Death, in tattoo design, is a wide category that covers many specific sub-categories. Death tattoos encompass the Grim Reaper, skulls and bones, skeletons, death heads, and many more. These death tattoos not only represent death, but also a variety of personal, religious, and political beliefs. Before getting a death tattoo, it is important to understand possible meanings and associations that might accompany that design.
The Grim Reaper is a figure that personifies death. He is most often illustrated as a cloaked figure or skeleton who carries a scythe. His presence indicates that death is near. A Grim Reaper tattoo seems ominous and depressing, but it often acts as a reminder, like most death tattoos, to live life to the fullest because it is fleeting and transient. People can die at any moment from a multitude of causes.
Grim Reaper tattoos encourage people to keep this in mind, making the most of all of their opportunities because it could be their last. For some, this is depressing, but many others find it encouraging. Someone who has survived a grievous accident or life-threatening illness might get a Grim Reaper tattoo as a symbol of their triumph over death, or to remind themselves that just because they escaped once does not mean their future is certain.
Skull and skeleton tattoo designs also represent death. These tattoos symbolize the remains of the death. Once a person dies, their body decays, exposing their bones. Skull tattoos designs have a slightly different meaning than a Grim Reaper tattoo. With skull tattoos, the emphasis is on the aftereffects of death, and not on the act of dying.
Skull tattoos can remind a person, not only of the brevity of human life, but also of material possessions. Clothing, cars, money, houses, object, etc, are not possessed after death. The skull is alone, inanimate, regardless of all its worldly possessions. Sometimes, a skull tattoo portrays the importance of focusing on the consequential aspects of life, rather than the shallow, superficial ones.
A skull and crossbones tattoo, though, has an entirely different history. The skull and crossbones design, also known as the Jolly Roger, was used by pirates and of course in pirate tattoo designs. They decorated black flags with the design and flew it as a warning to those they were about to attack. The Jolly Roger flag warned sailors to surrender without fighting or risk the consequences, which was death for all.
Those with Jolly Roger tattoos are not typically warning other's of impending doom, but are expressing their interest in the pirate lifestyle. Beyond drinking and plundering, pirates lived freely, outside of the authority of a government, and did as they pleased. They made their own decisions, their own rules, and were their own authority. A person with a skull and crossbones tattoo might believe that not only do we choose our own life, but we also have control of our own death.
Death's head, on the other hand, has many associations outside of death. This symbol, also known as totenkopf, was used by several military groups. Unlike the skull and crossbones, which has a skull with crossed bones beneath, the death's head symbol overlaps the two, placing the skull on top of the bones. Although the symbol was used by others, it is most commonly associated with Nazi Germany. Although this symbol has a much wider history, just like the swastika, it is now linked to several Skinhead and Neo-Nazi organizations. Because of this link, it no longer symbolized death alone, but instead represents the white supremacy movement and domination of minority groups. It is important to know this significant and dark history before considering a death's head design.
Contrastingly, there are two creatures, a cockroach and a moth, that bear the name “Death's Head”. Tattoos of these two are becoming increasingly common, particularly of the distinctive moth. The Death's Head Moth is frequently used in art and film, like in The Silence of the Lambs and Un Chien Andalou (or The Andalusian Dog). The moth is often seen as evil, much like the Grim Reaper, but a moth tattoo often symbolizes the importance of life and emphasizes living in the moment. The moth is large, with brown coloring, and a distinctive skull pattern on it's back.
Those interested by death tattoo designs should check out tattoo artist Paul Booth, the Master of Macabre. His tattoo work is impressive and unique, and visiting his tattoo shop Last Rites is an experience to remember.
Other symbols of death or the passing of life, like hour glasses, watches, timepieces, sundials, candles, crows, ravens, vultures, and tombstones are also common tattoo designs. Most of these represent the passing of time, of growing older. Some, like certain bird tattoo designs, are traditional symbols of death.
Superstitiously, these are all omens that foretell of death. No matter the symbol, death tattoos can have surprising positive meanings, despite looking fearsome.