As anything becomes mainstream, controversy tends to come with it.
Sometimes an item’s popularity means it is not seen with the original reverence that was poured into it.
This is often seen as the case when it comes to the Zia sun, a symbol that has been cemented into the minds of the New Mexico people, but what does it mean?
Many people get the Zia sun as a tattoo because they’re from New Mexico, where the symbol is widespread. (more on that later)
But there are those who are looking to reclaim the image and restore it as a sacred symbol.
Where does that leave people who feel attached to the Zia sun and want to immortalize it on their body?
Let’s have a little history lesson.
How did the Zia Tattoo Become so Widespread?
The Zia sun is the symbol on New Mexico’s state flag and license plate.
Because of this, people use it synonymous with all things New Mexico including logos for local businesses, beer cans and souvenir key chains.
This is par for the course in many locations, especially in America where patriotism runs deep.
It’s natural to want to show off your local pride with imagery that has resonance for you and your neighbors.
But the Zia has actually been a point of controversy since the very beginning!
Who are the Zia Tribe?
The Zia are an Indigenous tribe that belong to the Pueblo people.
Puebloans are Native American or Indigenous people who live primarily in the Southwestern United States.
The name “Pueblo” came from their name for “village.”
When the Spanish conquistadors came to the area in the 1600’s, they found these communities and named them as such.
Pueblo tribes are diverse in terms of language, practice, and placement in America but they share similar religious and farming practices.
Although throughout history they were pressured to assimilate, Zia and other Pueblo tribes have held onto many of their traditions and overall way of life.
The Zia people primarily live on the Zia Pueblo reservation in New Mexico.
What Does the Zia Tattoo Represent?
The Zia sun, as you may have guessed, is a central image to the Zia tribe.
You can consider it similar to the Jewish Star of David, the Christian cross or the Hindu Om.
The Zia is a circle with 4 straight lines coming out from each side, like the rays of the sun.
The symmetry behind 4 groups of 4 rays is intentional, as the number is very sacred.
4 is a magical number representing cosmic balance and stability.
There are 4 directions, 4 elements, and 4 seasons.
You may also start to notice that there are 4 times of day- morning, mid day, evening and night.
There are 4 major periods of your life also- childhood, young adulthood, middle age and old age.
The circle in the middle of the 4 sets of 4 rays represents how all those 4 pieces of a puzzle come together to create unity and balance.
There are many religions and practices that incorporate this idea of 4.
In tarot cards, for example- 4 represents moving to an optimistic and dream-like place to a place of bringing thoughts into action.
New Mexico is also one of the states in the Four Corners- the only spot in America where 4 states meet at the border.
Why is the Zia Sun the New Mexico Flag?
New Mexico’s flag features a sunny yellow background with a red Zia sun in the center.
It is seen as one of the best designed flags because of its boldness and simplicity.
As a point of trivia- it is also one of the only American flags not to incorporate blue.
New Mexico was a late bloomer in terms of having a national identity.
14 years into having been declared a state, they still didn’t have a flag.
They decided to have a design contest, and the winner was an anthropologist named Dr. Harry Mera.
Dr. Mera got the idea from clay pottery he saw on display in a museum.
The piece was made by a crafts-person from the Zia tribe, and had a Zia sun design on it.
Only the pottery wasn’t in the museum for honorable reasons.
In fact, it had been stolen by James Stevenson years earlier in 1890.
Stevenson was also an anthropologist, and had befriended the Zia people and been welcomed into their culture, but became angered and petty when they would not sell him this particular piece of pottery.
He then stole the item, and sold it to the museum.
This theft was not made known to the museum until later.
So, our friend Dr. Mera didn’t know where the work came from or what it represented.
The Zia sun caught his eye and he had his wife stitch together a design.
They won the contest, and the rest is history.
Now the Zia sun can be found almost everywhere you look in New Mexico.
But the Zia people are working to change that.
Reclaiming the Zia Sun
Zia people have been fighting to have the Zia sun’s original meaning restored.
They recently lobbied to have the symbol removed from Wisconsin, quite the trek from New Mexico!
Elders in the Zia community say they know the symbol is not going anywhere, and are glad people appreciate its beauty.
They just ask that it be removed from irrelevant businesses, or less respectful placements like beer cans.
As for new business owners or those looking to get a Zia tattoo – the Zia tribe would ask that you brush up on your history and ask permission.
If you approach it with grace and respect, you may get permission to have a Zia tattoo – then the story behind your ink has become that much richer and more meaningful.
Why Zia Tattoos?
Many people get a Zia tattoo just because they live in New Mexico, grew up there, or have great reverence for the place.
These aren’t dishonorable reasons to want the tattoo, but it would be worth it to do some further research on the Zia people and reach out to a member of the tribe.
If you ultimately decide the Zia sun isn’t for you, why not get creative?
A compass has 4 points, and you can incorporate New Mexico imagery into a design that’s uniquely you!
Zia Tattoo Ideas
Feel like you’re a good candidate for a Zia tattoo?
Check out our gallery for some inspiration!
Read more about tribal tattoos: