Skull tattoos have a rich and fascinating history, with a range of meanings reaching back thousands of years.
In this article, we’ll explore the world of skull designs. What do skull tattoos represent? What are the most popular skull tattoo ideas? How to enrich the meaning of your skull tattoo? Keep reading to find out!
And don’t forget to check out the gallery below to see some of the best skull tattoos.
What does a skull tattoo mean?
It may come as a surprise that there is no simple answer to this question. While most of us associate the skull (particularly a human one) with death, there’s much more to this symbol than meets the eye.
Still, death is the primary theme. Most of the specific meanings in cultural or historical contexts are some variation of this notion.
A human skull in tattoo art represents not so much death itself, but the fact of our mortality. In other words, it reminds us that we’re all going to die.
This doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative thought. The idea behind remembering our mortality is more about living in the moment, appreciating our life, and making the best of our time here.
Essentially, then, a skull tattoo can be a reminder to celebrate life and take advantage of every moment we’re alive. After all, death is a part of life – not necessarily its opposite. Skull tattoos signify that the wearer accepts death and the fact of mortality.
On a related note, the skull is a common visual representation of the phrase memento mori, which means “remember that you must die” in Latin.
To some extent, this phrase has religious roots. It developed alongside Christianity as a reflection of our deeds taking us to Heaven or Hell after death. However, it can also easily be viewed and applied from a secular (non-religious) perspective, as a simple reminder of the fact that death is inevitable.
In certain circles, the skull has long been a symbol of going against the grain. Various groups used it over the centuries to show their disregard for the rules of society.
For instance, we’re all familiar with the Jolly Roger – the black pirate flag with a skull and crossbones symbol in white. Pirate ships flew this flag just as they were about to attack another vessel. This was an indicator of imminent death and destruction.
It’s also been suggested that the skull in pirate symbolism and imagery stood for going against the natural order of things. Pirates’ very occupation was based in breaking rules and disruption. Therefore, it makes sense that their symbol would be something that ‘lawful’ organizations would hesitate to adopt.
Interestingly, skulls were also symbols of breaking social rules in Elizabethan England – so, in the second half of 16th Century.
A skull, usually missing the lower jaw, was the sign of prostitutes, sexually adventurous and promiscuous individuals, brothel owners – in other words, those that society considered immoral.
These people would wear a ring with the symbol of the skull. This would allow them to proclaim themselves rebellious and identify other people such as themselves. The ring could be turned around to hide the skull.
In more recent times, outlaw bikers have been known to get tattoos of a skull. When tattooed on the forearm, the skull is supposed to protect the biker from death.
Victory and courage
In some cultures, the skull is a symbol of victory, especially in the direct sense of vanquishing enemies in battle.
There are plenty of stories about different groups fashioning their enemies’ skulls into drinking cups and chalices. The Vikings, Xiongnu, and Scythians are said to have engaged in this gruesome practice, but it’s debatable whether this is actually true.
In any case, skulls represent victory over enemies, fears, or death itself. On a more spiritual (and less violent!) level, a skull tattoo can symbolize courage in the face of death.
In recent years, visual art has begun using the human skull to represent equality and the idea that regardless of our backgrounds, we’re all the same.
The idea behind this meaning is simple: apart from minor bone structure differences, the skull of every human looks exactly the same, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, or any other aspect of their lives.
This idea is by no means new. It had been used for centuries to represent the notion that to death, it doesn’t matter where you come from, how wealthy you are, and what status you hold. Kings died just as peasants did, even if their lives had been dramatically different.
The phrase “we are all equal in the presence of death” was recorded as early as 100 BC, and its variations have inspired artists and poets ever since – most famously, John Donne. The British 17th century poet wrote, “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.”
Since the skull is universally recognized as the primary symbol of death, and death carries notions of equality, the emerging skull tattoo meaning is that of equality and non-discrimination.
Skull tattoo designs
3D skull tattoos
3D tattoos are carefully crafted, hyper realistic designs intended to look like photographs. The gentle shading and attention to detail create an illusion of depth and reality.
3D skulls are usually in grayscale. The reason for this is that the color of bone is so similar to the color of our skin, that the tattoo would not be visible. It also wouldn’t age very well, as fading would lead to it disappearing almost entirely.
Other elements can be added to a 3D skull tattoo, such as roses, candles, and other decorations.
Skull and serpent
A popular image in goth subculture, this design involves a serpent slithering through the eye socket of a human skull. It’s particularly popular among skull tattoos for men.
In this context, the serpent represents knowledge and immortality. This symbolism comes from the fact that snakes shed their skin, going through a cycle of self-renewal.
As the serpent appears in contrast with the skull, representing death, this design has an interesting meaning. It expresses the idea that knowledge is stronger than death, remaining even after the end of one’s existence.
If you’re interested in snake tattoos in general, we have a dedicated article on the topic – check it out here.
Skull and roses
Roses are an extremely popular tattoo subject, partly because of their beauty (especially in 3D) and due to the wealth of meaning that they represent.
The primary meaning of roses is that of love. In conjunction with the skull – symbolic of death – this tattoo design could mean the triumph of love over death.
Flowers more broadly indicate life and growth. As such, they create a symbolic contrast for the skull, meaning death and decay. Therefore, the design could also mean the struggle between the eternally opposite forces of life and death.
The two tattoo art styles most commonly applied to this design are the 3D aesthetic and the traditional form.
We’ve already touched on photo-realistic 3D tattoos. Roses look particularly beautiful in this style, and lend themselves very well to the shading that creates the illusion of reality.
Keep in mind that a design like this will require at least a medium amount of space. The realism of 3D tattoos is all in the details, and a sufficient relatively flat surface area is needed to render these details accurately.
Consider this design for your upper arm, back, chest, or anywhere along the leg. Although the skull will look best in black ink, the roses can be in full color. This will further highlight the meaning of life vs death.
The traditional style allows for smaller tattoos, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s based on strong outlines, solid fill with a limited palette, and not a lot of detail or shading.
To see more rose tattoos and explore other meanings and symbolism of these flowers in tattoo art, click here.
Crafted during the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, sugar skulls are decorative objects placed on the altars dedicated to family members.
The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday. It’s dedicated to remembering and celebrating friends and family members who have passed.
The holiday is a happy occasion, when the spirits of the dead join the living. Hence, the skulls made of sugar are decorated with bright flowers and colorful patterns.
Sugar skull tattoo patterns involve floral themes as well as abstract decoration. These designs usually involve lots of color, although black versions are also popular.
3D sugar skulls are a popular choice, though ‘flat’, traditional-style designs look just as great. As such an iconic image, the sugar skull has the unique quality of being both intricate and full of detail, and looking great as a simple outline-only tattoo.
To find out more about sugar skulls and Day of the Dead tattoos, check out this article.
As we’ve already seen, the skull and crossbones symbol was the primary motif for pirate flags. It’s also a common choice for skull tattoos, appearing in a range of variations.
A pirate skulls tattoo is a great choice for someone who considers themselves rebellious or free-spirited. It can also simply be an expression of fascination for that aspect of history – hey, pirates are cool, after all!
The most common variation is the traditional Jolly Roger – a human skull with two crossed bones below, in the shape of an X on its side.
Crossed swords or a single curved cutlass underlining the skull are also common images.
Keep in mind that the skull and crossbones is also the symbol of poisonous gases and substances – as seen on warning signs and labels.
To make sure that your tattoo is clearly a pirate skull, consider adding a black, flag-like background. Alternatively, you could add an eye-patch to the design, which will make the connection with pirates very clear.
Small skull tattoos
Although most of the skull tattoos you’ll see in our gallery and elsewhere are quite large, it’s entirely possible to design a small skull tattoo.
The key is to keep the level of detail as low as possible. The more you simplify the design, the smaller the resulting tattoo can be, without losing quality.
If you take a large, complex image of a skull and try to scale it down to a tiny tattoo, the result will most likely be a mess. The detail will get lost in the process and the image will end up distorted.
An experienced tattoo artist or designer will help you come up with a design suitable for the space. Even if you’re looking to get a skull tattoo somewhere really tiny – like behind your ear – a very simple design should fit just fine.
Skull sleeve tattoos
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the very large designs that form sleeve tattoos.
Sleeves extend all the way from the wrist to the shoulder, wrapping around the length of the arm. A half-sleeve covers half of the arm, either from the shoulder to the elbow or from the elbow to the wrist.
Of course, you’ll need more than the image of a skull to fill in a space as large as even a half-sleeve. Most people opt for adding floral motifs – roses or other flowers – to fill in the space.
As you plan your sleeve, ensure that the skull is placed in one of the larger, ‘flatter’ areas of the arm. For example, the widest part of the inner arm or the side of the upper arm will be great options.
The reason for this is that if the skull is placed in a place with too much wrap around (on the curve of the side of the wrist, for instance) it may become distorted and look a bit odd.
Sleeves are most often done in 3D nowadays, color or grayscale.
Just as a skull has been one of the most important symbols over the history of humanity, so skull designs have always been the foundation of tattoo art. One thing’s for sure: skull tattoos will never go out of style, and never lose their relevance.
Enjoy your browse through our gallery of skull tattoo images below, and let us know your favorites in the comments!