Compass Tattoo Meanings

No matter where in the world you are, it’s pretty hard to walk into a tattoo studio and not find a tattoo of a compass on someone. Compasses are one of the more common ink designs, and with good reason. They’re universal to just about every society on Earth, and are associated with nothing but positive symbolism in every culture. Plus, compasses are versatile enough for a graphic design perspective that they can be etched into your skin using a number of different styles.

Compasses originally were created by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, and were actually used for navigating the mysteries of the future, rather than those of the sea.  Using a compass for navigation (rather than divination) didn't actually become commonplace until in between the 9th and 11th century.  But at that time, the development of the navigational compass spread quickly throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa.  The compass is what made long-distance sea trade a reality, not to mention exploration.  Though magnetic compasses are the most common (that is what most people picture when thinking of a compass), other forms of the device include solar compasses and gyroscopes.

Compass tattoos are popular with both men and women, though have historically been slightly more common with the guys. Compasses are great as standalone tattoos or as a part of larger pieces, and can easily be worked into a number of themes if you’re looking to add to a sleeve, etc.  Compass tattoo meanings can range from guidance (clearly), to protection, to searching for your passions, and more.  If you’re curious about the symbolism behind compass tattoos, here’s a quick explanation of the most popular designs.

Blackwork compass tattoo

Compass Mandala tattoo by @xavierw_tattooer

Nautical Compass Tattoo Meaning

If you guessed that sailors were among the first to choose a compass as a favorite tattoo, you’d be right. Many sailors believed that getting a compass tattoo would help protect you against rough waters and would ensure that you returned home safely to your family. The nautical compass tattoo reinforces the idea of blessing the wearer with calm waters… meaning that you’re seeking to bring peace and harmony into your life. And like all compasses, the notion of receiving guidance is there as well.

Color nautical compass tattoo

Nautical compass tattoo by @vandal_tattoo

Star Compass Tattoo Meaning

This is hands-down the most popular version of a compass tattoo out there. The star compass was meant to resemble the North Star (which is originally how sailors would orient themselves out at sea). People who receive star compass tattoos are either looking for guidance in their life, or are looking for a way to always remember where they came from.

Full color star compass tattoo

Star Compass Tattoo by @jesuscreep

Map Compass Tattoo Meaning

A combination of a map and a compass in a design tends to be very appealing, compositionally speaking. Rather than seeking guidance, a person with a map and compass tattoo is likely someone who already has things planned out, or who is comfortable exploring on their own and seeking adventure.

Black and gray compass and map tattoo

Compass and Map Tattoo by @floydvaresi

Vintage Compass Tattoo Meaning

A vintage compass tattoo would be a great choice for someone who is a lover of history. This design would also serve well for someone who has spent time serving in the Navy, as it hearkens back to the institution’s oldest roots. An antique compass tattoo meaning could also involve the concept of protection, since many early sailors relied on the symbol to keep their ships safe while at sea.

Rose Compass Tattoo Meaning

A rose compass tattoo could symbolize the search for love. Alternately, a rose compass tattoo design could mean allowing love to be the guiding force in your life (as opposed to greed, logic, self-interest, etc.).

Color compass and rose tattoo

Compass and rose tattoo by @peggy_haehner_taetowierungen

Anchor Compass Tattoo Meaning

If you need a design that screams “Sailor!”, then this is it. Anchor and compass tattoo designs make a great choice for anyone who loves being out on the water, and are definitely regarded as symbols of protection. An anchor and compass tattoo could also be a low-key testament to the Christian faith, as anchors are an archaic symbol used by early Christians before the Cross really became popular.

Full color compass and anchor tattoo

Compass and anchor tattoo by @kristenclosetattoos

Viking Compass Tattoo Meaning

Not to be confused with the Celtic version, Viking Compass Tattoos (also referred to as Nordic Compasses) have seen a pretty big jump in popularity now that people like Neil Gaiman and the geniuses at Marvel Comics are making Norse mythology a bigger part of our pop culture. Nordic compasses tattoos tend to be very simple, as they consist mostly of straight lines, but they can easily be worked into larger or more intricate pieces.

Viking/ Nordic Compass Tattoo

Viking Compass Tattoo by @juanvptattoo

Celtic Compass Tattoo Meaning

Celtic compass tattoos are nearly as popular as their close cousin, the Celtic Trinity knot. Like the Viking Compass, getting a Celtic Compass tattoo is a great way to show pride in your ancestry/ heritage/ nationality, and can show that your life is driven by a deep connection to your cultural roots.

Celtic Compass

Celtic Knot Compass

Pirate Compass Tattoo Meaning

A Pirate Compass tattoo definitely shows a more rebellious side, as opposed to Traditional Compass tattoos, which bring to mind a certain sense of discipline.

Tribal Compass Tattoo Meaning

Because the straight lines and regimented design of a compass don’t lend themselves easily to the curvy, pointed shapes, tribal compass tattoos aren’t very commonly seen. However, they are still entirely possible if you have a talented artist who’s willing to think outside of the box a bit.

Clock and Compass Tattoo Meaning

A clock and compass tattoo design could mean that you’re aren’t just looking for guidance in the present moment, but throughout the whole of your life (i.e. the notion of time).

Color compass and clock tattoo

compass and clock tattoo by @tattoos_by_ammon

Heart Compass Tattoo Meaning

The combined symbolism of a compass and a heart signify exactly what you’d think they would. A heart compass tattoo means following your heart, or having the courage to let your heart guide your decisions in life.

Compass tattoos are a great design choice for people of all ages and from all backgrounds… you don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate the great symbolism! Here’s a quick bullet list of the many compass tattoo meanings, in case you missed some along the way:

- Guidance

- Protection

- Peace and harmony (nautical compass)

- Having life planned/ being confident in one’s direction (map and compass)

- An adventurous spirit (map and compass)

- Searching for love (rose and compass)

- Letting love guide you (rose and compass)

- Christianity (anchor and compass)

- Rebelliousness (pirate compass)

- Following your heart/ passions (heart and compass)


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