The snake is one of the oldest and most complex symbols, and its meaning is filled with contradictions, ambiguities, and duality. Snake tattoos, just like the animal they feature, can have a whole range of seemingly conflicting meanings.
In this article, we’re going to explore the various meanings of the snake in tattoo art, as well as considering some of the most popular snake tattoo designs. First things first: what does a snake tattoo mean?
Meaning of snake tattoos
Nowadays, for most people – particularly in the West – the snake is a symbol of the devil, of lies and deception, and of manipulation. ‘Snake’ is a derogatory term with negative implications. Consider for instance how calling someone a ‘snake in the grass’ is equal to referring to them as treacherous and deceitful.
This hasn’t always been the way, though. Snakes are powerful symbols with a long history of representing primarily positive ideas and concepts. It’s only since the Christian Bible used a snake as a manifestation of the devil that these negative connotations emerged and, unfortunately for our scaly, serpentine friends – stuck.
Prior to being effectively defamed by the Christian tradition and mythology, snakes were symbolic primarily of rebirth, in a number of cultures and traditions.
This association is likely to do with the snake’s habit of shedding its skin. This is a process where snakes effectively slither out of their old skin, leaving it behind in one piece. The purpose behind this behavior is to allow further growth and remove parasites.
It’s a perfectly normal process, but to the humans of thousands of years ago, it must have appeared magical to say the least. Snakes have therefore long been considered symbolic of life, death, and being re-born.
A snake tattoo can thus mean rebirth – for instance, marking a powerful transformation or pivotal point in one’s life. It can also express the belief that life and death are part of the same cycle. From an occult perspective, serpents are powerful alchemy symbols, associated with quicksilver – and therefore with psychic life forces of living, dying, and being reborn.
The snake tattoo design most often chosen to depict the meaning of rebirth is that of the Ouroboros.
The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol, circular in shape, consisting of a snake biting its own tail. Variations on this design include a number ‘8’-shaped version, in reference to the infinity symbol, and two snakes, each biting the tail of the other.
The snake is a symbol of health, in particular the process of healing. This association likely stems from Ancient Greek mythology – wherein the god of medicine, Asclepius, was closely connected with snakes.
The legend goes that Asclepius had shown kindness to a snake – and snakes, to the Ancient Greeks, were considered sacred and possessed of uncommon wisdom. In return, the snake licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge of medicine.
The rod of Asclepius is a symbol commonly used in the emblems of medical organizations even today. It takes the shape of a staff with a single snake coiled around it. It’s one of the clearest choices for a snake tattoo design meant to symbolize healing and wellness.
Importantly, the rod of Asclepius is not to be confused with the caduceus, despite similar appearances. The caduceus is a staff symbol with two snakes and a pair of wings – and is associated with the Greek god Hermes, representing commerce and trade (and often mistakenly used by medical organizations…).
In many cultures, snakes are symbolic of protection. Mythologically, they’ve been considered guardians of temples, gates, and treasures.
The reason for this is that most snakes, when threatened, will defend their ground rather than retreat. Cobras are the most common choice for guardian snake tattoos, since their raised position and spread out ‘hood’ most poignantly suggest a confidently defensive posture.
In the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, it is a serpent that convinces Eve to defy god’s orders. This mention is the main reason behind the negative connotations with snakes we hold nowadays – though of course, the fact that many snakes can kill a person with a single bite is not without its significance, either.
Since embodying the devil in the Bible, snakes have been associated with evil forces, with vengefulness, vindictiveness, and the occult – in a negative sense.
A snake tattoo, then, can be a reference to these more recent symbolic meanings. It can mean danger or suggest the wearer is not afraid to defy the rules of dominant ideologies.
Popular snake tattoos
Snakes are quite versatile symbols that make for equally versatile tattoo elements – they can make for great subject matter for just about any style of tattoo.
There’s plenty of scope for getting truly creative when designing a snake tattoo. Still, it’s a good idea to become familiar with existing trends and motifs.
Japanese snake tattoo
Snakes are often featured, either as the main themes or additional elements, in Japanese-style tattoos. These are complex, colorful designs, highly distinctive in style and look. They make for large tattoos, usually full back or sleeve.
In Japanese culture, snakes have a positive meaning – they symbolize good health, regeneration, wisdom, and protection.
Check out this article to find out more about Japanese tattoos and see some stunning examples.
Skull and snake tattoos
A true classic. Symbolically, this design refers to the association between snakes and the idea of rebirth, and the cycle of life and death. The skull (usually a human skull in tattoos) is usually taken to mean death, but in a broader sense it’s more of a symbol of mortality, rather than the end itself.
There are several style options for this design, with the most popular today being a 3D tattoo. This technique involves using precise shading and few hard lines to achieve an illusion of photo-realism in a tattoo.
That being said, a traditional or outline-only style are also perfectly viable options.
Rose and snake tattoos
Roses, red ones in particular, are symbolic of love and passion. Snakes, in the post-Bible period, hold the meaning of encouragement towards sin, among others. Together, these two elements can be understood as a combined symbol of temptation.
A red rose with a black snake, for contrast, are the most popular choice for this design, alongside an all-black design. Again, some degree of realism is usually present, to make the tattoo more striking and darker, more gothic in tone.
A snake and apple tattoo will also be a reference to temptation and sin, and likely come in a similar color scheme (red apple, black/dark snake).
Armband snake tattoos
A tattoo of a thin snake that wraps around the arm or the wrist, like a bracelet, is one of the more complex takes on the armband tattoo.
Tattoos of this type will usually be rather small, with the snake coiled around the arm once or twice. With a single coil, the snake may be biting its own tail – creating an armband tattoo of the Ouroboros.
Large, thick snakes wrapped around the arm will require more space and likely take on more of a sleeve or half-sleeve appearance than an armband.
Snake biting hand tattoo (snake handshake)
This design involves the head of a snake, with its fangs sunken in a human hand. The resulting image looks sort of like a twisted version of a handshake – and in a way, it is.
The design originates in the sailor tattoo staple of a handshake – popular among sea-farers since the late 1800s, and meant to represent friendship, loyalty, and peace.
The snake handshake tattoo is an ironic twist on this motif, and holds the opposite meaning. Broadly speaking, it means that no one can be trusted and anyone can turn out to be a traitor in the end.
This kind of design is usually done in the traditional style, with black outlines and mostly solid fill colors. This is the style in which the original handshake sailor tattoos were done, so it makes sense for the re-designed version to follow the same aesthetic.
A tattoo of a snake and dagger can convey similar meaning – daggers are often symbolic of treachery (being ‘stabbed in the back’).
Snake head tattoos
Opting to have only the head of the snake included in the tattoo is a purely stylistic choice – the meaning and symbolism of a snake’s head remains the same as that of an entire snake.
When dedicating only a small amount of space to a snake tattoo – such as the back of the neck or the wrist – it might be a better choice to tattoo only the snake’s head. This allows the artist to include more detail, like the snake’s eyes and fangs.
The tattoo, even if it’s quite small, will still be highly striking – we’re instinctively programmed to be alarmed by anything with scales and large fangs, so this design is sure to get a reaction!
Snake tattoos can have tons of different meanings and an endless amount of looks. From traditional to gothic and realistic, snake tattoo designs of any style are sure to look striking and eye-catching, especially when combined with other elements for contrast and extra meaning.
The gallery below is full of gorgeous snake tattoos to inspire your next design. Leave us a comment below once you’ve picked a favorite!