Key Tattoos: Symbology and Secret History

This object is our means of access to all that is hidden. The ultimate symbol of safekeeping, power and alliance. Let’s take a closer look at its secret history…

The oldest form of key was discovered in the ruins of the city of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria. This rudimentary object became the model for the subsequent Egyptian key (the ancestor of our modern day house keys) which was made out of wood and already came with a lock system extremely ingenious for the times. However the first metal keys were forged by English locksmiths between 870 and 900 A.D. The key underwent significant development in the late 18th century during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. One of the most innovative engineers in the field of “locks and keys” was the Englishman Robert Barron who in 1778 registered a patent still in use today.

Tiny Miss Becca, Jayne Doe Tattoo, Hornchurch, UK
Tiny Miss Becca, Jayne Doe Tattoo, Hornchurch, UK

The Bramah wild challenge

Another noteworthy name is Joseph Bramah, the proprietor of a locksmith’s shop called ‘Bramah Locks’ situated at 124 Piccadilly Circus. He put an infernally complicated lock on display in his shop window with a sign daring passersby to try to break it. “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock will receive a reward of 200 pounds” (a small fortune for those times). And how did they fare? The dare lasted for something like 67 years until the Great Exhibition was held in London in 1851!

Luxury keys

Another vital figure in the evolution of the key was the chamberlain. This title was used for the person who administered the property and treasury of the State (or king in the case of a monarchy). To this day, the Financial Manager of the City of London is called Chamberlain of the City of London. In the past, this figure always had a key hanging around his neck or clearly displayed on his belt, as can be seen from numerous portraits. It was therefore during the golden age of the chamberlain (during the 18th century) that keys evolved from a crude cast iron object to a precious work of art fashioned from silver, gold and diamonds. The keys most in demand among collectors are the Roman ring keys, the Gothic key with its lozenge-shaped bow, the Venetian key with its finely decorated bow and the Florentine with its twisted shaft.

Gianluca Fusco, The Family Business Tattoo, London, UK
Gianluca Fusco, The Family Business Tattoo, London, UK

The Ankh mystery (part 1)

The Egyptian symbol of the Ankh, also known as the ‘key of life’ (or handled cross) was carried held in the crook of the arm or displayed on the chest. What exactly it represented is still a mystery to serious Egyptologists. Some scholars believe it symbolises the maternal womb (in hieroglyphics, the exact translation of Ankh is actually ‘life’) while others see it as a knot in the laces used in Egyptian sandals. Then there is another school of thought which sees what we innocently perceive as a key to be in reality a pair of genitalia (male and female) intertwined.

The Ankh mystery (part 2)

For others however, this key symbolises the rising sun or Egypt with the stylised Nile Delta surrounded by the Libyan Desert to the west and the Arabian Desert to the east. And finally others believed it to simply represent the mystical union of Heaven and Earth. That is why the Ankh was and is still often used as an amulet to bring health, wellbeing and good fortune. On the death of a dear one, whether this person was to be embalmed or not, the Ankh was always put in the tomb. It was placed on the chest of the deceased to allow their soul to ‘open’ the gates to the afterlife. Open. Is there any better use for a key? Absolutely not. To say it in our own words, Ankh is the definitive key that opens all doors.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo Shop, Torino, Italy
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo Shop, Torino, Italy