Trees have been a consistently popular subject in just about all forms of artistic expression. In tattoo art, they appear in an astonishing variety of designs and styles. But what does a tree tattoo mean?
As you’ve probably already guessed, there’s no simple answer to this question. Trees are an inextricable part of life on this planet and naturally, they feature heavily in our mythologies, stories, and spiritual beliefs. Below, you’ll find an overview of the significance of trees and the meaning of tree tattoos, as well as a huge gallery of awesome-looking tree tattoo designs.
Trees in Norse mythology
The Norse believed that an immense tree, known as the World Tree or Yggdrasill, grows at the center of the cosmos, supporting and connecting all realms in the universe. The roots of Yggdrasill were believed to extend into the underworld (Niflheim), the land of the giants (Jötunheim), and the home of the gods (Asgard). The tree nourished animals, humans, and gods alike, and connected all phases of existence and all living things. According to most sources, Yggdrasill was an ash tree.
Norse mythology is not unique in the belief in a tree supporting the structure of the universe. Among others, Eastern European, Greek, and Indian folklore and mythologies all involve the concept of the world tree. Interestingly, in the mythology of early India, the position of the world tree is reversed – the roots are in the sky, and the branches grow downwards toward the earth.
Known as vörðr (which literally means ‘warden’ or ‘caretaker’), warden trees also come from Norse mythology and culture. Vörðr were very old trees growing on a farm or another piece of land inhabited by humans, believed to defend the land from bad luck. Warden trees were treated with great respect and damaging them in any way was considered a very serious offense.
The Norse also believed that spirits lived under the roots of the warden tree, and often performed rituals and provided offerings to appease the spirits and receive protection from disease or bad luck.
Trees in Persian and Slavic mythology
Both the Persians and the Slavs believed in a tree of life that provided the seeds for all of the world’s plants. The Persian Empire was centered around modern-day Iran, while the Slavs were a collection of Indo-European tribes and nations.
The tree of life was guarded by an invisible dragon known as Simarghu (Persian) or Simorg (Slavs). Because no one knew which of the world’s trees was the tree of life, Slavs performed special rituals before cutting down any tree. Persians erred on the side of caution and didn’t cut down any trees at all, waiting for them to fall naturally instead.
Trees in religion and spirituality
Most modern-day religions have some form of tree-related beliefs and legends. One example is Buddhism, where the tree is a symbol of wisdom, liked to stories about the life of Buddha. According to legend, Buddha achieved spiritual enlightenment while sitting under a kind of fig tree (bodhi tree specifically).
In Christianity, the most important trees in the Bible are those of the Garden of Eden, told in the book of Genesis. After breaking their oath to god and eating a fruit from the Tree of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were denied the fruit from the Tree of Life – which would have made them immortal.
When European missionaries introduced the Christian religion to the Native Americans, a myth emerged about a talking tree that wandered the world to spread the news about the new faith.
Trees in popular culture and storytelling
In popular culture, forests and jungles tend to evoke notions of mystery, other-worldliness, and sometimes even danger. Wild, dark, wooded areas can appear as both reserves of nature and peace and the home of strange and dangerous things.
The fantasy genre, in particular, makes frequent use of trees and forests. Think of the Ents in Lord of the Rings (the talking trees) or the Forbidden Forest or Whomping Willow in Harry Potter. In storytelling, the forest is often the setting where strange and mysterious things happen and the dwelling of otherworldly creatures such as elves, dryads, or wraiths.
Tree tattoo designs and meanings
Because of their complex nature in our culture, trees have many meanings associated with them in tattoo art. In general, trees are associated with strength, stability, and longevity. In particular, oak tree tattoos refer to the generic meaning of a strong character and long life.
The specific meaning of your tree tattoo will depend on what you want to express, as well as on the design itself. Consider the following ideas:
- World tree – we’ve looked at the idea of the world tree – a tree holding up and connecting the universe – above. If the tree in a tattoo is designed in a way that implies it to be a world tree (for instance, showing different realms or the cosmos surrounding the tree), it can express a feeling of unity and connection to all living beings. In addition, peace, stability, and a feeling of personal connection to the natural world are all ideas associated with world tree tattoos.
- Family tree – thanks to the concept of drawing a family ‘tree’ – a chart detailing all members of your family and the relationships between them – a tree can symbolize the importance of family and a feeling of close familial ties. A family tree tattoo can be metaphorical – a regular tree that you believe represents your family values, or literal – a tree with the names of your closest family members arranged by generation and relationship. Familial ties can also be expressed in a tree tattoo through including the DNA symbol as part of the tree’s trunk.
- Cherry blossom tree – these gorgeous trees represent ideas of both the beauty of life and its fragile nature. The small, pink flowers of cherry blossom appear only for a short amount of time and are very delicate. In Japanese culture, the cherry blossom is also associated with the values of empathy towards all things and awareness of the transient nature of existence. Notions of acceptance of destiny and mortality are also connected to this tree.
- Forest – an interesting option is a design that involves the outline of a forest. This can symbolize a close connection to nature and the environment or, in a more metaphorical and cultural sense, an area of mystery or a fantasy land of magic and other-worldliness. It can also mean courage in the face of the unknown or an affinity for travel and exploration.
- Warden tree – in reference to the concept of trees as symbols of protection, tree tattoos can also be understood as good luck charms, meant to protect from ill health and misfortune. Birch trees, in particular, are associated with protection from evil spirits and are believed to have the power to purify. This is a belief likely to have originated in the Celtic culture, in which trees were an important and sacred element and each species had its own significance. Trees are also sometimes seen as symbols of longevity – oak and yew trees in particular.
Popular design options
When designing a tree tattoo, the possibilities are virtually endless. For some inspiration, consider the following design ideas:
- All-black tree tattoo – a popular choice particularly in recent years, these types of tattoos usually involve an all-black outline of a tree, with or without roots shown. Pines and firs (needle trees) are a good choice, as are trees with no leaves. These designs often have a Gothic feel to them, and it’s common to combine the tree with birds – usually crows or ravens, as they’re all black.
- Watercolor tree tattoo – most watercolor tree tattoos take the form of an all-black tree (as above) with a colorful background. The addition of light color makes the design appear less minimalistic and more eye-catching, as well as more cheerful. Watercolor tattoo techniques can be tricky to get right, though, so take this into account when choosing your tattoo artist or studio.
- Dotwork tree tattoo – again taking the all-black idea as a base, using the dotwork technique results in a lighter and yet more intricate design. Dotworking involves creating an image not out of lines and shading, but out of dots. Shadow and light are achieved through placing the dots closer together or spacing them out. Again, not every tattoo artist will be comfortable working in this style, so make sure to choose someone with experience in this technique.
- Armband forest tattoo – armband tattoos have been enjoying increased popularity over the past few years. They’re designs that wrap all the way around your arm – like a band – but they’re not as large as sleeves or half-sleeves. Most armband tattoos are a few centimeters (a couple of inches) in width. Trees are a common choice for armbands – a forest of black tree outlines looks awesome wrapped around the arm.
The meaning of trees in tattoos can be versatile and adaptable – as design elements, trees are capable of expressing a whole range of ideas and values. When thinking about the best design for you, it’s best to think about what appeals to you visually and/or what you want to express with your tattoo and go from there.
For more inspiration and ideas, check out the gallery below!
They come in a variety of designs and sizes, just like the countless species of trees which exist in nature. This means that they can be placed on any part of the body, depending upon the size of the design.
Smaller tattoos can be inked on finger, wrists, palm, arm, ankle, behind the ear and neck, while larger ones can be featured on larger surface areas such as the back, shoulder, thigh, sleeve, side and chest.
The basic consideration is that large tattoos need a larger area of the skin to get the perfect magnificent look, which every bearer wants for his tattoo design.