A compass is a nifty little object.
It can be ornate and enchanting, or bare-bones and utilitarian.
These devices have been used for thousands of years to help people find their way, and are still useful now.
You may scoff at their simplistic technology, but if your phone dies during a hike in a strange land, you’ll be happy to have a compass by your side.
Compasses are popular symbols in art, jewelry, and tattoo design.
A compass tattoo can be the mark of an explorer, a symbolic image, and is often both.
There is a spiritual value in getting lost, but nothing compares to the feeling of finding your way back again.
Your tattoo can remind you of all the times you’ve found your way out of the dark, and that you’re capable of navigating any situation you put yourself into.
If you’re someone who likes to explore, you may have all kinds of technology and gear.
But the compass is something you can never forget to take with you.
It seems rudimentary compared to all the outdoorsy toys we have today, but a map and a compass will get you out of some sticky situations.
You’ll be happy to have one in your tool kit.
A few main talking points for the symbolism of a compass tattoo:
- Being deceptively simple
- Finding your way
- Navigating unpredictable events
If you’re thinking of getting a compass tattoo, keep reading!
We’re going to arm you with everything you need to wear your compass design with confidence and pride.
In this article, we’re going to discuss compass tattoos in the following ways:
- The History of Compasses
- How Does a Compass Work?
- Compass Tattoo Symbolism
- The Symbolism of the Four Directions
- Famous Quotes about Compasses
- Pop Culture References to the Compass
- Common Themes in Compass Tattoos
The History of Compasses
When you hold a compass in your hand, wear one as a pendant, or get a compass tattoo, you are tapping into a legacy that goes back for centuries.
The first known compass was fashioned in China around 200 BC.
It was a lot bigger than the devices we know today, and not built for the same reasons.
The original compass looked something like an iron ladle in the middle of a large brass plate.
It was used for the same basic reason as today’s compasses, to point North, but most historians believe it was utilized to balance Feng Shui in a new building or home.
As with most Navigational tools, it was refined to a more portable version and popularized by sailors, who could use the tool to find their way on the open water.
From there, the compass took off on the rest of the Asian continent and in Africa.
As the sailors traveled, Europeans likely caught sight of the technology as well.
Many many years later, they had their own version of the tool.
It was in Europe during the Renaissance period that the compass we know and recognize today was made.
This compass featured the compass rose, which points out all of the four cardinal directions, as well as the four additional inter-cardinal directions. (northeast, southwest, etc.)
Because of the evolution of the compass, people were able to travel farther and navigate more effectively than ever before.
It is thanks to the compass that we live in the world as it is today.
Which, good or bad, is a miraculous feat for such a small tool.
Compasses can be found on so many items, especially when it comes to outdoor equipment.
They’re mounted on the dashboards of many boats, and pilots use a sophisticated version of the tool to find their way.
A compass is a loyal, trustworthy buddy. It’s portable, and it relies on magnetism rather than electricity.
So a compass will never die on you, stop working after an upgrade, or send you on a confusing google maps goose-chase!
The compass means so much to so many people because it’s something they can count on.
That’s why so many folks have compass tattoos- they feel a kinship to this tiny, loyal companion.
The Compass Rose
Many compass tattoos are bare-bones, featuring a compass rose on its own.
The compass rose is the central figure of most compasses.
It is a star-like image that jets out in the four cardinal directions.
Depending on how precise the compass’s directions are, the compass rose may have up to 32 points.
A 32 point compass rose allows for expert communication and flawless navigation among explorers.
Some of the original compass roses featured an actual drawing of a rose at the center of the four points, which is likely where the name comes from.
You may also hear this referred to as the wind-rose or the rose of the winds.
The compass rose makes for a great tattoo because it is a readable design and instantly recognizable, especially to adventurers and nautical experts.
Compass Rose Tattoos
If you’re getting a compass rose design and want more than four points, your design will have to be on the larger side.
The more detail a small tattoo has, the more likely it can blur as it ages.
That is why most micro tattoos have less detail- your artist doesn’t want to cram a lot of ink into a small space.
The best rule of thumb is to stick to a four-pointed compass rose for small, quarter-sized tattoos, and get larger as you add detail.
Give your compass rose some room to breathe.
Of course, you may want a large tattoo of a four-pointed compass rose, which can also look cool as heck!
Sometimes a simple design has the biggest impact.
How Does a Compass Work?
Did you ever play with magnets in school?
If so, you’ll remember that magnets can attract or repel each other.
Oppositely charged magnets attract, and like magnets repel.
Are you having 4th-grade flashbacks?
The tiny needle on a compass is magnetized.
It swishes and swivels around in a liquid, allowing it to interact with the earth’s magnetic field.
Within the earth, beneath the solid crust, there exists a molten core surrounded by iron and nickel.
This creates a magnetic field that extends beyond the center of the earth, stretching as far as space.
So when you hold your tiny compass, you’re interacting with swirling, molten metals way way way beneath the earth’s surface.
The North and South Pole on earth mark the two polarities of this molten core’s magnetic field.
The needle in a compass is designed to point to the magnetic North.
Now, the magnetic North is not the same as True North.
True North refers to the North Pole, and the magnetic North is 1000 miles South of that landmark.
Plus, as any explorer (or magnet nerd) knows, the magnetic North does have a habit of shifting around.
That said, it should still help you get out of the woods.
So there’s no need to cancel your compass tattoo, it’s still a handy guide.
Compass Tattoo Symbolism
Now that we’ve got a rough idea of what compasses are, how they got here, and how they work, let’s dive into compasses as the pop culture icons they are!
Not everyone is a world explorer or a magnet enthusiast, so how is it that compasses are so ingrained in our lexicon?
Most people would be able to identify a compass, even if they’ve never gone camping or stepped foot on a boat.
So what does the compass represent?
Here are a few reasons why a person may want to get a compass tattoo:
- To Symbolize a Strong Moral Compass
Have you heard the expression: “their moral compass doesn’t point North”?
This is referring to a person’s ability to tell right from wrong.
If a person’s moral compass is off, they’re likely living a chaotic lifestyle.
Because of its outdoorsy capabilities, the compass is often associated with someone who has a boy scout approach to life.
People who pledge themselves to the boy scouts promise to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, and reverent.
Many of these words could also describe our friend the compass itself.
A person may get a compass tattoo to remind themselves of their “True North.”
True North could be a strong set of values, but it may also be a goal you’re striving toward.
If you’ve got your eyes on the prize, a compass tattoo may help remind you to keep going, even when the spiritual terrain gets rocky.
- To Represent Being Grounded in the Present
You can’t get where you’re going without starting from where you are.
A compass gives you a sense of orientation.
You can use a compass to remind you where you’ve been, show you where you are right now, and remind you of what direction to head toward next.
This is valuable information on a camping trip, but it’s also a way to live your life.
You can’t deny where you are right now, but you can figure out how to use your present circumstance to propel you forward.
A compass tattoo may suit someone who has travelled a difficult road, but accepts their past self and keeps striving to improve.
- To Celebrate a Sense of Wanderlust
Are you someone who lives a nomadic lifestyle?
Some people are born drifters and wanderers, never feeling all the way at home in one place.
Travel has become a priority to most modern people, who have realized that accumulating things isn’t as interesting as having experiences.
Because of its navigational value, compact size, and long history at sea, the compass is a natural symbol for world travelers.
If you’re at your best when you’re living out of a backpack, you may consider the noble compass as your guide.
A compass tattoo can represent someone who isn’t ready to settle down, who won’t be satisfied until they see it all and meet all kinds of fascinating people.
- To Show off Your Independent Streak
There are certain skills you need to acquire if you want to stand on your own two feet, and navigation is one of them.
Do you know how to find your way around with a map and a compass, or are you always asking for directions or relying on your smartphone?
A person with navigational skills is a confident person.
They know they’ll always be able to find their way out of trouble- at least to some extent.
If you’ve always been someone who would prefer to go it alone, who will only ask for help as an absolute last resort, a compass tattoo may suit you perfectly.
It can also be a reminder that everyone needs a little help sometimes.
- For Luck
The compass is considered a lucky symbol, especially for travelers.
To wear one on your body is an act of faith, that you will always find your way when you are lost.
A compass tattoo can be something of a magic talisman.
It may comfort you when you feel lost, either literally or figuratively.
- For Protection
If you feel yourself constantly being knocked off course, a compass tattoo can be a symbol of protection.
Use it to give yourself a boost of confidence when critics try to block your True North.
Fans of Vikings and Norse mythology are likely aware of the Vegvisir, which may also be referred to as the Nordic Compass, or the Wayfinder.
This symbol is a symbol of protection and luck for travelers, so it makes a popular tattoo design.
The Vegvisir is a circle with 8 points originating from the center.
Each of these points is adorned with a rune. It looks very much like a traditional compass, but has mystical undertones.
The earliest, most well known reference to this symbol is in the Huld Manuscript.
The Manuscript is a collection of Icelandic spells and symbols, also known as a grimoire in the magic community.
In the Huld Manuscript, there is a picture of the Vegvisir with the following caption:
“If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known”.
This was meant both practically (a compass can help you find your way), and poetically (the symbol has magic to protect a traveller from harm.)
The Vegvisir’s origins are in the 19th century, after the Viking era, but that doesn’t make the symbol any less magical.
Some speculate that it may have been used during the Vikings era without being recorded, which is entirely possible as there is much mystery surrounding the Vikings.
In any case, it is a cool tattoo design for someone with an interest in magic, Norse mythology, and seeing the world.
The Symbolism of The Four Directions
If you’re mystically minded (or maybe just a big fan of The Craft) you know each of the four directions has symbolic meaning.
Many Shamanic traditions (especially in Native American tribes) have a version of the medicine wheel.
This wheel can represent seasons, stages of life, and the four cardinal directions.
Though it varies from tradition to tradition, the four directions typically symbolize:
- North: Winter, survival, turning inward, cultivating your resources, reflecting on past lessons.
- South: Summer, passion and abundance, a celebration, sun energy, creating new life, fertility.
- East: Spring, new life, emerging triumphant, reclaiming your power.
- West: Autumn, preparing for transformation, harvesting, slowing down, preparing for Winter.
As above so below: this magical concept is sometimes represented in the depiction of a medicine wheel or compass.
The idea is that every action has a reaction, every point a counterpoint.
What happens spiritually is reflected outwardly and vice versa.
It is also a symbol to be grounded and humble while staying aware of your divinity.
Famous Quotes About Compasses
If you’re someone who loves script tattoos and immortalizing powerful words, you may want to pair your compass tattoo with a quotation. Here are a few of our favorite wise words:
You don’t throw a compass overboard because the ocean is calm.Matshona Dhliwayo
The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.Anais Nin
I always have a sense of trembling, but so does a compass, after all.Jerzy Kosiński
My moral compass is so broken I can barely find the parking lot.Ben Quayle
Pop Culture References to Compasses
Maybe the inspiration for your compass tattoo didn’t come from an epic adventure on the high seas.
Maybe it came from some of your favorite adventurers of stage, page, and screen.
Here are some pop culture compasses we think would make bad-ass tattoos.
What would you add to the list?
Stranger Things, the horror-comedy series that has captured people’s attention since 2016, has inspired a lot of cool tattoo art.
The resourceful leads are known for using their scientific know how to outsmart the bad guys. In season one, they use their compasses to try to find the upside down, and learn a little more about Eleven’s powers.
If you want an original Stranger Things tribute tattoo, consider incorporating a compass into your design.
The Legend of Zelda
For gamers young and old, Legend of Zelda is an iconic piece of rpg history.
Throughout the game, you can find compasses that will aid you on your adventures.
Compasses can point out hidden treasures, as well as upcoming bosses.
Have you been looking for the perfect calling card to other Zelda fans?
Maybe a compass will help you locate some like-minded friends.
In the true story turned book turned movie, Cheryl Strayed goes on a hiking trip to make sense of her life.
It is a story of fighting grief, loss, and addiction.
Cheryl becomes lost so she can find herself again.
Without knowing much about hiking, she sets out to walk 1000 miles.
Learning to use a compass is one of the many lessons she picks up along the way.
Did Wild inspire you to set out on an inner journey of your own?
A compass tattoo would be a beautiful tribute to this book/movie.
Common Themes In Compass Tattoos
So you know what you want to get, but aren’t sure what design would work best.
We’ve been there!
Here are a few of the coolest compass tattoo designs we’ve come across.
Allow them to inspire your next piece.
Map & Compass Tattoos
Some of the best tattoos keep it simple.
If you’re getting a compass to celebrate an epic adventure, or your restless wandering spirit, a compass with a map says it all.
They’re both practical items that can be drawn in really beautiful styles.
Whether you go black and grey, sepia, or full color, you’re sure to start some fun conversations with this design.
Compass Tattoos with Nautical Imagery
The explorers that mapped the world traveled by boat.
With compasses at their disposal, they were able to travel farther than ever before.
They discovered lands they’d never seen before, and civilizations with practices vastly different from their own.
One has to wonder what the world would look like if we’d never invented the humble compass.
Are you a fan of innovation?
A compass tattoo with some nautical references would be perfect for you.
Anchor & Compass Tattoos
A reminder to always stay grounded and keep your wits about you.
Ship Wheel & Compass Tattoos
A promise to stay on course, and not to lose sight of your goals.
Ship & Compass Tattoos
A talisman, symbolizing that a good vessel (your body, mind, and spirit) will take you far.
A compass underwater could represent the desire to travel to unknown lands, or the desire to throw away the compass and follow your heart.
Arrow & Compass Tattoos
Arrow tattoos usually represent bravery, finding your way, and putting yourself out there.
They can also represent protection.
Coupled with a compass, they can represent a person who navigates their life with passion and drive.
Compass Tattoos with an Hourglass or Clock
Clock or hourglass tattoos often serve as a reminder that our life will end at some point.
It’s a way of befriending shadowy themes, staring fear of the inevitable straight in the face.
The compass can add some optimism to this design.
It could symbolize a person who wants to see it all in the time they have.
Hourglass & Compass Tattoos
Clock & Compass Tattoos
Compass Tattoo Styles
Have you found your way to some inspiration?
A compass tattoo is such a cool design that can be done in so many ways.
If you’re still not sure how you’d like to portray this navigational tool, explore our gallery for some adventurous inspiration!
Black and Grey Compass Tattoos
Black-work Compass Tattoos
Watercolor Compass Tattoos
Dot-work Compass Tattoos
Graphic Compass Tattoos
Single Needle Compass Tattoos
Sketchy Compass Tattoos
Trash Polka Compass Tattoos
Small Compass Tattoos
American Traditional Compass Tattoos
Neo-traditional Compass Tattoos
Fine Line Compass Tattoos
New School Compass Tattoos
Geometric Compass Tattoos
Illustrative Compass Tattoos
Simple Compass Tattoos
Viking Compass Tattoos
White Ink Compass Tattoos
Compass Tattoo Artists