What Is and Is Not the BDSMblem?

The BDSMblem is a design based on a Triskele. The Triskele is the basic shape of the Emblem, with three "arms" curving out from the center and merging with an encompassing circle. The Triskele is an ancient shape that has had many uses and many meanings in many cultures. Not all Triskeles are BDSMblems! It is the details of the design that make it the BDSMblem. Not the basic shape. Look at these examples and see Why it Matters, below.

Are BDSMblems
These are BDSMblems
All three of these graphics are the Real Thing. Their details meet all the critical criteria of the BDSM Emblem design:
1) The rims and spokes are of a color indicating metal, in this case gold, iron and silver.
2) The rims and spokes are of uniform width with the arms rotating clockwise.
3) The inner fields are black.
4) The holes in the fields are truly holes and not dots.
Not BDSMblem
This is not!
This is a basic Celtic Triskele. It is many hundreds of years old and originally represented the Three Faces (or phases) of the Goddess in pre-Christian Celtic culture. Since the coming of Christianity to the Celtic lands, it's come to symbolize the Trinity. Modern Pagans continue to use it as a symbol of balance among many of life's 3-fold divisions.
Not NDSMblem
This is not!
This symbol, with dots instead of holes, was the coat of arms of an ancient Okinawan family and has since become the emblem of a form of Okinawan martial arts. Reverse the direction of rotation to get the coat of arms of a rival family.
Not BDSMblem
This is not!
With a red rim, arms, and dots, this triskele is the emblem of a school of Buddhist Drumming.
Not BDSMblem
This is not!
To the best of my knowledge, this exact symbol belongs to nobody at the moment. But there are many oddly colored variants like this out there on BDSM sites, all making one or more of the design mistakes here. The arms rotate the wrong way. The rim and arms are not metal-colored. The inner fields are not black. It's a Triskele, but it is not the BDSMblem.
Not BDSMblem
This is not!
Again, I am unaware of this variation symbolizing anything in particular. Many Triskeles similar to it appear on BDSM Web sites — often with the rim and arms tubular and the dots appearing as little globes (a version I'm not a good enough artst to recreate). A nice design, but the details do not identify it as the BDSM Emblem.
Not BDSMblem
This is not!
This is another form of Celtic Triskele. It often appears without the circle, as well. Some believe this is the design Pauline Reage had in mind when she described the ring worn in The Story of O, so it does have legitimate claim to BDSM signifiance. It does not, however, belong uniquely to the BDSM world. Besides its basic Celtic significance, this Triskele has become a symbol for Breton Nationalism, a movement for political independence of the French region of Brittany, which has a Celtic background and culture.
D.O.T. Logo
This is not!
This Triskele is the logo of the United States Department of Transportation.
This is not!
This is a Taoist symbol, known as a Taegeuk. There are many variations used by a wide array of different Taoist groups. The colors, use of dots and meanings vary. The name comes from the Chinese words "Tae" (joyfullness) and "Geuk" (eternity). The term "Taegeuk" is also used to describe forms in Tae Kwon Do, but that apparently has little or nothing to do with the design — at least as far as I can tell. Similar Triskeles are used in various Buddhist traditions as well.
This is not!
Here we have an old Italian Triskele. It was the symbol of Trinacria, which is now Sicily. It came back into use in 1808 when Murat became King of Naples. A similar Triskele appears on the coats of arms of the Isle of Man and of Cossa, Italy.

Sortas, Kindas, and Maybes
Variation 1
This was the first variant to turn up online, developed by a fellow in England whose name I've forgotten (if you know, please remind me so I can give him due credit). From a design details point of view, it is almost entirely wrong. Only the barest remnant of the original symbolism remains. On the other hand, there is no denying that it looks really cool, so who can help but like it? Part of me wishes I'd thought of this approach myself, but if I had, I wouldn't have used it. It is too cool, and the BDSMblem needed to be of a design subtle enough not to call attention to itself when worn as jewelry. This would not do the job. I have seen this particular shaping, with the blade-like arms rotating counterclockwise to a minimal rim, cited from a work on "Masonic and Occult Symbols," but have seen no reference to colors or dots. And while this shape is clearly old, my reference source was one I consider extremely suspect in terms of ascribing history and meaning. So, since this depiction appears to be unique and not treading on any other symbolic toes, I personaly recognize it as a legitimate alternate symbol for BDSM web sites, although not actually a BDSMblem.
^sparrow's SSC Variant
This variation was created by ^sparrow of subNATION to emphasize the Safe Sane Consensual aspect of the Emblem's meaning. There's logic, then, in her changing the inner fields from black to the colors of standard safewords. And if that didn't make the meaning obvious, the words "Safe," "Sane," and "Consensual" certainly drive the point home. Again, I consider this variation unsuitable for public wear, which is what the BDSMblem was designed to be for. It is too likely to expose the meaning of what was meant to be a covert symbol. But for BDSM web site use, this certainly has an educational purpose and is a worthwhile contribution to BDSM symbolism.
Gay Rainbow Variant
Joey Blue I think his name is. The guy who created this variant, that is. I'm pretty sure that's right, but the file with his name in it was lost and, well, I have a memory like a whatchamacallit. So if you can correct me, please do. The meaning is clear enough — BDSM, but specifically Gay. I can see this as filling a very real need, so I consider it a legitimate variation.

Why It Matters

Before I deal with generalities, let me share a specific in the form of a letter I received. The emphasis is mine.
Dear Sir,

     The symbol you are using has recently come to my attention. I have
visited your web site and noticed your concern for anyone who may already
be "using" the symbol or any potential copywrite infringements. The reason
this has come to my attention is that a few people in my area have
complained to me about being approached for BDSM while wearing
a very close variant of this symbol, which we as followers of a Druidic
path call a triskele.

     To us it symbolizes the balance that must be maintained between any set
of elements (mind, body, spirit; etc.). Please bear in mind that this is not in
any way an admonishment or demand that you stop using it, just a notifi-
cation that you are most definately NOT alone in your use of this symbol
and its public display. I personally know of close to a thousand people
worldwide who follow similar religious paths that may be offended by your
use in this manner. Again, this is not any type of demand or rebuttal, simply
for your information. Regretfully, though, there are those in my circles who
would like to take action, and are presently seeking advise from the American
Civil Liberties Union for infringement upon religious freedoms and expression.
They liken it to neo-nazi organizations using the crucifix in their logos. I
personally doubt that any legal action will be taken (I don't feel they have a
case), and I am trying to dissuade anyone from taking any action of any form
as I feel it would go against one of our basic creeds of " an it harm none, do
as thou will".

    Thank you for your time and understanding in this matter.

Here is my reply:

I understand and share your concerns. Without going into great detail here,
the idea behind what you know as the BDSM Emblem was initially proposed
and and promoted in a precise manner. In brief, it was to be a symbol based
on the Triskele — which has antecedents in Eastern as well as Celtic symbolism — with (and pardon me for shouting here) VERY SPECIFIC DETAILS. It was to be those details which marked this one specific Triskele-based design as the BDSM Emblem.

We took this approach to enable those who wanted to find others of like
interests to identify themselves to each other in a silent way, without outting
themselves to a potentially persecuting public. Therefore, the symbol was
based on one that would otherwise go unnoticed. There were also other
historic/cultural reasons for choosing the Triskele, but that's not of importance

What happened was that people started spreading the Emblem across the
Web without the background information required for proper understanding.
Some people took to considering ANY Triskele as a BDSM symbol which is,
flatly, wrong. A great portion of my effort with The Emblem Project has been
trying to educate the BDSM community otherwise, but it's proving to be an
uphill battle, especially as some other jewelry manufacturers within the com-
munity, most the the best of intent, have been producing what they call BDSM
jewelry featuring a wide variety of Triskeles.

Not only is it causing the trouble you mentioned, but people are paying money
for jewelry and tattoos, thinking they are wearing a symbol that means one
thing but which in reality symbolizes anything from the 3 faces of the Goddess
to a form of Okinawan martial arts to a school of Buddhist drumming.

I wish I had an easy answer, but if you and your community are willing to aid
in clearing up the misunderstanding, I'd sure be grateful. When approached by
somebody with a BDSM interest, the please let them know that what you wear
is absolutely NOT the BDSM Emblem and that they can find the details which
make for the real thing at the Emblem Project web site.

So there it is: precisely the sort of misunderstanding we wanted so badly to avoid. Certain BDSMers look like total offensive jerks simply because they didn't understand the symbol they were using. And we all look bad because of them. Nevermind that business about a lawsuit -- it isn't going to happen because there's absolutely no case there. Just look at the fact that some people were considering such a course as an illustration of how angry and upset they must have been.

I, for one, can't blame them. How would you like it if you were approached by somebody who thought that an innocent logo on your t-shirt was the international symbol for people who want to have sex with (fill in the blank with whatever disgusts you most).

Here's the bottom line. The BDSMblem (which, yes, I was spelling out as "the BDSM Emblem" back when this page was originally made) was created to allow BDSMers fearing persecution to identify themselves to each other secretly. The key words are "identify" and "secretly." To aid in secrecy, the Emblem was created to look common enough not to arouse too much interest. To aid in identification, it was created with very specific and meaningful details.

The details matter. The meaning is in the details. That bears repeating. The meaning is in the details! An American Flag with black and red stripes and green 6-pointed stars on a yellow field is not an American Flag. Change the Italian flag's green to blue, and you have the flag of France.

If you approach somebody wearing the BDSMblem, you want to be sure that what you are seeing truly is the BDSMblem and not a declaration of religious faith, cultural heritage or political affiliation. When you're wearing a BDSMblem, you want to be sure that other BDSMers can recognize it for what it is. You don't want them to ignore it thinking that you're wearing a martial arts logo. The only way to be sure is to have the details right.