Whether you’re wondering what the Mexican-style tattoos of painted skulls or women with skull-like makeup mean, or you’re looking for inspiration for your very own Day of the Dead tattoo, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the meaning and symbolism of Day of the Dead tattoos and consider some popular design ideas. And don’t forget to check out our massive gallery of awesome Day of the Dead tattoos!
What is the Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead (known in Spanish as Día de Muertos) is an important holiday in Mexican culture. The aim of the Day of the Dead is to remember and pray for friends and family members who have passed away.
Rather than being a sad occasion, Day of the Dead is a time of celebration – it is believed that during this holiday, the spirits of the dead are able to join the living to celebrate together. Colorful and joyful, the Day of the Dead is supposed to be as much an affirmation of life as it is a commemoration of death. This is partly because in Mexican culture, death is viewed as part of the cycle of life, rather than as the end.
Despite its name suggesting that it is a single day, the holiday actually takes place from October 31 to November 2 – around the same time as Halloween. Typically, November 1 is dedicated to children and infants (Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents) and November 2 to adults (Day of the Dead).
The Lady of the Dead
The most popular Day of the Dead motif in tattoo art is the image of a woman with skull-like makeup, embellished with floral patterns.
In early 20th century, Mexican painter and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada produced an etching of a female skeleton dressed in an elaborate hat. The image was supposed to be a form of satirical commentary on Mexican natives who attempted to adopt European aristocratic traditions – hence the French-style hat.
Some years later, in 1947, the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera – husband of Frida Kahlo – included a version of Posada’s skeleton lady in one of his murals, ‘Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda’. It was then that the image of the elegant skeleton woman became popularized and gained the name La Calavera Catrina.
La Catrina has become something of a symbol of the Day of the Dead. Women dress as the skeleton woman during the celebrations, and images of La Catrina are seen as synonymous with the holiday.
The Mexican holiday originates in the ritual celebrations of death in the Aztec culture, where the Day of the Dead was spread over the whole month of August. The Aztec celebrations were dedicated to the goddess known as Lady of the Dead. La Catrina is considered to be her modern representation.
Day of the Dead girl tattoos
In terms of tattoo designs based on the image of La Catrina, there’s lots of room for creativity.
Though it could seem like this kind of design would look best in color – after all, Day of the Dead is a colorful celebration – black tattoos of La Catrina look awesome, too.
One contemporary twist on the Lady of the Dead tattoo is using an image of a celebrity with sugar skull makeup added. Apart from looking unique and eye-catching, this kind of design also carries interesting cultural and ideological implications.
If we think back to the origins of the image of La Catrina – a satire of a Mexican person aspiring to look European – we’ll notice that using a European or American celebrity’s face with Mexican skull makeup reverses this idea.
Another important symbol of the Day of the Dead often featured in tattoos is the sugar skull. Sugar skulls – calaveras in Spanish – are decorative skulls made either from sugar or, less commonly, clay. They are decorated with colorful patterns with icing, beads, foil, and other materials.
During the Day of the Dead celebrations, families create altars dedicated to individual family members and friends who have passed away. These altars, known as ofrendas in Spanish, include various elements such as photos, personal items, statuettes of saints, food (usually the favorite foods of the person to whom the ofrenda is dedicated) and so on. Among those, sugar skulls are often placed.
Sugar skull tattoos
The two main variations of sugar skull tattoos are 3D and traditional-style designs. 3D tattoos aim to look realistic, and in this case to represent a sugar skull in a three-dimensional way.
You could take your tattoo one step further and go for a design involving a photorealistic 3D skull (a real-looking one, as opposed to a sugar one) with sugar skull-like patterns and markings added.
Like the Lady of the Dead, sugar skulls are often combined with flowers in tattoo designs. Roses are again among the top choices, though the overall look and style of your tattoo will dictate the best type of flower to use. Roses, which involve a lot of depth and shadow, are indeed a great option if you’re going for a 3D, realistic sugar skull tattoo.
For a more traditional, 2D look, daisies and other ‘flat’ flowers are a great choice.
Though the vast majority of sugar skull Day of the Dead tattoos are done in color, a basic black outline will make for a more original-looking tattoo. Rest assured the sugar skull will still be clearly recognizable, even without color!
Day of the Dead tattoo placements
Since Day of the Dead designs involve a lot of intricate detail and are usually at least medium-sized, we can generally rule out very small areas for placement. It’s possible to create a minimalistic design that will carry some Day of the Dead symbolism, but broadly speaking detail is needed to make these tattoos what they are.