Tattoos have been a cultural staple for hundreds of years, with their meanings and styles of art evolving over the centuries. Understanding the significance can be difficult because tattoo meanings in western culture differ significantly from meanings in other cultures. Since there are also different styles of martial arts, it can be difficult to distinguish the meaning of each tattoo. As much as martial artists exist in their own culture, each style has its own culture as well. Tattoos in martial arts often reflect the style and culture of their country of origin, e.g. Tae Kwon Do (Korea), Judo (Japan), Kung Fu (China), etc.
Before tattoos became mainstream in western culture, they served as a representation of those outside of mainstream culture. This included prisoners, soldiers, veterans, etc. The portrayal of tattooed individuals led those to associate criminal and rebellious behavior with the form of art. It also represented those within the lower class and were very much looked down upon by members of ‘high society’ American. In the 1990s, the stigma of tattoos began to shift. Tattoos slowly became normalized, with Asian culture having a significant design influence. Nowadays, it might even be hard to find someone who doesn’t have any ink on their body.
If one were to take a sample of martial artists, you might see a variety of symbols tattooed on them. These symbols typically are ways people self-identify with particular ideologies or lifestyles. Martial artists were at one time seen as counter-culture (similar to tattoos), and might even still be to some. It’s not unusual to see two or more counter-culture phenomena collide in a way that martial arts and tattoos have.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship was created in 1993, and since then the UFC has taken the world by storm. It brought MMA to the forefront of popular sports and spawned many more iterations of professional combat sports. Due to the melting pot of fighting styles that MMA represents, your average fighter could have tattoos that represent words, pictures, and ideologies from all over the world. With tattoos being so mainstream in Western culture, they are simply becoming representations of personal expression. The majority of MMA fighters with tattoos have likely gotten them to represent something meaningful or person to them. There is also the possibility of getting one because the attire for this sport allows them to display who they are through their ink which lets them be recognizable from a far distance. For example, UFC legend-turned-bareknuckle boxer Chris Leben, decided to get tattoos in order to stand out. Leben wanted people to be able to recognize him when he’s fighting. He claims that his tattoos are a portrayal of himself.
Society’s perspective on tattoos has drastically changed from subculture to pop culture, similar to professional fighting. Tattoos are no longer geared towards those marginalized from society, and professional fighting is no longer seen as barbaric or unacceptable. Both ideas have even found success in television, with MMA fights hitting the millions in PPV buys and reality tattoo shows such as Miami Ink airing in over 160 counties. It’s interesting to think about professional fighting and body art, two ideas that were traditionally viewed as taboo coming together in a noticeable way as more mainstream and acceptable.
This article is written by Mike Liera, general manager at The Arena Gym. It is the largest combat sports facility in San Diego, offering world-class instruction in Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and more.