If you’re after a great-looking tattoo with interesting symbolic meaning behind it, or the perfect matching design for you and a loved one, a lock and key tattoo could be the ideal choice for you.
With a customizable design suitable for a range of styles and placements, lock and key tattoos are versatile and can be made truly unique.
Keep reading for a short history of the lock and key use and symbolism, popular design ideas, and other tattoo advice – and don’t forget to check out our awesome gallery for more inspiration!
History of locks and keys
Humanity has depended on locks and keys for protecting housing and possessions for thousands of years. The earliest known examples come from Ancient Egypt, where wooden mechanisms involving the release of a security bolt through controlling the movement of falling pins – a technology some of our locks are still based on – were first used.
Early locks were not hugely effective – they were expensive to obtain and easily broken. The main function they served, in effect, was to indicate whether someone has tried to tamper with your possessions – there’s no clearer sign someone’s been through your stuff than a broken lock!
Later on, when locks were significantly improved during the Roman age, keys became a symbol of wealth. Since only rich individuals were able to afford locks for their storage chests and doors, small metal keys were worn and displayed as a status symbol.
Key and lock shapes and designs
The basic elements of a key are the bit (also known as a blade) – the part inserted into the lock; the bow – the flat, usually round part we hold when turning the key; and the optional stem – the long part connecting the bow to the bit.
As locking mechanisms became more popular and accessible, the designs of keys and locks became more intricate and artful. The Victorian era, in particular, is associated in popular understanding with beautiful, ornate keys involving complex designs that match the appearance of the lock.
Definitely worth a mention is the skeleton key – a type of master key, specially made to open more than one lock. The name ‘skeleton key’ comes from the fact that the key is reduced to its essential parts – in an effort to make it a universal tool.
Since locks and keys have been with us for thousands of years, it’s unsurprising that they often appear in legends and mythologies in a symbolic capacity. In general, a key symbolizes:
- Knowledge and success – keys open doors which are closed to everyone except the one person holding the key. Being the owner of the key allows one to explore areas inaccessible to others, metaphorically giving them access to knowledge denied to everyone else.
- Freedom and liberation – where a lock can be associated with prisons and limitations, a key is correspondingly a symbol of liberation. A key gives you the option to open the lock and release those held within.
- Authority and power – metaphorically, those holding the keys have the power over the lock. Similar to the ideas of keys as symbols of knowledge and success, only the holder of the key has access to areas locked to others.
- Love – in modern symbolism, keys are sometimes associated with romantic notions: think of the phrase ‘the key to my heart’. This notion gave rise to the highly popular heart-shaped lock tattoos, often with a matching tattoo of a key worn by the person’s significant other.
Thanks to their association with knowledge and power, kings and rulers were often depicted in paintings and carvings holding keys. On a more spiritual level, keys appear in religious imagery as symbols of the power to open the doors between this world and the next. One of the most popular examples is that of the crossed gold and silver keys, appearing in the coat of arms of the Catholic pope.
Key and lock tattoo designs
Keys and locks are rather general symbols, which means that there’s plenty of room for creativity when incorporating them into tattoo designs. Some of the most popular ideas include:
- Heart lock and key tattoo – already mentioned above, this design is often used by couples as a matching tattoo. One person gets a tattoo of a heart-shaped lock, and the other of a key – all in a matching style and aesthetics, often involving the same stylized decoration on the lock and the key. The bow of the key can also be heart-shaped. Equally common, though, is a heart lock and key tattoo as a single design on one person.
- Skeleton key tattoo – though ornate skeleton keys don’t look much different than standard keys, it’s your idea that counts. A skeleton key has some dark, Victorian gothic associations and appeal. In tattoo designs, the meaning of skeleton keys is underlined through using a skull-shaped bow.
- Three keys tattoo – symbolically, three keys worn together are supposed to unlock the doors of wealth, health, and love. As a tattoo design, then, three keys are often considered a good luck charm for the important aspects of life.
- 3D key and lock tattoo – keys and locks make for excellent subjects for hyper-realistic tattoos. These are tattoos made to look ‘real’ through intricate shading and perspective. A successful life-sized 3D tattoo of a key, for instance, will look as if there is a real key resting atop your skin.
- Lock and key combined with other elements – floral imagery is the top choice here, with flowers or vines wrapping around the lock and/or key. Locks and keys are also often combined in tattoo designs with other symbols of power and wisdom, such as owls and dragons.
Because they can be scaled down to very small sizes, locks and keys make for tattoos suitable for just about any area of the body. Tiny, minimalistic designs will fit in areas as small as your finger or earlobe, while large, intricate designs will look their best on larger areas, such as your legs, chest, or back. Lock and key designs are also a common feature of sleeve tattoos.
As always when considering getting a tattoo, think about whether you want it to be on display at all times (e.g. a tattoo on your hand) or whether it may be better to have it in a place where it’ll be easy to hide if necessary. Key and lock tattoos can be highly personal, for instance when they’re matching couple tattoos.
Key and lock tattoos are popular for a reason – they’re a great choice for any size or style of tattoo, hold interesting symbolism, and can be imbued with deep personal meaning. To get more ideas and inspiration for your tattoo, take a look through our gallery of popular designs.