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What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos?

By Mary Smith. Updated: December 2, 2020
What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos?

You don't have to be in a biker gang to notice certain tattoos becoming more popular. The compass tattoo is certainly one of them. As with other nautical designs, they have their origins in sailor tattoos, but they can be created in any style. Regardless of how you want your compass tattoo to look, it is good to think about what it means. Although you can get simply because you like the look, the amount of different compass tattoo meanings available means there is likely something which applies to you.

In this oneHOWTO article, we answer what is the meaning of compass tattoos? Once you know the symbolism, you can decide if they fit with your personality and lifestyle.

You may also be interested in: What Is the Meaning of Arrow Tattoos

Compass tattoo traditional meanings

Although the history of tattooing goes back thousands of years and has been present in many different ancient cultures, a lot of the current popular styles owe a lot to sailors from the 19th century and beyond. Compass tattoos were very popular with sailors since it was the nautical instrument which allowed them to return home safe and sound.

Most compass tattoos use these old style historical compass designs. These often have the north start incorporated in them since it was used a s reference for sailors to find their way home. These also use a wind rose, also known as a compass rose or Rose of the Winds. This marks the different cardinal directions, which aid navigation and help us know in which direction we need to head.

Sailors chose to get compass tattoos on their skin so that they were protected on their voyages in open seas. Furthermore, it was also considered a symbol of comfort as they longed for home, thus placing their fate in the hands of this precious object.

Over the years, the compass has remained one of the most popular designs among tattoo artists. Although the majority of people with compass tattoos are not sailors, the meaning of compass tattoos can still be important to them. We look at some of the specific meanings in the sections below.

What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - Compass tattoo traditional meanings
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Compass tattoos to find yourself

Following on from the history of compass tattoos and their meaning, it is not only Victorian sailors who think about home. For those of us who sometimes struggle with direction in our lives, getting a tattoo of a compass can be a good way to remind us to find the right way for us and to stay on track. While sailors literally used a compass to find their way, we can use them metaphorically to seek out direction.

Compass tattoos can also be combined with inspirational quotes, phrases or sayings which relate to this theme of searching and finding yourself. These include:

All wonders you seek are within yourself.

To find yourself, think for yourself.

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Sometimes we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.

These phrases can be used on banners or other text around the compass tattoo to give even more meaning. However, many people prefer the imagery itself since it can be open to different interpretations.

What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - Compass tattoos to find yourself
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Compass tattoos to find your way back home

Sailors used the compass to find their way home. Due to the harsh life on the seas, home wasn't only where their loved ones lived. It was also a place of safety and relative calm.

For anyone else, the compass can have a similar metaphorical meaning. If we have had a tough time and maybe had experiences which took us away from ourselves, a compass can symbolize returning home. Even if we are still going through some turmoil, the compass suggests we will find our way back home eventually.

The compass as symbol of luck and protection

There are also people who decide to get a compass tattooed as a symbol of good luck. This was also the case with sailors of yesteryear. Inking this on your skin will hopefully bring you good luck because it will keep you on track throughout life. It can be a reminder to stop you from losing your sense of self and to be consistent in your way of being and thinking.

In modern times, the symbol has the same meaning, only amplified. Nowadays, a compass tattoo can indicate that you want to stay true to yourself and not get carried away by negativity in your life. This compass tattoo can also represent strength, safety and bravery.

What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - The compass as symbol of luck and protection
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A compass to help you to achieve your goals

Another answer to what is the meaning of compass tattoos refers to an element found within: the North Star at the top of the Rose of the Winds. Seamen used to turn to this star at nights for guidance; it would point North and thus help them find their way back home or get to the goal of their voyage.

As such, these tattoos can also be currently understood as a symbol that helps you to achieve your goals. The compass can keep you on path and help you reach your targets. The compass represents the direction and guidance which you should follow when you set a target.

What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - A compass to help you to achieve your goals
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A compass as a symbol of wanderlust

Many travel lovers also choose to get a compass tattoo on their body to signal that the whole world is their home. These designs are often accompanied by world maps or other typical elements for travelling (such as planes or ships) since it makes the meaning of the tattoo even clearer.

Don't forget that the compass is the basic tool for travel, both in open seas and on land. Therefore, this tattoo is one of the most suitable if what you love is boarding a plane and travelling from one corner of the world to the other. It is for people who want to learn about the world and experience something more than their home has to offer.

What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - A compass as a symbol of wanderlust
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Types of compass tattoos

There are different types of compass tattoos that you can have inked. Some are to do with the style of the tattoo, others are about the design of the compass. There are almost limitless options to choose from and you can feel free to insert a compass into larger designs as well.

  • Star compass: the star compass tattoo has the same meaning as any compass iconography. However, the design is beautiful in its own right and many people simply like how it looks better than other compass styles. The star compass uses nautical stars as part of the design and it is very popular.
  • Sailor Jerry compass: Sailor Jerry is famous for his pin-up girl style tattoos. While he didn't invent the style completely, many people call the bold colorful style Sailor Jerry and a compass is often used as a motif.
  • Compass and anchor: since the compass is a popular nautical drawing, it is common to insert other types of nautical designs along with it. The anchor is a very common one and it can work great with the compass in the background.
  • Comic book compass: new school tattoos are bold and often use comic book imagery for their designs. You can use one with a compass and even incorporate some pop culture references if that is your style.
  • Compass with banner: if you want to add some text, placing a banner above and/or below the compass is a classic option. It is the kind you often see with rose style tattoos.
  • Black and grey compass: if you want something a little more classic and restrained, you can go for the black and grey line drawing tattoo style. It is great if want a more authentic look.
  • Geometric compass: geometric styles have become very popular in the last ten years. They can use classic tattoo imagery and give it an angular slant. Since geometry is such an important part of the compass design, it can look particularly good.
  • Watercolor compass: this is not as common a compass tattoo style, but it is getting more popular. Often the compass is in black and grey, but you see swashes of color around it.
What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos? - Types of compass tattoos
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Where should I get my compass tattoo?

You can get any tattoo in almost anywhere. Some tattoos, like the compass tattoo, look better than others. The fact that they are circular in shape means they look particularly good on knees and elbows, something which doesn't work for all tattoo styles.

You can get the compass on your wrist, your arm or on your chest. Just remember that areas close to the bone will be more painful. Since the compass is a circle, bear in mind you shouldn't put it close to other rigid shapes, unless you have more flourished detail. If you have a rectangular tarot tattoo next to a circular compass tattoo, you might end up looking like a kid's block toy.

If you want to know more about other tattoo styles, check out our article on what line tattoos mean.

If you want to read similar articles to What is the Meaning of Compass Tattoos?, we recommend you visit our Beauty & Personal Care category.

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