Turtles, while not necessarily associated with power or with brawn, have a long history of being inspirational totems. One of the oldest known animals, turtle fossils date back about 220 million years, and tortoises, the turtle’s land-loving cousin, are known to live upwards of 200 years. Turtles got game and history — they live all over the world, in various terrains and climates, and have more than 300 different species. That’s a lot of Turtle and a lot of inspiration for turtle tattoos.
The turtle’s most recognizable feature is its shell, which is actually an extension of its spine. Those cartoons where the turtle is so scared it jumps out of its little shell are lying to you: if a turtle did that, that critter would be dead. The shell is a spiney, boney extension of the turtle; in fact, the same protein that makes your fingernails hard is what makes the turtle’s shell hard. So, it’s not just a cute little home — it’s the actual, full-on turtle, that shell. It’s a method of protection and defense, so a turtle can retract its head and limbs into the shell when danger’s about. (Fun fact: sea turtles can’t retract their heads. Sorry, sea turtle bros.)
Associated with endurance, persistence, and determination, the turtle is known as a survivor. The whole slow and steady wins the race idiom that’s arisen from the Tortoise and the Hare myth seems to help too — turtles keep on keeping on when the going gets tough. The turtle has also long been associated with Mother Earth herself — Native culture has the turtle as a key part of the Creation myth. The turtle dove deep into the earthly waters to grab the mud that would help the Creator form the Earth.
Earthy, persistent, engaging — it’s no wonder people feel inspired to get turtle tattoos on their bodies. The sweet turtle has been a symbol for ages, and will continue to be, especially for folks who feel a specific connection to both land and water.