Skull tattoos have been a favorite design since the heyday of sailors and exploration. Today, skulls are often associated with death and decay. They are symbols of mortality and the end of life or vitality.
It can be difficult for people to accept the popularity of skull tattoos when they mean such dark and depressing things, but the fact is that skull tattoos often have a very positive or motivating meaning.
Skull tattoos do represent death, but they typically represent the fleetingness of life. “Memento mori” is latin for “remember your mortality,” meaning that it is important to keep your inevitable death in mind so that you may live life to the fullest while you still can. Death comes to us all, so that thought shouldn't be depressing. Instead, an unlived life is the depressing thought.
Skull tattoos, a little like death tattoo designs, remind people to experience obstacles and hardships, to take chances and be their best. “All is vanity” is another common motto seen with skull tattoo designs. This design shows that death eventually comes to everyone, and anything achieved in life will pass or fade away. Oftentimes, this combination of meaning and imagery represents a belief in an afterlife. People who choose these tattoos want to remember that their mortal life is meaningless in comparison to the wonders and glory that await them after death.
Strangely enough, skull are also used as a good luck tattoo design. Gamblers wanting to change their bad luck sometimes choose symbols of ill will and bad luck, like skulls and black cat tattoo designs. These tattoos, contradictory though it seems, is meant to bring the gambler success in the future. Perhaps this tattoo is based on the idea that skulls not only represent death, but also change. This symbolic change is neither innately bad nor good.
In the Kabbalah belief system, the skull represents rebirth and is a time for celebration, not sadness, sorrow, and mourning. In the same way, death does not always mean something negative. Death can be a positive experience and remembering those who have died can be uplifting.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a time of festivity and celebration. This festival celebrates the lives of family members who have passed. For this day, the dead are revered, honored, and respected. Day of the Dead skull tattoos, also called sugar skull tattoos, usually resemble the sugar or white chocolate skulls used in the festival. These skulls are usually idealized and very stylized. They are decorated with bright colors and vibrant flowers.
Rose tattoo designs are also frequently tattooed with skulls, to represent the contrast between life and death or beauty and decay.
In the Christian belief system, skull tattoos often represent eternity and the repentance necessary for eternal life. Most Christians believe in an eternal life spent in either heaven or hell. The earthly remains, portrayed as the skull, shows that the body is left behind and becomes nothing, but the soul goes on. Some Christians use skull tattoos to remind themselves to a life according to God's will and the Bible, so that they might end up in heaven after death.
The skull has also been a symbol of triumph and rebellion. When a group won a war or conflict, they sometimes piled the heads or skulls of their enemies for all to see. The skulls served as a reminder to those who would harbored thoughts of revenge; they too would experience the same fate as their fallen comrades if they tried to attack. The anarchist movement and anarchy tattoo designs sometimes use the skull as a symbol of their political beliefs. They used the skull and crossbones symbol, which they took from an earlier pirating flag.
Pirate tattoo designs often use skulls. The pirate's skull design, known as the Jolly Roger, features a skull with the crossbones underneath. The Jolly Roger was flown in rebellion of governmental rule and authority. The anarchists embraced this way of life, this denial of organized authority, and adapted the Jolly Roger for their own purposes.
Nazis and Neo-Nazis have embraced the skull symbol, too. However, this design features a skull with the crossbones placed behind the skull, rather than beneath it. Interestingly, this symbol has been embraced by subcultures other than skinheads and prejudiced groups. Bikers believe that the Totenkopf, as it is known, is a protective sigil that will keep them safe from harm or death, so its inclusion is frequent in biker tattoo designs.
Obviously, the skull tattoo has a very different meaning depending upon how it is viewed and the historical understanding of those who are looking at it. For this reason, it is important to understand, at least vaguely, the possible connotations implied by a skull tattoo. But, like all tattoos, the choice is very personal and the meaning can be entirely private.