“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.

Double CD features organist Aigars Reinis’ rendition of music by Alfrēds Kalniņš

Early 20th century Latvian composer Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879–1951) was one of the founding fathers of Latvian classical music. He is the composer of Baņuta, considered to be the first Latvian opera, as well as several choral songs and solo songs.

Kalniņš was also a proficient organist and was quite possibly the most famous concert organist in Latvia during his time. Such was his talent and renown that he had the opportunity to spend many years in the late 1920s and early 1930s in New York City, where he also worked and performed.

Consequently, among Kalniņš’ many contributions to Latvian classical music are his broad and extensive list of compositions for the organ. Recognizing his contribution to this field, the Latvian national record label Skani release a 2 CD collection of Kalniņš’ organ music in 2023, simply entitled Ērģeļmūzika (Organ Music), performed by distinguished Latvian organist Aigars Reinis on the world famous Rīga Cathedral organ.

The opera Baņuta is Kalniņš’ magnum opus, and this collection includes the author’s organ transcriptions of two pieces from the opera – “Svinīgs ievads” (The Stately Overture) and “Sēru maršs” (Funeral March). The overture is resplendent and celebratory, while the march is tragic and somber, and Reinis adeptly moves between these sharply contrasting moods, bringing forth the needed emotional weight in his performance.

Kalniņš time in New York City was a particularly enriching experience and the many artists he met and collaborated with there (including virtuoso organist Samuel Baldwin) inspired several compositions. The CD booklet includes a humorous note about how Kalniņš would take a portable table to Central Park and compose there. Among the works composed there were “Introduzione et Allegro”, a dramatic and lyrical work that concludes in a flurry of activity, perhaps influenced by the constant motion of the city. This contrasts with another work of that time, “Klostera idille” (Cloister Idyll), a work with a sacred mood, contemplative and reflective.

Among Kalniņš’ contemporaries was perhaps the most significant composer of the era of Latvia’s first independence – Jāzeps Vītols. During World War II, Vītols went into exile in Germany, while Kalniņš remained in Latvia during the Soviet occupation and became the rector of the Latvian State Conservatory. As one of his final compositions, Kalniņš composed a series of variations on a theme by Jāzeps Vītols. As musicologist Arnolds Klotiņš explains in the CD booklet, this was an especially provocative move by Kalniņš, as not only was Vītols considered to be persona non grata by the Soviet authorities, Kalniņš took it a step further by using a sacred theme by Vītols – “Jēzu, saule mana” (Jesus, my Sun) – a pointed message to the atheistic communist regime. This defiant gesture at the close of his career and life reinforced Kalniņš’ reputation as a truly Latvian composer. The variations, full of reverence for his colleague, have a celebratory and joyful mood about them, and organist Reinis skillfully uses the expansive sounds of the organ of the Riga Cathedral to imbue the performance with a rich resonance.

Over these two CDs of organ music, the listener will appreciate not just Alfrēds Kalniņš’ compositional skill, but also his significant contribution to the development of the Latvian organ music repertoire. Kalniņš wove together the traditions of the 19th century (and earlier) with the more modern approaches of the early 20th century to create a collection of works that provided a solid foundation for Latvian music in the decades beyond. Organist Aigars Reinis, using the full capabilities and sonic range of the organ of the Riga Cathedral, provides lush and resonant performances of these works, reaffirming Kalniņš’ place as one of the great Latvian composers.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Alfrēds Kalniņš – Ērģeļmūzika

Aigars Reinis, organ

LMIC/SKANI 149, 2023

Track listing:

CD 1

1. Fantāzija

2. Pastorāle nr. 1

3. Introduzione et Allegro

4. Cloister Idyll

5. Scherzo

6. Christmas Lullaby

7. Kāzu maršs

8. Procesija

9. Variācijas par Jāņa Kalniņa tēmu

CD 2

1. Agitato

2. Svētvakars

3. Svinīgs ievads no operas Baņuta

4. Sēru maršs no operas Baņuta

5. Prelūdija

6. Pastorāle nr. 2

7. Variācijas par Jāzepa Vītola tēmu

8. Himna manai dzimtajai zemei

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Thunderous drum and bagpipe ensemble Auļi celebrate 20 years with recent release

Over the past two decades, drum and bagpipe ensemble Auļi have become one of the best known and most visible musical groups from Latvia. Their energetic, even thunderous, recordings and live performances have attracted listeners from all over the world.

To celebrate their twentieth birthday in 2023, Auļi released a best of compilation entitled Deviņvīru spēks, which translates literally to ‘strength of nine men’, but is also the Latvian name for the mullein plant (Verbascum Thapsus), used in a number of Latvian folk remedies. The collection includes eighteen tracks from throughout their history.

This is Auļi’s second ‘best of’ compilation, the first one being Dižducis, released in 2013 to celebrate their first decade.

Latvian folk traditions and beliefs have inspired many of Auļi’s songs, and the group has expanded their sound throughout the years with new kinds of drums and bagpipes, to further diversify their sound palette. They have released albums with songs inspired by the Jāņi, or Midsummer, festival such as ‘Līgo lauki, līgo pļavas’, and songs about the ķekatas (mummery) tradition, such as ‘Laid, māmiņa, istabā’.

Auļi have also extensively collaborated with not just other Latvian musicians, but with many international musicians, and many of the tracks on Deviņvīru spēks are such collaborations. From Latvia, Auļi have performed with the group Tautumeitas on the song ‘Dzied’ papriekšu, brāļa māsa’, and assembled a large group that included Suitu sievas, Vilkači, Tarkšķi and others, to perform the song ‘Ozoliņi’.

Auļi have also worked with many artists worldwide, such as ‘Tāltālu’ with singer Kilema from Madagascar, ‘Maijodler’ with yodeler Albin Paulus, and ‘Orbina’ with Sami joik singer Kai Somby. One of their most popular songs (whose video has reached more than seven million views) is ‘Hunnu Guren’, performed with Mongolian throat singer Batzorig Vaanchig.

The CD booklet includes some brief biographical notes and a few words about every Auļi album, and the notes are in both Latvian and English.

For further information, please visit the Auļi website.

Auļi – Deviņvīru spēks

Lauska CD102, 2023

Track listing:

  1. Sūda dziesma
  2. Auļos…
  3. Liftilugu
  4. Ozols
  5. Diņķis
  6. Tāltālu
  7. Metens
  8. Dzied’ papriekšu, brāļa māsa
  9. Maijodler
  10. Orbina
  11. Hunnu Guren
  12. Alšvangas dūdu meldiņš
  13. Ozoliņi
  14. Jūra
  15. Perkons brauca pār debesi
  16. Līgo lauki, līgo pļavas
  17. Laid, māmiņa, istabā
  18. Man bij’ kaltis kumeliņis

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.