The eight ball is the last ball to be played in most games of pool or billiards. It is a black ball with a white circle, and inside the circle is a black eight. In a routine game under normal rules, the player who sinks, or pockets, the eight ball before it is time automatically loses the game. Because of this, it is a very strategic ball. Positioning the balls so that the other player must attempt to shoot around the eight ball is advantageous.
Playing from “behind the eight ball” means you are in a bad position and at risk for accidentally knocking it in. Today, the phrase has spread beyond the game of pool and generally means to be in a bad position or to have bad luck. Because pool was once considered a nefarious activity, and is often associated with drinking and gambling, an eight ball tattoo is frequently seen as a symbol of unfortunate vices. Gambling motifs often include an eight ball to represent bad luck, along with “snake eyes” dice, or a pair of dice that each show one, which is an unlucky throw.
Some people, however, view the eight ball as lucky. In order to win a game of pool, you have to eventually sink the eight ball. To them, an eight ball represents living on the edge. While there is the potential for failure, there is also the potential for success. The eight ball symbolizes a need to take calculated risks, knowing that rewards only come by taking chances. An “eight ball” is also a drug reference, because drugs like crack, cocaine, and heroin are frequently sold in eighths of an ounce.
The eight ball tattoo originated in prisons, like so many other popular tattoo designs. The eight ball is still used by prisoners today, often incorporated into a larger design. For example, a tattoo that shows a 1, eight ball, and 7 stands for bad luck after committing a homicide, with 187 being the penal code for a homicide in the state of California. The eight ball is a popular symbol for members of the Crips, Bloods, and Kings gangs, indicating that the specific member is involved in their drug trade.
Fortunately, the eight ball symbol extends beyond prison and gang life. In civilian society, an eight ball tattoo can represent a love of pool or billiards, as it is the winning ball, or a love of risk-taking and gambling in general. Because the number 8 is the same as the infinity symbol, an eight ball tattoo is sometimes used as a symbol for infinity or eternity. In some cultures, 8 can represent the earth, the universe, good luck, Christ, thinking, friendship, heaven, prudence, devotion, and rest.
The number 8 is primarily positive in meaning. The color black is representative of mystery, intrigue, mourning, eternity, endlessness, nothingness, and openness. Because of the variability of meaning, the combination of color and number, in the form of an eight ball tattoo, lends itself to any number of potential meanings, not to mention any personal significance the symbol might have.
Stylistically, an eight ball tattoo can be rendered in a number of different ways. The tattoo might be as simple as a flat black circle surrounding a smaller white or untattooed circle with a black 8 in the center. It might be elaborately tattooed to look like a realistic pool ball. Moreover, the eight ball symbol can stand alone, or it might be incorporated into a much larger, expanded design.
An eight ball tattoo might also be a small part of a larger billiards or pool tattoo that depicts some of all of the balls used in the game. Although more men have an eight ball tattoo, it is an equally acceptable choice for women. Overall, eight ball tattoos are not incredibly common, but have a lot of symbolic meaning and lengthy history, which makes them an intriguing choice for many people.