Arrow Tattoos Have a Deep History—Here's What the Symbol Means

arrow tattoo

@e.nal.tattoo/Design by Cristina Cianci

Arrow tattoos are a common design choice, and for good reason: They’re highly customizable. Because an arrow can be inked in any size and on just about almost any part of the body, the possibilities for making an arrow tattoo unique are endless. And that customization aspect goes beyond the physical parts of your design; arrow tattoos have a lot of inherent meaning. Tattoos began as a way to permanently memorialize personal elements of one’s life with meaningful symbols, and the arrow has become a popular design choice. Representing everything from friendship to war, an arrow tattoo will make a powerful and meaningful statement—whether it holds individual meaning for you or not.

Where Do Arrow Tattoos Come From?

As the arrow belongs to a number of cultures, there are many different places that the arrow tattoo could have originated from. Many tattoo artists consider American Indigenous peoples as the most likely beginnings, as the arrow was such an integral tool of life. The most common association with the arrow is its use as a tool for hunting and protection. And while it was naturally considered a tool of war due to its status as a weapon, the arrow was also a symbol of peace and other philosophical ideas.

“One of the strongest and longest-lasting associations is found among Native Americans,” reads Trent Aitken-Smith’s The Tattoo Dictionary, a book chronicling the meaning of common tattoos. “For these peoples, the arrow was a hugely important symbol that quite literally meant life―it was the tool they used to hunt for food to feed their families, as well as the weapon they used to protect them. It was a symbol of war as well as peace. Within Native American cultures, the sign of two crossed arrows is used to represent an alliance, while an arrow broken in two is a sign of peace.”

Specific designs even correspond to specific tribal traditions. A bundle of arrows, for example, originally represented one of the five founding tribes of the Canadian Iroquois League—and along with it strength and unity. In some other cultures, a downward arrow may also represent peace.

Another strong contender for the popularizer behind arrow tattoos is the American Traditional style, which relies on bold symbols—and one of its most well-known designs is the heart with an arrow through it. Sailors (and later all military service members) would get arrow-and-heart designs as a way of keeping loved ones close when traveling far for deployment. This kind of tattoo is a stereotypical design—as in, someone who knows nothing about tattoos could probably cite it—so even if the design didn’t originate from American Traditional artists, it still served to popularize it in some regard.

What Do Arrow Tattoos Mean?

Struggle and Triumph

Arrow tattoos naturally represent the ideas of struggle and triumph thanks to its use as a tool and weapon. A design that features an arrow being pulled back on a bow represents tension, conflict, or life struggle. On the other hand, an arrow resting on a bow may instead represent the achievement of peace and calm. Another design idea that symbolizes struggle is two arrows pointing away from each other—a representation of war or conflict.

On the other hand, an arrow tattoo with a feather represents triumph over that life struggle or conflict, as well as liberty and independence. Whether poised or relaxed, arrow tattoos often represent the idea of struggle and victory.

Moving Forward

Since an arrow can only go forward when it’s shot, the design is often a representation of moving forward, either physically or from something. An arrow being released from a bow, for example, is literally “moving” forward, but it also stands for positive life transitions. A compass arrow tattoo represents going forward in a new direction or starting a new chapter in life. Another common design choice is a diamond arrow, which symbolizes having the strength to move on thanks to the gem’s reputation as one of the toughest materials in the world.

Relationships

Any design that features more than one arrow typically is understood to represent something relationship-based, since there are two people in a traditional relationship. If the arrows are crossed in the tattoo design, it could represent two very contrasting ideas: complicated lovers or friendship. However, a cupid arrow—which is either an arrow piercing through a heart or an arrow placed on a cherub’s bow—symbolizes romance and desire, as being hit with Cupid’s arrow means you’ve fallen in love.

Peace

In contrast to arrows being a tool of war, they are also a symbol of peace. A broken arrow represents the idea of burying the hatchet, or putting aside a quarrel for the greater good—whether that be the self or an external element. A single arrow by itself also stands for protection against harm or peace, though more in an individual, personal sense.

Regardless of what your purpose may be for getting an arrow tattoo, it’s guaranteed to be rich with meaning—both personal and historical. If you’re not sure what kind of arrow tattoo would best represent you, here are a few ideas to inspire you.

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