What Do Compass Tattoos Mean? [2022 Information Guide]

The compass tattoo symbolizes direction, guidance, and protection, and is a key design in geometric and maritime body art.

A compass tattoo may not seem like much on paper, but once committed to your flesh, you’ll wonder how you ever journeyed without it. More than just a wayfarer’s gadget, compass ink is symbolic of the inner compass we each carry within us that keeps us on our path no matter what life throws our way.

We’re all looking for our North Star in life, that fixed point in which we can set our deepest desires and goals. The going isn’t always smooth, but with the right tools, we can stay the course and fulfill our true purpose. 

Our guide to compass tattoo meanings ranges from nuanced symbolism, the runic compass, and cartography to different style decisions, and technical and application choices, providing you with some fantastic information to put into a design of your own.

Symbolism in Compass Tattoos

1. Compass Tattoos Mean Guidance, Protection, and Direction

Traditional Compass Tattoo For Men

Through the evolution of tattoo art, the compass symbol has been inked by those collectors looking for direction, protection, and guidance.

For some, like sailors and soldiers, they show guidance and protection while on ocean voyages and signify a yearning for home while away and connection to loved ones left behind.  

For others, the compass provides direction (and balance) to people as they make decisions throughout their life. Having a permanent reference point to look at when going forward or reminiscing helps one stay grounded and keep your mind clear.

Tattoos Of A Compass On Man

2. Vegvisir: The Viking Compass

A Norse charm also known as the Vegvísir, the Viking compass derives its name from an ancient Icelandic manuscript.

The runic compass symbol became known as “the signpost,” a charm to guide one through treacherous weather and terrain without getting lost.

The Viking compass consists of eight staves branching out from a shared point, with each stave representing a cardinal or intermediate direction. Each stave point ends in a unique symbol believed by Norse scholars to be a protective rune.

The Viking and Celtic compass tattoo can be a powerful symbol to honor one’s lineage or bestow guidance and protection upon one’s self. Just as the Vikings were unflinching warriors and adventure-seekers, they were also bound by a deep loyalty to their communities and loved ones.

3. North Star/Nautical Star Tattoo Meanings

Manly Simple Nautical Star Tattoo For Men On Forearm

Also known as North Star tattoos, the nautical compass icon is frequently used in tattoo art to honor fallen fighters who served in the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard.

Many people also see the North Star/Nautical star tattoo as the one tried-and-true way to find out where you are and choose the symbol to associate their concept with guidance, good luck, and protection.

A nautical star tattoo is popular with tattoo lovers in contemporary ink styles and the most old-school simple compass linework.

Historically, nautical compass tattoo designs were etched to celebrate the life of any sailor who was lost at sea, but also applied to those collectors who feel most connected to the maritime lifestyle.

Black Ink Nautical Star With Skull Guys Arm Tattoo Inspiration

4. Compass and Clock Tattoo Meanings

Tattoo Of Compass Mens

The compass and clock tattoos are used in combination to provide symbols of time (clock) and direction (compass), to remind that time in your life is limited so you need to explore in every direction possible until that time runs out. 

While clocks are man’s attempt at interpreting time, the work of geography and cartography is his effort to understand the physical world, so you’ll often find maps and geographical instruments as well.

Incorporating these different symbols into one design can create beautiful tattoos representing the wearer’s quest for knowledge and understanding during their lifetime.

Man With Nordic Compass Tattoo On His Hands

4. Rose Compass Tattoo Ideas

Compass Tattoos Designs For Men

The rose is an almost universal symbol of love in tattoo design – it’s one of the most enduring and highly visible motifs in body art going back centuries.

Often, color variations, style switches, and placement choices create nuanced symbolic meanings or technical interpretations of the classic rose tattoo idea.

The rose compass tattoo symbolizes love and devotion to home. If you’re away from shore and loved ones, the tattoo represents your situation and helps drive your return to homeport and the loved ones you’ve been toiling away from.

Viking Compass Tattoo For Men

5. Star Compass Tattoo Meanings

Color Tattoo Compass Rose Men

The earliest navigation methods involved observing landmarks or watching the direction of the sun and stars. 

Ancient sailors watched constellations to mark their position when they couldn’t hug the coastlines, and from there, maps were made via the reading of star and constellation positions.

Star compass tattoo designs also signify the yearning for home, while also appealing to collectors that are reaching for the stars or for those keen on horoscopes and the Zodiac.

Watercolor Norwegian Compass Tattoo For Men

6. Compass Arrow Tattoo Designs

Mens Simple Compass Tattoo Designs On Outer Forearm

Many people like to get simple or small arrow compass tattoo designs signifying north, south, east, and west, most often as black ink simple compass and arrows. 

In this design, the arrow and compass symbol involves traveling in a new direction (physically, mentally, or spiritually), and can reference anything from a new chapter in one’s life and traveling in the right direction, to a new relationship or career path. 

A simple compass arrow tattoo can also signify yearning for home while away and a means of staying connected to what you may have left behind.

Compass arrow body art can also reference time travel or the past, present, and future ideals of the self, as well as the limitations that people have operated under previously.

Simple Compass Tattoo Inspiration For Men

Technical And Application Approaches

7. Small Compass Tattoo Meanings

Small Compass Male Tattoos

A small compass tattoo is a perfect way to remind yourself of the strength and clarity with which your own navigational needle operates. Some collectors prefer big depictions in combination with bold secondary imagery, others like to keep their compass art small and simple.

It may not always make its presence clear to others but you will always know it’s there as a symbol of guidance.

Often inked in a discreet place – wrist, ankle, or inner forearm tattoo are the most popular placements – and applied in the minimalist style, the small compass tattoo is a popular choice for a “your eyes only” piece.

Watercolor Male With Small Compass Tattoos On Chest

8. Geometric Compass Tattoos

Mens Geometric Compass Tattoo Design Inspiration

While compass tattoos have a vintage tattoo style appeal, the modernized geometric compass design, with its eye-catching line work and intricate angles, can be a great conversation starter piece, or an opportunity for your artist to put some mustard on your directional concept.

While many of these designs are in black ink or grayscale to evoke a printed map, you can opt to have your geometric compass in bright colors as well. 

Because of the somewhat linear shape of many geometric compass tattoos, these tattoos are commonly seen on forearms.

While a geometric compass design can make anyone stand out from an aesthetic standpoint, this is also a tattoo with a message; you think it will help you navigate difficult seas and help you know which direction to move in, being popular for use in 3D prismatic compass tattoo art and mandala tattoos as well.

Masculine Geometric Compass Tattoos For Men

9. Watercolor Compass Tattoo Designs

Black And Blue Paint Splatter Watercolor Compass Mens Back Tattoo

The angles and lines of the compass – whether simply etched or in great detail – provide a great center from which to build a watercolor tattoo design.

While shading is somewhat lighter than a traditional tattoo, a watercolor nautical tattoo is every bit as bold in concept. Watercolor tattoo designs are striking for their simulated use of brush strokes, paint splatters, and the like to transform the rigidity of a compass, map, or grid.

The most noteworthy characteristic of a colorful compass tattoo is its lack of overall defined outlining or hard black ink, with imagery taking its inspiration from the impressionistic free-form style and coloring.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of restriction, however; watercolor tattoos are incredibly calculated and meticulously executed by a tattoo artist with great technical skill.

Colorful Mens Watercolor Compass Tattoo Design On Chest

10. American Traditional Compass Tattoo Meanings

Black Ink Compass Rose Male Inner Forearm Traditional Tattoos

Since the original traditional tattoos were often done by sailors, it is no surprise that a compass is one of the most common choices in the American Traditional tattoo style. 

This instrument was used by sailors and adventurers to navigate their way through barren areas, and are most often associated with hopes for good luck and a safe journey home.

Compass tattoos often include meanings of protection, guidance, and hope, but they can sometimes be used to show more of a sense of adventure or wanderlust.

There are many different possible designs for compasses. Some traditional tattoos depict a retro-looking compass encased inside a metal circle, while others just show the eight-pointed star as a simple compass tattoo.

Adding a compass rose or other flowers are often a romantic symbol showing that a person is guided home by an undying love. Swallows are also a frequent pairing with a compass design because sailors saw swallows when they were close to land.

Dad And Mom Traditional Compass Mens Upper Chest Tattoos

11. 3D Compass Tattoos

Cool Male Nautical Shoulder And Arm 3d Star Tattoo Designs

A popular contemporary choice is to get a 3D compass tattoo, where you can take your design symbol further by adding more layers of meaning.

My favorite is the realistic depictions of navigational compasses encased in glass and metal, that seem to be ready to hold and use.

Many tattooists create an intricate North Star or prismatic compass pattern that appears to give their skin an extra layer of texture, while others have used it as an inlay effect for text, a mandala tattoo, or other imagery.

Whatever the meaning of the compass you wish to associate, there is a 3D option that can complement your idea.

Men's 3D Nautical Compass Rose Tattoo


Compass tattoo meanings are intricate and versatile pieces of the tattoo art landscape. They can operate from an everyday place, such as the depiction of direction and guidance, or provide a symbolic link to protection.

The compass tattoo design is also hugely influenced by the range of application and style techniques that can give it an old-school sailor aesthetic, or create a fully contemporary and realistic concept linked to your own sense of self.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also
Back to top button