The Meaning and Origin of the Three Wise Monkeys Tattoo Design

If you’ve heard of the phrase “hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil” you are probably also familiar with the three monkeys that commonly go alongside it. 

This trio of monkeys is known as the “wise monkeys” or “mystic apes”, and can be seen across pop culture and history alike – they’re even available in the form of emojis!

These three monkeys are often used for inspiration for artwork and tattoos alike, but if you’re considering getting something wise-monkey-inspired tattooed and you’re worrying it won’t be original – don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. 

Before getting any tattoo, most people want to know the reason behind any tattoo that they might get, which is completely understandable. Understanding how the Three Wise Monkeys came about can be quite confusing – but rest assured, we’ve tried our best to break this down for you below!

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the Three Wise Monkeys, as well as some suggestions for quirky twists on this traditional symbol, so that you can really make it your own. 

The Meaning and Origin of the Three Wise Monkeys Tattoo Design

Origin Story

It is hard to tell when the three wise monkeys first began to crop up throughout history, however, we know that they were introduced to Buddhism during the seventh century. 

As the story goes, a monk named Xuanzang left China for India, in search of Buddhist texts that he, as one of the most expert and prominent translators in China, would be able to bring back to China to translate. On his travels, he was joined by a monkey. 

The wise monkeys were around long before the Buddhist monk, however, with the earliest mentions of them being traced back to somewhere between the 4th and 11th Century before Christ, to the Analects of Confucius, who said: 

“Look not, at what is contrary to propriety”, “listen not, to what is contrary to propriety”, and “speak not,  what is contrary to propriety”. 

One of the main reasons for the monkeys’ popularity are the carvings of the three monkeys, created by Hidari Jingoro in the 17th century, on the second panel over the door of the Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikko, Japan. 

The idea behind the proverb is based around the Koshin belief that every sixty days (unless the person stays awake all night), three demonic parasites (or worms), known as the Sanshi, leave every human being’s body in order to tell the Ten-Tei, a higher power, of the sins we have committed.

Depending on how Koshin is a religion that draws its beliefs from traditional Japanese folklore, largely originating from Taoism, an Ancient Chinese philosophy and religion, dating all the way back to four hundred years before Jesus was recorded to have been alive.  

Some suggest that the monkeys may have prevented the Sanshi and, as a result,  the Ten-Tei from hearing, seeing or talking about any wrongs committed by their human vessel, however the monkeys and their significance to the Koshin belief is mainly drawn from wordplay within the principle itself. 

The Monkeys Each Have Names

Mizaru is the name of the monkey depicted with his hands covering his eyes – “see no evil”. The monkey with his hands over his ears is named Kikazaru, and he hears no evil. Finally, the last monkey with his hands over his mouth is called Iwazaru, who represents the encouragement to not speak any evil. 

The saying in Japanese is “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru”, which translates to “see not, hear not, speak not”. The use of the conjugation within each verb, “zaru”, can be linked to the word “saru” which means “monkey”.

Hence, the three monkeys are actually a really clever instance of Japanese wordplay, and the monkeys are often used to represent the saying.

Originally, there was a fourth monkey, posed with his hands covering his genitals, which in Buddhism is supposed to represent not doing anything evil, full stop – but in Hinduism, the fourth monkey represents the idea of hiding any enjoyment you experience from everybody.  

Gandhi even owned a statue of the three monkeys – in fact, this was the only thing he owned. 

The Meaning and Origin of the Three Wise Monkeys Tattoo Design

The Meaning Behind The Saying “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”

This saying can be interpreted differently, so it may speak to you in a different way to someone else. 

Within Buddhism, the phrase is supposed to encourage you not to give any time to evil thoughts, however this differs a lot to another interpretation, in which the monkeys suggest a lapse in being morally responsible – for example, pretending not to see an act of evil, or doing nothing to prevent it. 

There is another version of the monkeys, in which they represent the opposite of the initial saying. The first monkey is trying to see more clearly, the second is trying to hear better and the third is trying to speak louder.

They serve to remind you that you should stand up for what you believe in, instead of sitting in silence like the original monkeys may suggest. 

Depending on your personal tastes, these monkeys may mean different things to you. 

You may use them as a reminder to take action, or as a way to help you to make sure that you are only putting good out into the world. 

Tattoo Ideas

If you’re thinking about getting these monkeys (or a version of the monkeys) tattooed, you may be wondering how best to go about putting a personal spin on them. 

These three monkeys can be tattooed in a variety of creative and unique ways, allowing you to put your own special twist on this symbolic tattoo. 

Considering that the monkeys exist as a bit of fancy wordplay on a much more powerful saying and philosophy, playing around with this idea can still allow you to stay true to its original meaning.

As long as you keep with the theme of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, you will definitely be able to give this idea a creative twist, and really make this tattoo idea your own! 

Different Animals Or Characters

This could be through using your favorite characters, mythological creatures, or even a cartoon design of your children or pets drawn to assume the same poses that the monkeys take. You could give them more of an alternative twist, by using skeletons, skulls, or edgy-looking figures of your choosing to represent the monkeys.

You can choose to have the monkeys stacked on top of each other, or you might arrange them horizontally so that they are next to each other. You can also choose between only having their heads and arms tattooed, or their entire bodies based on your personal preference. 

Alternatives To Using Their Hands

You might choose to style your monkeys or alternative characters to have a piece of fabric over their specific focal point – for example, instead of a monkey with his hands over his eyes, you might make that character wear a blindfold instead.

You could have it so that instead of it being the monkeys holding their hands over their face, you have three secondary characters doing it instead – for example, instead of the monkey holding his hands over his mouth, you might have another person behind them stopping them from speaking by forcing their hand over their mouth.

This gives the saying a little bit more of a twist, as it implies that the lack of seeing, hearing, or talking is forced. If you have anti-establishment views, this could be right up your alley. 

You might choose to have the monkeys covering each other’s facial features. 

Drawing your characters so that they have snakes coming out of their specific facial feature could also be a good alternative to the traditional hands that are used. 

Using everyday objects is also a potential way to get around using hands. Sunglasses, cigarettes, and headphones are all alternative ways to block these facial features. 

Design Styles

You may choose to have a more simplistic design, similar to the emojis that we can find on our phones. Depending on your tattoo artist’s specific style, realism, line work or more of a cartoon style may be more up your alley. 

Final Thoughts

Whichever interpretation of the monkeys that you choose, we’re sure that your tattoo will stand as a powerful reminder of this old proverb. Whether you choose to keep them the same or try for your own, unique twist, this tattoo is definitely one that you’ll appreciate for years to come. 

Max Peters