‘Guns don’t kill people…’ (and you surely know the rest of this quote, which is staple of American-themed bumper stickers), and it may even be true when the firearm in question is in the form of a tattoo design, yet the symbolism is unmistakably lethal. It’s loaded and it’s deadly. Power, violence, and a determined personality – these are the messages meant to part your hair like a bullet when you lay eyes on a well-executed gun tattoo.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, had other ideas about the gun, best explained in the famous quote by old-time actress, Mae West: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to meet me?” Freud believed that weapons and tools of all kinds were used as symbols for the phallus (penis). Objects like a dagger, sabre, rifle, even a train, were not only long and hard, but each was highly potent.
Dream analysis continues to see the gun as the subconscious mind’s way of expressing aggressive sexuality. A gun’s sexual connection is obvious in the choice of location of many gun tattoos, positioned to appear as if lodged in the belt, aimed towards the genitalia, whether male or female. On both hips is another popular location for dual pistols. Shoulder blades are frequent choices for rifles and machine guns.
A ‘smoking gun’ is usually hard evidence of guilt, but when inked on the skin, it’s worn as a badge of pride. The barrel could equally well be depicted spewing fire – or a flower. The latter is a powerful peace statement, contrasting life and death. We hear of a proud new father taking on a gun tattoo to celebrate the birth of his daughter. From the revolver’s barrel sprouted a bouquet of flowers. The gun, he admitted, symbolizes his sex drive, while the flowers represent ‘the beautiful child that the seemingly destructive thing created.’
While the gun tattoo would seem to be a largely male choice, more women are ‘packing’ as a statement of their own freedom and independence, or as a reminder of the tougher aspects of their own complex personalities. As an emblem of strength and security, the gun tattoo serves as a talisman for protection. Pop singer, Rihanna, explains her gun tattoos in those terms. After lengthy discussions with her tattoo artist, she had a tiny handgun etched across her ribcage, on both sides. Wisely, Rihanna, rejected more visible ‘guns’ so as not to compromise her modelling career.
Since guns are controversial, even the tattooed versions have drawn criticism. Many believe that a person should draw strength not from weapons but from the even more powerful force of self-knowledge. But who’s to know what helps people stay grounded and true to themselves? The owner of a gun should also be aware that critics might assume that the gun tattoo is an attempt to make up for the lack of a certain natural prowess.
Bullet tattoos are the natural adjunct to gun tattoos. We’ve seen bullet belt arm bands, speeding bullets, and bullets like floral motifs around the handgun. Where bullet tattoos shock is in the realistic depictions of artfully crafted bloody bullet wounds.
A side note to bullet tattoos are the magic Thai tattoos (Sak-Yant) which, when inked with the appropriate ritual, are said to be powerful enough to stop bullets. Not surprisingly, these are a favourite with young Thai soldiers heading off to boot camp. The tattoos of the Iban headhunters in Borneo were also thought to act as talismans, ones that were strong enough to deflect bullets or serve to cause a bullet intended for its target to miss.