LGBT has a long history to share when it comes to getting tattoos. There was a time when it was illegal for people to get LGBT inspired tattoo designs that they thought were used t convey mysterious messages in a  secretive way or an act of defiance.

However, today the trend has shifted completely and people do make the rainbow tattoos no matter if they are not a part of the community themselves. So what do all the numerous things mean after all?

‘Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos’

According to a popular gay tattoo artist, Samuel Steward (also identified as Phil Sparrow), the gay association in particular actually began adopting tattoos in the 1950s. Steward himself was born in 1909 and managed several different positions in his life, including a teacher at a Roman Catholic university and a writer of gay pulp fiction. He was also the approved tattoo designer for the motorcycle club, the Hells Angels in Oakland, California.

Steward issued his insights on gay men receiving tattoos in his 1990 book ‘Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks.’ Steward said: ‘One change, however, came about in the homosexual attitude towards tattoos around 1954.’ He resumed: ‘Following the national release of the movie The Wild One with Marlon Brando; the original motorcycle film, it seemed to crystallize or release, the obscure and long-hidden feelings of many homosexuals.’

Steward thinks tattoos grew into a representation of power for gay men, almost united with the gay leather community. He said: ‘I was overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of so many of these figures… as the impulse of many homosexuals to be considered more masculine – by the addition of a tattoo – grew stronger.’

There are also cases of lesbians in the 1940s and 50s truly consuming their sexuality on their sleeve by making a specific tattoo, however, he did not go in-depth with it. For now, though, here are the most familiar LGBTI-inspired tattoos and what it implies to the people who got them.

Note: If anyone has one of these symbols as their tattoo design, it does not mean they automatically recognize it with the descriptions below.

1. Pink triangle tattoo

In Nazi Germany, in the mid-1940s, gay inmates in concentration camps were made into wrapping pink triangles as a symbol of shame. In fact, one academic says these gay inmates were the ‘lowest of the low’ in the regime of the concentration camps.

Nazis abused the gay inmates by castrating some of them and sodomizing them with objects like broomsticks. They also conducted critical tests on them to discover remedies for typhus fever and homosexuality. According to estimates, almost 5,000 to 15,000 gay people perished in German concentration camps. When eye witness statements and individual data developed many decades later, LGBTI activists started restoring the symbol. The most present accounts in America records back to 1977, where LGBT activists in Miami fastened pink triangles to their outfits to oppose accommodations discrimination.

At the beginning of the 80s, the organization called ACT-UP used the pink triangle to strive to promote knowledge in the middle of the AIDS crisis. Rather than adopting the upside-down triangle – as the Nazis did – activist Avram Finkelstein came up with applying it the accurate way: up. The foundation applied it is arguably its most memorable campaign advertisement: Silence = Death. Following the years since then, activists have employed the logo in multiple campaigns following, including in protests more recently for concentration camps in Chechnya. The logo went from obtaining a symbol as a badge of shame, to a symbol of pride.

2. Nautical star tattoo

In the late 1940s and 50s, some lesbians made a nautical star inked on their wrist as a form of a flag to other lesbians.

Madeline D. Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy’s 1993 book, ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community’ describes the event. They explained: ‘The cultural push to be identified as lesbians – or at least different – all the time was so powerful that it generated a new form of identification among the tough bar lesbians: a star tattoo on the top of the wrist, which was usually covered by a watch. This was the first symbol of community identity that did not rely on butch-fem imagery,’ they wrote.

Kennedy and Davis also said the local police in Buffalo, New York comprehended the application, so it was very precarious. The cops had a record of names of identified lesbians. For this cause, the tattoo was invariably on the wrist where it could be covered behind a wristwatch.

The nautical star is presently hugely successful amidst LGBT people, including several gay porn stars. As well as being a prevalent tattoo for marines (it signifies seamen aspiring to discover their way back home), the nautical star also designates to adultery in some societies.

3. Scorpion/Biohazard tattoo

In 2011, CNN announced the part from a gay man who was HIV+. In the article, Michael Lee Howard states he got the biohazard symbol on his right arm and the radiation logo on his left to mean that he’s existing with HIV. After his examination in 2005, Howard said he got the tattoos to help him on his quest for self-recognition. He said: ‘It’s a branding of who I am, and it’s a branding of being comfortable with that, being comfortable with who I am.’

Another tattoo pitched in the piece as an identifier for someone living with HIV is the scorpion. This one is extra complicated because the scorpion tattoo is also intimately united with astrology. Gay man William Conley said he also recognizes 45-60 others who got the biohazard and scorpion figures inked on their body. In reply to the report, the chief executive of GMFA Matthew Hodson suggested it was only a small minority of gay men making these tattoos.

He said: ‘The problem with any coded reference to HIV status is that it may not be universally understood, so even if you have a great big bio-hazard tattoo across your butt-cheeks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone you have sex with is going to understand what it means. Most people with HIV don’t tell all of their sexual partners. And although some gay men choose to ink their status, fierce and unapologetic, on their skin, the majority of us don’t,’ he said.

4. Armband tattoo

There is a lot of trend for the armband, not just in the LGBT community but people who want tattoos outside of it too. Many people get the armband tattoo in the rainbow-colored design to represent that they stand for equality. Each and represents a member of the community.

A famous gay activist said, ‘When I walk into a room of gays wearing a short-sleeved shirt, one of two things goes through my head; I’m either looking cute as hell or they think I like to get my hands dirty.’

This is because there is often a double meaning associated with the armband tattoo. The same activist continued: ‘This one time at a hookup, the guy asked if I did porn. A few years later, I then realized why he asked because a lot of porn stars have band tattoos as well.’

Some people might likewise get this design to express the equals sign.

5. Eyes tattoo

Russian criminal tattoos have a great list of concealed applications. In Soviet Union jails, there was a great experience of tattoos being used to show a person’s illegal career and state. It altered with who were criminal bests and who were state inmates. The tradition began around 1930, reached fame in the 50s, and died down by the 80s. Some famous symbols involve star tattoos (indicating power), skull (indicating murder), cross (a popular ‘thieves cross’), and bells (showing a long term in prison with no possibility of quick-release).

But there are some LGBT representations too, like the eyes tattoo. When tattooed on the lower part of the belly, it implies the person is gay. The penis signifies a nose, with the two eyes above watching.

Most of the designs meaning being gay were imposed onto people as a means to humiliate them. For instance, a snake twined with a woman means a ‘passive homosexual’ – primarily tattooed on the back. Beauty marks under the eyes also symbolize a ‘passive homosexual’, as well as red suits in cards (diamonds or hearts) on a prisoner’s back.

6. Equals sign tattoo

The equal sign is rather very popular and pretty much self-explanatory but it is definitely one of the most used symbols for the LGBT community. The red equal sign rose to prominence first in 2013 when the Human Rights Campaign practiced it to inspire people to preserve marriage equality in the United States.

Since then, a lot of equality symbols have been used to display equality ina lot of things and especially in the LGBT community. Many people also started getting a couple of parallel lines on their body to symbolize the same.

7. Labrys (double-sided axe) tattoo

Throughout the 1960s, lesbian feminists embraced the labrys tattoo as a symbol of power and self-sufficiency. The labrys, or dual-bladed battle-ax, is connected with early matriarchal cultures, the Amazons, and the Greek goddess Demeter. In the Minoan culture (lasting from about 3,000 to 1,100 BCE), the community at the time was predominately matriarchal.

Their theology focused around a bare-breasted Great Goddess who is thought to have been a defender of women.

This god is usually depicted as including snakes in her hands – a representation of potency and cultivation – and enclosed by female worshippers with dual axes. It portrays a figure of power. The figure seldom surfaces corresponding to a violet background (a generally conceded sapphic color) and in an upside-down triangle. In Kyrgyzstan, there’s even an LGBT rights association known by the name of Labrys.

Predestinated, some trans-exclusionary extreme feminists (TERFs) ought to have co-opted the logo in contemporary years.

8. Lambda tattoo

Lambda is the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet. The Gay Activist Alliance chose the logo to factor the gay rights campaign in 1970. There are several various versions of the logo, including its reputation for ‘liberation’. It’s likewise the physics symbol for energy. It is not as common as the pink triangle symbol and makes one feel less political and less mainstream.

Thus, if you want something exclusive, this one would be a great choice for you. It is a personal rebellion. A gay activist said, ‘It reminds me of our past and the battles that have been won to be accepted into mainstream society. And reminds me we still have a fair way to go. We should continue to walk in the footprints of the people who fought the laws and prejudices of the late 60s and early 70s and no be complacent. It’s part of my gay history,’ he said.

9. Circle tattoo

Some intersex people may boastfully get a circle tattoo. Organisation Intersex International (OII) Australia produced the intersex pride flag in 2013. The yellow backdrop and purple circle express ‘hermaphrodite’ colors. According to the website: ‘The circle is unbroken and unornamented, symbolizing wholeness and completeness. We are still fighting for bodily autonomy and genital integrity, and this symbolizes the right to be who and how we want to be,’ the website states.

10. Whatever you want it to be!

LGBT people can literally get any kind of tattoo design to show their love for the community and make it personal and unique. It can be apparent and shocking or discreet and petite. Some people like to get more apparent designs to show they are proud of their identity however, one needs to be still careful with such kinds of designs because they are not socially acceptable in some countries or societies.

Some get warped and wavy words seemed to fit how they feel about the gender binary. One can also go ahead and get a beautiful quote like from the song “Same Love” or a book like, Chris Colfer’s Struck By Lightning. The book is about a guy who needs to move away from his traditional town. The second half of the quote is ‘Once there was a boy who flew’.

You can even mix some symbols to get a unique design like the kinds of designs that feature triangles and a bird to express ‘freedom’ and as an allegiance to their queer identity.

Tattoos in their own right are a sort of redemption of our bodies. The tattoos, in that way, are an obvious representation and recognition of their liberation.