TL;DR: The Meaning of the Unalome Tattoo
You’ve probably seen a winding, single-lined symbol on someone’s body before and wondered what it meant? Well, wonder no more: it’s known as an Unalome, a Buddhist design that represents life’s path toward enlightenment.
The spiral represents our struggle with life, while the straight line shows that we have finally found harmony. Thus, Unalome tattoos are a very powerful symbol of spiritual and personal quest. It’s a bit confounding to think that such a simple figure can stand for something so profound, but once you understand how to interpret them, the cryptic meaning of these sacred insignias becomes as clear as a zen master’s mind.
Take a moment to admire some harmonious ink and enlightened people - get inspired by the unalome tattoo designs below!
Understanding the Unalome Symbol
Here’s how to unravel an Unalome: start at the beginning of the path, the spiral at every Unalome’s base. This swirl stands for our burgeoning consciousness, the human mind in its infancy. Follow along its bends — life’s ups and downs — struggling to find direction, trapped in uncertainty or fear even, but growing wiser and more worldly along the way. You’ll become less wayward the longer you wander, more centered as the loops tighten. The mind gets closer to finding clarity. Eventually, there is no more room for the line to overlap. It goes completely straight, symbolizing the point when a person achieves Nirvana — a release from the cycle of life and death.
Traditionally, Unalomes represent the crown of the Arahants - or Arhat, the Enlightened Saints in the Buddhist culture. The spiral stands for the crown itself, not the wavering wander. The straight line of the Unalome symbolizes the direct path to Nirvana that the enlightened saints went through.
Other Meanings of the Unalome Symbol
Aside from their primary meaning, Unalomes embody a number of other spiritual properties. They can be symbolic of feminine and masculine energy depending on which direction their spirals are facing, left for female and right for male. In some sects of Buddhism, they are believed to represent the third-eye of Shiva herself or records of the lives of various Arahants — individuals who have aspired to buddhahood over the ages.
Placement of Unalome Tattoos
Unalomes have been depicted for thousands of years in Buddhist art (the stone spires outside of the temple Wat Bang Phra for instance), but the place that they’re most commonly seen today is on people’s skin. Tattoos of them are thought to have originated with sak yant — a form of body art in Thailand. Artists do all sorts of innovative things with Unalomes, elaborating on their intricate form and embedding them into other spiritually charged designs.
The minimal yet ornate shape of Unalomes makes them ideal for placing on narrow stretches of the body. Unalome tattoos are commonly placed on the sternum, the center of breathe, or in visible parts of the bodies such as hands/fingers, throat and even face. Just never position yours facing downward; enlightenment is about aspiring to a higher level of consciousness, so make sure to orient yours in the right direction, preferably toward one of your chakras.
As with other powerful spiritual and religious symbols, you might face some criticism and be blamed for cultural appropriation if you are from a Western culture and have an Unalome tattoo. If you are travelling in a country where the Buddhist culture is strong, you should know that some might consider your tattoo as disrespectful, especially if it's placed on a body part that is deemed impure, such as feet. That being said, it is good to know the origin and the meaning of a cultural symbol such as the Unalome, but at the end of the day it is your body, your tattoo choice. If the Unalome symbol has a strong meaning for you, go and get that tattoo and show to the world that you’re well on your way to Nirvana!
If you’d like to see more blessed body art, check out the 250 best religious tattoos of the year!
Golden Spirals and Sacred Knots: Sacred Geometric Tattoos
Small Tattoos That Mean Big Things
How Do I Protect My Tattoo from the Sun?