong will.
- Laurel trees: While mostly a positive tree that symbolizes tenacity, victory, and heroism, it can also be seen as a symbol of deception.
- Linden trees: Closely connected to marriage, these trees symbolize monogamy and love.
- Maple trees: Used to symbolize balance, harmony, and duty.
- Oak trees: Celts honored oak trees as holy things and believed they could access different psychic realms by "opening the oak door." Oak represents durability, strength, endurance, liberty, and bravery.
- Poplar trees: A tree that may be seen as negative, it is often associated with death, burial, and mourning.
- Walnut trees: According to Native Americans, walnut trees are symbols of clarity and focus.
- White pine trees: Native Americans believe that these trees symbolize serenity.
- Willow trees: Freedom, healing, and love lost. They also take on more mystical meanings and can be seen as symbols of magic, inner vision, and dreams.
- Yew trees: To some, these are positive, showing signs of resurrection and rebirth, but they also have a negative side of sadness and piety.
Alternative Meanings of Tree Tattoos
Not all tree tattoos have to have meanings. Or, sometimes, they might have a meaning that you don’t believe or ascribe to. Remember, it’s your tattoo, and, therefore, means whatever you want it to mean. It’s good to know what others might think when they see it, but it all boils down to how you want to decorate your body, and what your tattoo represents to you, individually.
Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.— Winston Churchill
Where to Put Your Tree Tattoo (Placement and Pain)
Just like the meaning of your tattoo might be different for you than for everyone else, where to place it is also a very personal decision. Of course, size matters! If you want a large piece, your back may be just the place. But be careful—remember that any spot that is usually covered by clothing or is close to a bone (such as a shoulder) will often be more sensitive than other spots. Other painful spots are spines, hips, ankles, and feet. Women often choose to put tattoos on their breasts—and men on their upper arm—simply because those are considered the “least painful” spots, but don’t let the fear of pain or the pain itself determine your decision. Take a look at the tree you love and figure out for yourself where you will most enjoy seeing it or showing it off for others.
Where would you put your tree tattoo?
The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.— Moliere
Where to Find Images
If flash is your thing, you can go to almost any tattoo studio and check out their walls and books of flash. If you prefer to go prepared, there are also flash websites online. A few good ones include Tattoo Johnny, Free Tattoo Designs, and Pinterest Tree Tattoo Designs.
You can also have an artist create a unique design. Some tattoo artists do original creations, so call and ask your local shop. Another option is to contract with an artist. Even Etsy includes listings of artists who have created tree tattoo flash or are willing to do custom work.
A Video of Different Tree Tattoo Designs
What About You?
If you get or count your tree tattoo, how many tattoos will you have?
Watch a Man Get a Tree Tattoo on His Back! (In Fast-Forward)
Questions & Answers
I want to get a tree tattoo to symbolize my son's death, what would you suggest?
Without knowing what you want it to symbolize, I personally would suggest something to celebrate his life. Get a tree that shows the life he had, with strong roots. Depending on his age, you may want to add leaves to show that - for examples, if he was 15, then get 15 leaves. (The leaves used as age markers don't work well if he was older when he died.) You can have flowers on the ground around the tree to show that he's left. Think of what would remind you of him most. Look at what type of tree you think of him as - strong? Flexible? For example, if you want to show that he was flexible, you might choose a palm tree, perhaps with his initials "carved" in it.Helpful 23
I want to get a tree of life tattoo with two birds to represent my deceased mother and sister, should I include leaves?
The use of leaves is up to you - what meaning do you draw for them? Leaves can mean that you're seeing this as a circle of life - that dying is simply a shift to a new form of being. Do you believe in reincarnation? You might try some fresh leaves to show that you believe they have moved into another form. You could include decaying leaves, as they are meant to show death or dying, but I prefer to use more positive imagery, even if it is meant to be about death. You are trying to keep their memories alive. Ask yourself what the leaves would symbolize to you - it doesn't have to follow the traditional beliefs. This is a very personal thing, so consider what you believe.Helpful 16
I am 51 and have four kids: a 28 year old son from my first marriage, 18 and 19 year old daughters from my second marriage, and a 10 year old from a relationship. I have great relationships with all of them. I want to make a tree tattoo that represents my life with them. Any ideas on what tree I could use?
My immediate thoughts would be to focus on the leaves and the roots. Having a lot of roots shows family connections. You'll also want to look at leaves. Personally, I would include a leaf for each child. You may even want to leave room to include grandchildren that may come later. Two trees that I would suggest are cedar trees, as they show protection and incorruptibility, and hawthorn trees, which focus on contentment, happiness, and hope for the future.Helpful 9
What about Pine or Spruce trees?
Pine trees are well known as fertility symbols, but they also can symbolize wisdom and longevity. Like a spruce tree, the pine also symbolizes peace. When it comes to spruce or other coniferous trees, the symbolism attached is protection or luck. Both are good to symbolize family or relationships that are successful or that you want to protect, such as children or parents.Helpful 2
What would a bare tree with watercolor flames tattoo symbolize? It's what I want in memory of my sister, but I'm curious if it would have a meaning already.
Your connection to it is the most important one, but I can understand wanting to know what others might interpret it to mean. Bare branches tend to stand in for old age or even death. Flames, especially colorful ones, may invoke thoughts of rebirth, connected phoenixes rising from the ashes. Flames also represent cleansing or cleaning. No matter what the expected symbolism is, your personal meaning is more meaningful than all the others.Helpful 1
© 2012 Katherine Sanger