“I felt cleansed and powerful”: Latvian diaspora tattoos and their meaning

In September, 2023 I embarked on a small study of Latvians living outside Latvia to learn what getting a tattoo means to them. Having noticed many young Latvians with tattoos at the Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Latvia in 2023, I assumed this is purely a millennial and Gen Z way of expressing their Latvian identity. What is their reason for getting tattoos? Are they purely aesthetic – merely “cool” designs – or maybe a good talking point in conversations with locals in the country where they live? Or do they have deep meaning to the wearer, signifying their heritage or a bond with certain people in their lives?

The survey was disseminated online in September/ October 2023 via the website Latvians Online and social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. The response was quite remarkable! It appeared that I had touched on a subject that had not been researched before  in the Latvian community abroad – and people were more than willing to share their stories. Comments at the end of the survey confirmed that this topic was interesting to many as respondents were also keen to be informed about the findings of the survey, and some even commented that this is a “cool” research topic.

A total of 266 people respondend to the online survey and another handful replied in the comments section on the website. Of these respondents, 30 took part in a more in-depth round of questions later, delving a bit deeper into the reasoning and back story behind their decision to get Latvian tattoos. This quick analysis will only cover some of the answers to the survey questions – those that could be most of interest. More detailed data analysis will feature in an academic journal article later.

What do the tattoos depict?

Overwhelmingly, 92% of respondents stated that it was a Latvian symbol or word. The answer to the million dollar question – which Latvian symbol (raksts) is most popular  for a tattoo? It was a toss up between four – Auseklis, Saulīte, Austras koks, and Laimas slotiņa. Which one came out on top? Only by a narrow margin – it was Saule/Saulīte, followed by Auseklis, with Laimas slotiņa hot on its heels. Austras koks/Tree of life was not far behind in popularity.

So what did respondents say about these symbols? Many meanings were attributed to saule/sun sign/ saulīte: growth, fertility, feminine energy, good luck,  light, the mother of the earth, health, positivity, light persevering over darkness. Other respondents mentioned a more personal relevance – related to their connection with their heritage, ancient knowledge, history, Latvia, a sense of belonging, family.

With the Auseklis symbol, there was a range of answers: morning star, roots, my heritage, hope, protection, new beginnings, order of the universe, connection to culture, consistency (referring to Latvia) were only some responses. For instance: “Latvia is one of the only things I know to be consistent in my life – though my relationship with Latvia may change and at points be difficult, I know it’ll always hold a place in my heart so I wanted to commemorate that. The meaning relating to light and stars was also important to me as a positive and vastness”.

Austras koks, however, was explained more elaborately and had more significance from a “heritage” and ”roots” perspective. The tree of life symbol; protects the family and gives strength and counsel; “the roots of the tree are associated with the underworld, the middle – the earth on which people, animals and other living things exist and the the crown of the tree is connected to the spiritual heaven.”.

Another respondent’s reply put it all in a neat nutshell: “A connection to past, present, and future and a reminder of the culture and language that my grandparents and parents worked hard to instil in me.” Through this tattoo, this tattoo wearer has extended the meaning of this symbol to conceptualise one’s relationship with their Latvian heritage, painstakingly instilled via the efforts of previous generations.

Many other Latvian symbols – both “raksti” and also other symbols were chosen as meaningful for respondents and worthy of becoming a permanent feature on their bodies. For instance – the zalktis, admitted one respondent, represents female ingenuity and wisdom, but for them it is a reminder of mental fortitude, especially when things get tough. There is also a deeper meaning attached to tattoos by some – that it is possible to feel a deeper spiritual connection with the deities they represent, in this case, zalktis is seen as an alternate form to the deity Māra.

Mēness zīme (Moon symbol), Laima, Laima’s slotiņa (Laima’s broom), Zvaigzne (star), Jumis, Ūsiņš, Pērkons (the god of Thunder), Māra, Māras līklocis (Māra’s zigzag), Akas zīme (well), Mārtiņa zīme, Dieva zīme (symbol of God), Krupīts (toad) are other Latvian deities or symbols that had deep significance to ancient Latvians and Latvian tattoo wearers today could also justify the reason for choosing each particular symbol, or combination of symbols.

Family bonds, ancestral connections

This response was an example of the deeper significance of the symbols at a personal level: “I have a large geometric and symmetrical patterned tattoo comprising of: Mēness zīme, Dieva zīme, zalktis, ozoliņš. While it does not contain the totality of the Latvian pantheon, it compliments my love for Latvian folklore very much. And in some capacity, albeit I’m not particularly spiritual, it nevertheless gives a feeling of being watched over and cared for by the Latvian pantheon in the same way our own parents care and watch over us.”. There is an interesting dichotomy here which could be worthy of further exploration – though there is a denial that the respondent is “particularly spiritual” they have, however, chosen to permanently etch these powerful symbols on their body for a sense of protection.

Another wearer described a combination of Latvian symbols tattooed on their leg: “[I have] the Lielvārde belt around my leg [which] consists of 5 symbols. An oak tree, the cross of Mara, Thunder and Zalktis. Each symbol has its own meaning, but these were chosen because they also represent a certain time of the year associated with the birth of relatives.”. Here, each seasonal symbol was chosen to represent the birth of a relative into one’s family – an interweaving of the personal (one’s family) with one’s ancient Latvian spiritual heritage.

Continuing the family thread, one respondent shared the reason for a matching choice of tattoos on one’s inner forearm: “I have the word māsa (sister) tattooed on my inner forearm. My sister has a matching tattoo to mine. My sister and I are both half Latvian (from our dad) and we are proud to be members of such a resilient and beautiful culture. We wanted a tattoo that would show our bond to each other and our culture.”. Again, bonds that transcend familial ties to a pride in a jointly experienced culture on their father’s side.

Another person’s view, however, was that their deceased relatives would be ambivalent about their decision: “There is a sense of connection. My grandparents would not have approved of a tattoo, but they would definitely endorse the connection I feel to a land so far away from where I live.”. Still, others are pragmatic about their connection and put things into perspective from a different angle: “I am no more connected than I already was. It’s just something that looks cool, has a cool story, and identifies me, just like a Namejs [ring] would. People are still iffy on the subject of tattoos, and I respect that. Who knows what my ancestors would think. They’d just be proud that I even speak the language and participate in events.”.

As a fair number of Latvians are named after ancient Latvian divinities (eg. Māra, Laima, Jānis, Dēkla, Jumis) a personal interweaving of one’s own name with divine involvement can also be found in some explanations:The broom of Laima [the goddess of fortune]… ‘Ej, Laimīte, tu pa priekšu…[es tavās pēdiņās]. (You go first, Laima; I will follow in your footsteps) is a reminder for me to listen to myself (my middle name is Laima, but it is also a reminder to connect with my ‘higher self’ and the divine, to follow in its footsteps)”.

According to another respondent who sought to explain their personal input into the tattoo design: “they’re all expressions of a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ [a quality that is difficult to explain] of being Latvian to me. That deep naturalistic, semi-pagan, semi-spiritual, deep roots, in a modern (like me) way. Also, I drew them all. So deeply meaningful.”. A sense of belonging to something bigger – the “Latvian tribe” – comes through in another quote: “…a very stylistic tribal band, left arm, saule/ auseklis/ pērkonkrusts/ laimas slota/ krusta krusts/ Dievs/ dārzs”. When asked what all these symbols mean to this wearer, they replied laconically: “Everything”.

Unique choice of symbols

Latvian symbols can also take the form of text from popular songs. The lyrics of popular group Prātā vētra had been the inspiration for one respondent: “Pēc negaisa vienmēr būs saule, pēc nakts vienmēr rīts.”…one of my favorite songs, … after every hardship there is beauty waiting on the other side.’. Others have been quite witty with their choice of tattoo, by choosing a Latvian saying: “Pūcei aste zied [The owl’s tail is blooming] – A saying that my family would say when something would never happen. ‘Tu dabūsi tetovējumu kad pūcei aste zied.’.[you will get a tattoo when the owl’s tail will be blooming]”

For some, having the word “latviete” (Latvian) tattooed on one’s body symbolises their nationality and roots or a Latvian flag inside a heart or something simpler – a “vainags” (Latvian flower crown traditionally worn in summer, especially on Midsummer Night) or even a simple “smilga” (bent grass) are enough to be the sign that encapsulates their Latvian identity. Other responses included: a daina (folksong verse) often mentioned by one’s grandmother, a Latvian plant, madara (flower: Lady’s bedstraw), oak leaves, ‘smilga’ (bent grass), the title of the folkdance group one is a member of, song lyrics, a Latvian postage stamp, the Riga skyline, a Latvian painting, “Jāņu zāles” (flowers plucked for Jāņi celebrations), Baltic storks, three stars (from the Freedom Monument). All of these examples are either Latvian symbols from nature or symbolise Latvia in some form and therefore have meaning to the wearer.

Spiritual meaning

When specifically asked if their tattoo gives them protection, strength, clarity etc., then most people replied in the negative (some admitted that’s because they are not spiritual themselves) yet some claimed that it did: I think that they do have personal spiritual meaning which is why I don’t like talking about them too much to others. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen direct “power” of my tattoos.”.

Another person indicated that the spiritual meaning is more symbolic than anything else: “It has a spiritual meaning in the sense that it is a symbol of my Latvian identity, which is an integral part of my personality. It gives me strength in the sense that it reminds me of the difficulties my family overcame to get to the USA and the strength and resilience of my family in starting new lives here. I remember it when I have difficulties myself and then they don’t seem nearly as serious as I first thought.”.

Motivation for getting tattoos

Respondents listed a number of reasons for getting their Latvian tattoos. The most frequent reply was symbolism (70%), followed by a desire for self-expression (66%) and Latvian group identity (59%). Other reasons were cultural or religious reasons, commemoration of a loved one, spiritual reasons, personal growth, emotional healing, aesthetics. So, there is a strong link between tattoos and the symbolism that they hold for the wearer – either as a personal statement to express their personal unique identity to the world or to visually confirm their sense of belonging to Latvia and their Latvian heritage.

One person reasoned that the tattoo would be a permanent reminder of one’s Latvian identity: “I have been thinking about a Latvia-related tattoo for several years. When I left school, I felt that maintaining my “Latvianness” would be much harder than before, and tattoos were one way of permanently linking myself to my identity and reminding myself of it”.

A heartfelt explanation included remembering surviving hardships in life: “I got my second Latvian tattoo a few years later, after a difficult time in my life. It is the text ‘lai sadega nelaimīte, kā uguns dzirkstelīte (let your misfortune burn, like embers in the fire)’. I really like that text and it moves me. It comes from a song that I often listened to in order to get through the difficulties of life.”.

Placement on body and visibility

By far the greatest number of respondents shared that their tattoo(s) is on a part of their arm (60%) – either on their arm, should, hand etc. This was followed by the back (upper, lower) (21%) and the leg (leg, foot, ankle etc.) (18%) and torso (18%).

How willing are wearers of Latvian tattoos to make them visible in their daily lives? 53% had tattoos which are visible when they wear short-sleeved pants/ shirts. Speaking of visibility, the size of the tattoos also matters. 51% of respondents have tattoos that are 3-8 cm in diameter while a further 42% have tattoos that are bigger – 8cm or larger. 22% have small tattoos – 1-3 cm in diameter. Some outlier answers were full arm sleeve tattoos or full back, hips, ribs.

If the tattoo is easily visible, then the wearer is usually prompted by others to talk about Latvia and their ancestry and the meaning of the symbol. One respondent shared: The questions depend on who is asking – from another Latvian it is a point of identification and usually an induction into the [local] sabiedrība (community) if they’re unaware [of one]; from Australians it’s the start of a rabbit hole as they slowly learn about a country they’ve usually never heard of and how culturally rich it is. I’ve had many friends actually start coming to Latvian events to experience it first-hand.”.

Some people don’t really want to discuss their tattoos with others and consider them private: “The first question I get is, ‘what do these symbols mean?’ I honestly don’t like talking about my tattoos. Or explaining the pagan meaning since I know people won’t understand it and I like to keep private about things that are somewhat spiritual to me.”.

Research before getting tattoo(s)

Most respondents had searched for the tattoo design online (65%) and almost half had skimmed through books, magazines etc. (46%). Almost a third had spoken to others (29%) and one fifth had looked at other people’s tattoos (20%) for inspiration. Some consulted their relatives (parents, grandparents), others – botanical drawings for design accuracy. The reason for the research was to fully understand the meaning of the design (65%), to make a choice on which design suits best (54%), looks best (40%), or for accuracy (51%).

Response of family and friends

Bearing in mind that the age group of respondents is quite varied, it was interesting learn about the response of friends and family to the tattoo(s). 89% of respondents stated that friends were either very positive or positive in their response. Yet, when it came to family members, while 74% were either very positive or positive in their response, 16% of family members were indifferent and 9% indicated that the response of each family member was different.

Feeling after getting tattoo

Asked if they felt different after getting their tattoo, just over half (55%) agreed, while 45% did not feel any different. Those who did felt a sense of pride, more at home in their identity regarding their heritage, while for others there was a sense of belonging, being part of a particular tribe, connection to their heritage, identity, roots. Other answers included feeling more: confident, real, empowered, whole, beautiful, more of themselves, or even cleansed – and for others it made their identity visible and also provided a conversation starter: “Mainly it acts as a striking visual cue of my heritage, and prompts questions from the non-Latvians around me (which is the vast majority of people)”.

For others, each tattoo signified a particular moment in their lives:”[I felt] emotionally different based on the point in life I was each time”. For one respondent, the tattoo triggers a sense of strength: “I got it when I was feeling depressed and now that it’s written on my body, I think about it often when I need to feel stronger”. For some, there was a sense of growth: “I would say I am very much not known for risk-taking or being showy but just the act of getting my first tattoo felt like a subtle show of maturing and independence”.

Final thoughts

So what is the take home message, having learnt more about Latvians living abroad and their tattoos? I guess my greatest surprise was learning that not only do the Millenials and younger generations get tattoos – there is a growing number of Gen Xers and some Baby Boomers who are getting around to fulfilling a silent dream they may have had for many years.

The other unexpected finding was that many Latvians who get tattoos have done much research on the signs and symbols they planned to get tattooed on their body. Their answers showed a genuine passion for and a sense of connection with their heritage and their insight into the symbols – the visual representation of this connection – was not taken lightly. Responses showed that this deep sense of belonging had led these people on a journey of discovery, of learning about Latvian symbolism, digesting the meaning of these ancient symbols which was then processed by each person individually before it become a permanent manifestation on the wearer’s body.

There seemed to be few regrets by my respondents (only if the tattoo was badly done) and the permanence and placement of each tattoo seemed to generally instil in each wearer a feeling that they could be a better version of themselves, and that the tattoo(s) were a symbol of the permanency of sense of connection to their personal and collective ancestors, Latvian heritage and roots.

Thanks to all who responded to this survey! Watch this space for news on a coming photo exhibition of diaspora Latvians and their tattoos – both virtual and face-to-face (in Latvia)!

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

Latvian pianist Dzintra Erliha to tour US in 2024

Distinguished Latvian pianist Dzintra Erliha returns to the United States in 2024 with multiple solo concerts, including a performance in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City on February 9.

Erliha will also perform in Boston at the Berklee College of Music, at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, at Latvian centers in Boston and Cleveland, and will also give concerts in California.

The concerts will include performances of works recorded on her latest album – 2023’s Serena, released on the PRIMA Classic label, which features piano works by Latvian and American women composers. Concerts will also include works by Pēteris Vasks, Starr Parodi, Leanna Primiani, Esin Aydingoz, and others. The Carnegie Hall concert will also include the performance of Lolita Ritmanis’ Trio, and Erliha will be joined by violinist Una Tone and cellist Sasha Ono.

For further information, please visit Dzintra Erliha’s website.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

Latvian Tattoos Survey of Latvians living abroad

The aim of this survey is to find out about those who live outside Latvia and have Latvian tattoos. Who is getting them? Is it only Millennials and Gen Zs who are getting them or are previous generations now coming on board too? Are more men than women getting Latvian tattoos or viceversa? Why are Latvians living abroad getting a Latvian tattoo? And what do their friends and family think of this? Are tattoos replacing Latvian jewellery as a symbol of ethnic belonging?

During the Latvian Song Festival many Latvians who live abroad and have Latvian tattoos were visible on the streets of Riga. Some were very prominent on their wearers’ bodies, others were only visible on hot short-sleeve shirt days. This led to my interest in finding out more about Latvians (of all generations) living abroad and their interest in Latvian tattoos and what these tattoos mean to them. 
If you live anywhere outside Latvia, are of Latvian descent (1st, 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation), or have an affiliation to Latvians and have a tattoo which you consider to be a Latvian tattoo (or plan to get one), please fill out this survey! Please complete the survey by October 10th, 2023.


Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.