Skulls have been used in art for centuries as an omen or sign of the end of something. A person’s brain recognizes a human skull instantly and is drawn to this skeletal remainder of a person just as they would be drawn to a living, breathing human being. This connection is what gives skull tattoo designs such power – the eye is drawn to the tattoo and the mind assigns a wealth of meaning to the ink.
The Meaning of Skull Tattoos
The human skull is often used in artworks to represent mortality, death, knowledge or humanity. The skull is the base on which the human face resides, the unseen support structure beneath every frown and smile. It is ever-present in living human beings but it is often unconsidered, giving images of human skulls a mysterious, curious air.
In Shakespeare’s time, human skulls were often used on stage as a symbol of melancholy and despair. The character Hamlet holds up the skull of his friend, lamenting his death. In this way, skulls have also become a symbol of mourning, grief and emotional pain. A skull can be combined with other symbolic designs in a tattoo to express emotional pain. When combined with a broken or bleeding heart, a skull tattoo can symbolize the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one.
The Death’s Head, also called “totenkopf” in German, is a symbol that has its origins in Elizabethan England. The Death’s Head is a skull without the lower jaw, sometimes displayed with two crossed bones. This symbol was often etched into rings or even tattooed into the skin as a sign of moral looseness. The sign was generally worn by prostitutes, drug runners and the clients of these professionals as a way to recognize each other.
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday, known as the “Day of the Dead” in English. The festival is symbolized by decorated skulls. These are often called sugar skulls (cavaleras), as the decorations are edible, decorated with icing sugar and sweets. Sugar skulls have become a popular tattoo design, combining death and beauty for a deeply symbolic tattoo. Sugar skulls originally symbolized a departed soul, but have come to symbolize a relationship with the afterlife and an acceptance of one’s own mortality.
Skull tattoos can be a way to show that one is doomed in some way – either because of a disease or a dangerous lifestyle, but interestingly enough, skull tattoos can also be used as a symbol of protection from these bringers of death. In some cultures, such as modern biker culture, skull tattoos are believed to have a preventative effect, protecting the wearer from the Reaper. This is called an apotropaic symbol – a design that is intended to turn away or repel harmful forces.
The skull and crossbones motif is based on an ancient Spanish practice, in which a human skull and crossed bones were hung at the entrances of cemeteries. This is why the skull and crossbones design was associated with death. This design is most famed for appearing on pirate flags (known as the Jolly Roger) and on poison bottles or containers of hazardous substances.
The Jolly Roger was a flag used by pirates to scare their victims into surrendering without a fight. The skull and crossbones signified that the pirates weren’t bound by laws and were willing to kill if necessary. Sometimes the pirate flag would include an hourglass or sport other variations of the skull and cross bones theme, such as displaying a skull above two crossed swords. The purpose of a Jolly Roger flag was to send a message to the pirate’s victims; “surrender or die”.
The skull and crossbones is often found on poison bottles, and has become a universal symbol of danger and death. Pictoral symbols like this can be understood in any language and are generally placed in a visible place on the label of poisons and hazardous substances as a warning. As a symbol, the skull and crossbones can be used in tattoo designs to signify the end of an era or belief, the past or as a permanent warning of danger.
The meaning of flying skull tattoos lies within the two symbols used; a skull and wings. Wings are a symbol of flight, freedom, ascension and spiritual enlightenment. Tattoos of flying skulls symbolize that death frees one of the burdens of life, the progression of the human soul through the afterlife or an ending of a previous time in a person’s life – the past has been put to death and the person freed from its constraints.
In Aztec art, the skull was used as a symbol of earth, death and resurrection. The goddess Coatlicue was portrayed with a necklace of human hearts and human hands with a human skull as a pendant. The Aztecs carved skulls into monoliths of lava and into standing stones and buildings. Skulls were also used in motifs on clothing and pottery and skull masks were carved out of jade and obsidian. Death played a large role in ancient Mexican culture, alongside many ceremonies and practices that celebrated life and the living. The Aztecs recognized that one cannot worship the deities of death and rebirth without celebrating the brief flame of life that exists as part of the cycle.