Tattoos & Real Meaning


I enjoy suturing, not only for the joy of practicing the skill (minor, though it may be), but also for the chance to talk to the patient. One of my recent patients, about 30 years-old, sported the above tattoo. And as I wrote here, since I am one of those people who does not hesitate to ask a stranger about their tattoos and I knew what his tattoo meant, I said to my patient, “So, you are into the I Ching, I see.”

“Huh”, he replied.

“Your tattoo!” I said, “Why do you have that tattoo?”

“Oh, that is from GI Joe.” he said as I tilted my head in puzzlement.

You see, I was not in the USA in the 1980s, so I missed both the GI Joe comics and the GI Joe TV shows and thus never saw the GI Joe Ninja warrior who had this tattoo as the mark of his Ninja clan.

To my patient, this tattoo meant power, stealth, bravery and more. To me, it was ChiChi, the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching; water over fire; “The superior man ponders danger and takes precautions against it.” It brought back memories of my acupuncture teacher in Japan, of learning the divination method in China and much more. (see this post)

Well, I will let you read on your own about the I Ching or Snake Eyes (the GI Joe guy), but the point of this post is to illustrate the obvious:  “meaning” changes and “real meaning” is fictional.


My patient was excited to learn about the ancient meaning of his tattoo, and I was excited to learn about his meaning — one apparently embraced by many young men who grew up on GI Joe.

Question to reader:  So, what do you think about the “real” meaning of something?




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Tattoos & Real Meaning

  1. Earnest

    The web is accumulating more and more images of tattoos gone wrong. One purports to show someone who tattooed themselves “chicken soup” in Asian characters of some type. I could not read them so I don’t know the truth of the matter. However, this points up how important it is to fully understand the cultural meaning of imported symbols that one then places permanently in the skin.

    I suppose we should all be grateful, your patient especially, that the artists of GI Joe apparently were quite serious about their symbol vetting before making it a part of the image of a national hero!

  2. @ Earnest,
    You do see the point though, don’t you. Was my writing clear?
    I wanted to tell the patient what the real meaning of the tattoo was, but I found out there was a whole other “real meaning” of the tattoo that I did not know. It is like language — words change over time — gathering additional meanings and having old ones change. And why not symbols too. Meanings, like language, are not stable. Take the Confederated flag, for instance.

  3. Earnest

    @ Sabio

    I completely agree that your story is uplifting and shows the migration of the meaning of a symbol. I also think that it points up how important it is to be a proper custodion of a symbol if it is used in public art, for example.

  4. Earnest

    @ sabio

    I think my writing may not have been clear. I meant to say it was indeed fortunate that the 63rd hexagram was chosen by the GI Joe artists for the ninja symbol.

    I think your conversation may have been more awkward with the young man if the tattoo had been, for example, the 4th (youthful folly), the 12th (stagnation, selfish person), the 33rd (retreat), the 39th (limping), the 47th (entangled, exhaustion), or the 54th (the marrying maiden).

    But because the GI Joe developers were sensitive to the historical meaning of the original symbol, the young man is emblazoned with a tattoo he can be proud of, even when the ancient history is uncovered.

  5. Joe

    The man who created that character and decided to use the 63rd is Larry Hama. He’s a Japanese-American veteran who has an extensive martial arts background and certainly knows his stuff.

  6. @ Joe: I just looked up Larry Hama — amazingly talented man. He is indeed the creator of the comic GI Joe and much more. Fun stuff.

  7. ashokkumarkmr

    Did you know the exact meaning of that tattoo?

  8. @ashokkumarkmr: did you read the post?

  9. Denny DeLozier

    I have this symbol, very small and black…deriving my water over fire symbol from a person on a shore or bank, trying to build a fire with wet wood.. and as the 63rd symbol, basic meaning: almost complete….i have derived a one word meaning….patience.

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