Skull Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Skull Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Skull tattoos are a dime a dozen and, in many ways, that’s a good thing. It forces artists and those who want skull tattoos to get unique with the artwork. If you truly want your skull tattoo to stand out, it probably needs a boost in creativity. Thankfully, there is plenty to draw from, both historically and symbolically. 

Skull tattoos come with many designs, meanings, and a pretty illustrious history, including Celtic skulls, death’s head designs, serpents, and tribals. Their meanings and history are strongly associated with the culture behind the artwork.

Skull tattoos have always been immensely popular and there is a large degree of creative freedom for the tattoo artist as well. That’s because skull tattoos are not limited to human skulls but the skulls of just about any creature on earth that would make an awesome tattoo design. 

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What is the History of Skull Tattoos?

While skulls have been used in tattoos and various other art platforms for hundreds of years, they’ve only become incredibly popular in modern times. If you stop and think about it, a skull tattoo in the 19th century meant ostracization from society. 

A skull tattoo any earlier than that likely meant a hot death on a burning pile of sticks. Now that skull tattoos are associated with art with a splash of gothic, you see them everywhere. As symbols, skulls were often used by those who wanted to display their prowess as a warrior, or as a religious symbology. 

Skulls have often been used in propaganda campaigns, such as the allied association of the skull with Hitler throughout WWII. As a tattoo, skulls have often been associated with gothic tropes and death for as far back in time as they have been used. 

Christians throughout the dark ages and well into the Rennasaince, associated skulls with immortality after death—the cycle of life and death. Back then, seeing a human skull was no big deal, whereas it might traumatize someone today. 

Native Americans actively used human and animal skulls in their religious symbols as well as during some of their many religious ceremonies. Duality is another term that is often associated with skulls. 

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What Do Skull Tattoos Symbolize?

In modern times, skull symbols carry the meaning of death for most people. It’s not even necessarily the tattoo artist nor the person receiving the tattoo that has perpetuated this association either. 

It’s the fact that we use the symbol of the skull to warn people off. A skull and crossbones symbol is used to warn people that something is poisonous or otherwise hazardous to health. That same symbol is used to warn people away from certain areas. 

It’s easy to see how the mindset can be altered to think of something as only meaning death and agony when the same symbol is used for so many things that mean death and agony. When people see a skull tattoo on someone else, they think about death, along with a loose association with gothic lifestyles. 

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What Do Skull Tattoos Mean?

In modern times, a skull tattoo can have many meanings depending on the art style behind it. Oftentimes, that meaning is associated only with the owner, since everyone’s tattoos are personal decisions. 

  • Celtic Skulls – Symbolizes an opening door that leads to transcendence. A rising of knowledge, understanding, and power. 
  • Sugar Skulls – sugar skulls are often associated with Mexico’s “Day of the Dead”
  • Rose Skulls – Means the dual nature of life and death, two sides of the same coin for everyone
  • Tribal Skulls – Usually done as a memorial for someone lost that was well-loved
  • Death’s Head Skulls – represents moral ambiguity and has a pretty long history, dating back to the time of the Tudors in medieval England
  • Grim Reaper Skulls – Represents death but can also mean good fortune because the grim reaper is not a killer but an escort from this life to the next
  • Skull and Crossbones – As a tattoo, symbolizes piracy as it is associated with living as freely as possible
  • Serpent Skull – death and knowledge as the idea of these designs goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden
  • Standard Human Skull – it means death but it also means that the wearer of this tattoo doesn’t fear death

As you can see, there is a lot of meaning behind all of the various skull art in the tattoo industry. Plus, everyone has their own personal reasons for getting a skull tattoo and it likely represents something that is personally meaningful to them. 

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Characteristics and Styles of Skull Tattoos

We covered the vast majority above, along with their individual meanings. However, as previously mentioned, the sheer volume of skull design tattoos out there facilitates a large degree of creativity, including the skulls of animals. 

  • Sugar Skulls
  • Bull Skulls
  • Deer Skulls
  • Eagle Skulls
  • Winged Skulls
  • Tribal Skulls
  • Serpent ; Skull
  • Death’s Head
  • Rose ; Skull
  • Skull ; Crossbones
  • Celtic Skulls
  • The Grim Reaper
  • Human Skull
  • Hamlet (Shakespeare Skulls)
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Where Do Skull Tattoos Usually Go?

Skull tattoos usually need a little room to breathe. The best place to put more elaborate skull designs is on the back, chest, or on the thighs for women who prefer skull tattoos. They can go on the upper arms or even on the wrists but there is limited space to work with there so a tattoo artist will be a little more reserved. 

It’s not uncommon to find skulls just about anywhere on someone, even on the calves and on the neck, but areas of the body with plenty of real estate are typically the best places for a tattoo artist to go to work. They can get a lot more creative when they have plenty of skin to work with. 

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All Things Considered

Skull tattoos have a pretty long, varied, and illustrious history, though their use of them has been taboo for much of human history. Today, they are far more common—common enough that tattoo artists have to get a little creative about the style and look of the finished result.

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