Be it as part of the background of an old school Wabori piece, or atop a Western Trad torch, or even as fillers completing a sticker sleeve, fire and flames are easily a staple of tattoo composition. Aesthetically, fire tattoos are versatile and alluring; symbolically, it is timeless and profound, a defining element of our species. Our forefathers have left us wonderful and magical stories about mankind’s discovery of fire: Prometheus’ theft of fire from Hephaestus’ workshop according to Greek mythology; the Polynesian counterpart, Māui’s deception of the fire goddess Mahuika; the Chinese FuXi (伏羲) and NüWa (女媧) creating humans from mud and bestowing fire. It would seem that every set of origin myth worth its salts reserved a special spot for this most miraculous of human finds.
Have you ever sat out in the wilderness in the darkest of nights, away from all the convenience and security of civilization, where the only light peeks out from the moon and stars? That is how it was for thousands of years before the power of heat and light was harnessed by our ancestors in the form of fire. As we sit in the illuminated radius of a bonfire in silence, eyes following and reflecting the flickering flames, it is as if time immemorial has ceased to flow in a linear manner. We are transported deep within to the spirt of the depths, the same spirit that has been animate in our earliest fore-bearers. For many of us, this is why we are attracted to, and want to have, a fire tattoo ourselves.
Fire is almost always associated with gods and magic, and fire tattoos often reflects this. The power to destroy and to create sees its manifestation in the phoenix rising from the flames, the archetypal theft of the seed of fire from the gods, sacrifices in the form of burned offerings, and even in nature – when forests succumbing to massive forest fires rejuvenate the soil for a more fertile ecosystem. It is no wonder (or rather, absolutely wondrous) that as one of the four classical elements, it has etched its influence into the collective psyche of our species, becoming a potent symbol in pretty much every single facet of our culture.
Do not for a second think that this mystical association with fire is a thing of the past, that in our empirical age of science and hard facts, fire is just a chemical reaction, as lightning is static electricity, rain simply precipitation. In every corner of the world, temples remain steeped in the fragrance of lit incense, smoke wafting towards the skies. This harkens back to our shadowy and often disturbing past of offering ritual sacrifices to the heavens, which we’ve associated as the dwelling of divine beings governing the ineffable. This practice of negotiating with supernatural forces, relinquishing something valuable in the present (the fattest lamb, ripest crops, or even one’s own children) in order to secure dividends to come may be our first hazy notions of a tangible future, truly distinguishing the profundity of our awareness of time from that of other species.
In ancient Greece, a sacred fire is lit and sustained throughout the Olympic celebrations at the altar of Hestia, honouring Zeus. This tradition was reintroduced in the 1983 Summer Olympics, and continues to this very day, where the flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera stood from before common era. The iconic torch relay which then transports this flame to the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony is televised and watched by millions across the globe.
With fire’s innate ability to destroy and create is also the power to purify. Through heat we can rid water of bacteria, sterilize medical equipment, or smelt gold from impurities. While this mechanism is well utilized in the realms of science and technology, it has also played a significant part in our less scientifically informed history – as can be seen in our inherited vernacular and traditions. This can be another inspiration, or metaphor, for your fire tattoo.
A ‘trial by fire’ is an idiom often used to describe a situation where one’s determination and abilities are put to the test through adversities. One who survives such a trial proves their worth and is elevated or they are preserved as a sign of divine justice (i.e. destiny/fate). Make no mistake, this metaphorical expression originates from wholly literal beginnings. Trials were held in widespread areas of the world where the accused were made to walk barefoot across burning charcoal, or made to hold scalding iron in their bare hands to prove their innocence. The grisly notion that should one be truly innocent, justice will prevail through divine intervention (a miracle) in the most unlikely circumstances. Such practices, though outlawed in the early 13th century by the Pope, continued well into the 14th and 15th century. However, many creatives are still captured by these horrific events, including tattoo artists such as Ant the Elder, Christopher Jade, and Haervaerk who all mainly focus on medieval and esoteric, such as fire tattoos that burn with the howls of a thousand tongues.
In the Ramayana, one of the major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, when Rama, the protagonist finally defeats Ravana, the demon-king who kidnapped his wife, Sita, a prominent event takes place. To dispel his suspicions and prove to all her chastity, Rama asks Sita to undergo an Agni Pariksha (ordeal by fire). Ordering for a burning pyre to be built, Sita walks through it unscathed. This episode is still celebrated and re-enacted ritualistically in many parts of South East Asia. In some versions, which differ from region to region, Agni, the god of fire protects Sita from harm. Another version narrates that Agni had created a Maya Sita, an illusory double taking her place to be kidnapped, and only through the Agni Pariksha could the real Sita be restored. Granted, the episode may jar against our modern sensibilities, nevertheless, it is compelling to see the role of fire and its purifying connotations. This is partly why many fire tattoos are accompanied by deities.
One does not need to look far to spot other well known phrases to do with fire in our modern vernacular, ranging from the inspirational ‘fueling the fire of one’s passions,’ to the devastating ‘consumed by hell fire,’ or even childish rhymes resounding ‘liar liar pants on fire!’ For those of us who are curious about etymology and how language has evolved in tangent with mankind’s historical and psychological developments, the terminologies surrounding fire is a treasure trove of telltale signs. For the far-gazing (or stoner) folks who wonder about human origin, fire cooks up thought-provoking theories positing our deviation from the paths of our common primate ancestors.
If we’re gonna get a little metaphysical here, think about this – fire is a process, not an entity. Rarely do we get to actually see a process without having to depend on the cognitive implications of comparing a prior state with the subsequent result (i.e. embarrassing teenage photos). Fire is the process. It is not ephemeral like wind as the movement of air particles; it is immediate and minutely observable, unlike the subtle and gradual changes of the seasons. Human beings are exceedingly visual creatures, with about 30% of the immense number of neurons in our cortex dedicated to visual processing and the most of us wired as visual learners. It may be a leap to grasp the notion of change and process through philosophical rumination, but with its dancing flames, crackling sparks and shimmering glow, fire sears the impactful impression of change in even the simplest souls.
So… need a frame for that one-shot dokuro (Japanese skull)? A border of flame onegaishimasu. Background for a deity? A side of fire please. Some odd space between flash? A sprinkle of fire will do. An elemental sleeve? A fiery blaze for days. Need I say more? Fire tattoos are ALWAYS LIT (Sorry not sorry).