Some types of trees can live for thousands of years, and reach enormous sizes; in excess of 115m (380ft). Because of their grand structure and the shelter and food they provide, trees have been worshiped in many ancient cultures. Most of these legendary trees are referred to as the “Tree of Life” or the “Sacred Tree”.
The Symbolism of Tree Tattoos
Trees can be linked to all four natural elements. The tree draws sustenance from the soil through its roots and then moves this liquid to different parts of the tree via its bark. By taking in CO2 and releasing O2, trees can be associated with air, and because wood is flammable, they can be associated with fire. Some tattoo designs take note of this link between trees and the four elements, by adding symbols of the elements to the tattoo. Even without symbols of the elements in the tattoo, tree tattoos are a symbol of harmony between the four elements and the cycle of life.
Tree tattoos aren’t just attractive body art; as a symbol, trees have a much deeper meaning. Trees have roots in the ground that allows the trunk to sit above ground while the branches of the tree reach for the sky. This makes trees a link between the underworld, earth and heaven. Tree tattoos are a symbol of the union between masculinity and femininity. Like a breast-feeding woman, trees give of themselves to create sustenance for others. The masculine aspect of a tree tattoo lies in its phallic shape, rigid determination and woody strength.
Trees are a great example of the cycle of life. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in Autumn and the leaves carpet the ground around the tree’s base, protecting the tree’s roots. The leaves slowly rot, creating a rich humus for the tree to draw sustenance from. In this way, a tree consumes much of its own waste in order to fuel its future growth. The process in one of the most economical systems in nature and it stands in direct contrast to the largely wasteful cycle of life that humans exist in. For this reason, and others, trees are often used as a symbol for recycling programs. Tattoos that take the recyclable nature of trees into account are often a reflection of a person’s wish for people to stop consuming natural resources such as trees.
Tree Tattoos Celebrate Life and Tradition
Trees play an important role in every culture around the world. Even the people from areas where there are few trees venerate these woody plants, perhaps even more so because of the scarcity of trees in their region. Modern Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus by decorating a pine or fir tree with colorful baubles, lights and candy.
The history of the Christmas tree isn’t entirely clear. Historians agree that the tradition of decorating a triangular conifer tree began in Germany, but when the custom began is unclear. Some say it started in the 16th century, others claim it was as early as the 8th century. The tradition of decorating a pine or fir tree has remained, and transformed over time. In the past, trees were generally decorated with candles, gingerbread men and apples. Echoes of these early decorations still exist in the fairy lights, candy canes and shiny balls that are used to decorate modern Christmas trees. Conifers such as pines and firs are associated with the forests of the northern hemisphere, the birthplace of many fairy tales and legends. In tattoo design, a conifer tree can symbolize a connection to these forests, whether through hereditary connections or an appreciation for what the forests symbolize; life. Without the green belt of the northern hemisphere to clean the earth’s air, the world would not survive.
Many tree tattoos are inked into the skin with only one color of ink, usually black. In these tattoo designs, the silhouette of the tree is very important. If the tattoo artist doesn’t leave enough room between the smaller twigs and/or leaves, the tattoo will settle over time to become a blurry mess of ink. This is why single color tree tattoos are often stylized rather than realistic, as the tattoo artist has more control over the placement of the ink.
Abstract tree tattoos often represent the Tree of Life, also known as a Sacred Tree. The Tree of Life is a concept that has been used in philosophy and mythology for centuries as a way to describe the inter-connectedness of all things. For example, a tree can shelter and feed an animal. When the animal dies, its body decomposes and feeds the tree in turn, completing the cycle of interdependence.
Popular trees for tattoo designs include cherry blossom trees, oak trees and willow trees. The cherry blossom tree makes a lovely tattoo design, as the artist can accentuate the dark branches of the tree with the bright pink cherry blossom blooms. Cherry blossom trees symbolize spring, new beginnings and the balance between the beauty and harshness of life. Oak trees are a symbol of strength and courage.
Ancient Romans and Celts believed that oak trees attracted lightning and so the tree was associated with Jupiter, the god of lightning and the most powerful of the ancient Roman gods. Willow trees are associated with health and healing because the bark of the willow tree contains aspirin. The willow is also associated with death, tears and mourning. Korean pottery and art from the 19th century depict mourning women bent over a grave with a willow tree beside it. This is possibly the reason why the willow tree is often referred to as a “weeping willow”.