Sugar skull tattoos are currently very popular as body art designs. Tattoos of sugar skulls can be designed for the individual and contain decorative symbols that have meaning for the tattoo owner. Although many people view sugar skulls as being simply decorative, these designs have centuries of history behind them.
Sugar Skull Tattoos and History
Sugar skulls were brought to the New World (the Americas) in the 17th century by Italian missionaries. Sugar art had been used in Italy to celebrate Easter, an annual Christian festival that celebrated Jesus Christ rising from the dead. Italians would create lambs and angels out of sugar and sweet pastry and use these sweets to decorate the side altars in Catholic churches. The introduction of sugar decorations into South America was an attempt to Christianize the existing rituals and ceremonies in the area.
Sugar skulls were used in 18th century Mexico to commemorate a departed loved one. A skull would be made from sugar and candy and the deceased person’s name would be written on the skull. The skulls are decorated with bright colors and intricate designs to celebrate the return of that person’s spirit to the world. The decorations used on sugar skulls are also used in sugar skull tattoo designs, although a person can choose which patterns they would like to adorn the skull tattoo with.
In South America, sugar skulls are called “calavera” and sugar skull tattoos are sometimes called calavera tattoos. The word calavera can also be used to describe any artistic representation of a skull, so for sugar skull tattoos that don’t celebrate the spirit of a loved one; the name calavera tattoo might be more appropriate.
Sugar Skulls as Sweet Tattoos
The designs on sugar skulls are a symbolic celebration of the life of a deceased person and the return of their spirit to the world of the living. The confectionery designs on sugar skulls are also created to delight the returning spirit. Often the skull will have a smiling face painted onto it, following the artistic traditions of South American folk art. The eye sockets of sugar skulls sometimes contain jewels (hard boiled sweets in the shape of gems) or candy flowers.
A sugar skull tattoo doesn’t necessarily need to depict a skull. Many sugar skull tattoos are portraits of people with Day of the Dead face paint decorating their faces. This face paint is often applied to make the face look like a skull, with dark areas painted around the eyes to create the illusion of empty eye sockets. The nose is painted a dark color to give the impression of the nasal passages of the skull. Teeth can be painted on the lips and cheeks to create the traditional grinning skull of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
The designs used on sugar skulls are often feminine in nature, with floral accents and paisley shapes. Flowers are a common adornment in sugar skulls, as are hearts, stars and diamonds. Sugar skulls for men will sometimes have more masculine designs such as spider webs. Tattoos of sugar skulls can realistic or cartoonish in nature. The cartoon style sugar skull tattoos are often more colorful and decorative that realistic sugar skull tattoos.
The meaning of a sugar skull tattoo is dependent on the person wearing the tattoo. Some people choose a sugar skull design for a tattoo because they would like to commemorate a deceased loved one. Other people simply like the image of a decorated skull. For many people, the combination of death and beauty creates contrasting symbolism that is both fascinating and alluring.