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Swastika Tattoo on Tibetan Man

Same symbol, different context, different meaning. You can not cherry pick meaning, it’s provided for you through the interplay of the culture you’re from, the one you’re in, and the context of your surroundings.

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Beyond pictographs, there is no inherent meaning to any symbol. No sign, no insignia, no emblem authoritatively means anything in and of itself. Meaning is always derived by culture and context, and the meanings of symbols shift, morph, and transform when crossing between these lines.

The photo above is of a Tibetan man who sells jewelry and “Tibetan-y” things in a market in Xiamen. He has a hand-poked swastika tattoo. Of course, it’s a Buddhist symbol, though there’s little discernible difference between it and the tattoo chicken -scratch that’s scrawled across the bodies of innumerable inmates, ex-cons, and racists in the West. The symbol is the same, the meaning is different.

Though meaning is derived from culture, devising and interpreting it is a group endeavor that sometimes occurs through happenstance or direct projection — such a political party claiming a symbol. Part of Nazi mythology was that Germans descend from Tibetans, who they hypothesized were direct descendants of the Aryans, and by extension themselves — hence the appropriation of the swastika. That, and subsequent Nazi revivalists, changed the meaning of the symbol in the West. So now a white guy with a swastika tattoo carts a neo-nazi or ex-con symbol no matter how much he tries to explain its Asiatic, spiritual, or “good luck” roots. The original meaning of an ancient symbol, if it can even be traced, is impertinent within the context of how a symbols is used in the present within various social spheres.

A swastika on a Caucasian man is a neo-Nazi sign, on a Tibetan it is Buddhist, on an Indian it’s Hindu. Same symbol, different context, different meaning. You can not cherry pick meaning, it’s provided for you through the interplay of the culture you’re from, the one you’re in, and the context of your surroundings. Meaning cannot be imposed. The purpose of a symbol is communication — nothing more.

This is key for world travel.

Tattoo on Tibetan man Tibetan Tattoo Tattoo on Tibetan man


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Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Tattoo, Tibet

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Lawrence January 24, 2014, 2:02 am

    It reminds me of a time I was in India and I went to a temple with an Israeli girl and there were several swastikas on the doorway.

    Instantly she said, “Don’t they know anything, they should change that!”

    I forgave because she was 18 and it was her first week abroad, but it is good to be reminded that symbols are not set in stone.

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    • Wade Shepard January 24, 2014, 8:15 pm

      That’s an interesting little story there. It’s interesting how we develop emotional responses to symbols, and even in a different context with an obviously different meaning we have a difficult time shaking our initial response.

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