Finding the perfect design for a new tattoo is always difficult. You want something that will look amazing, but also carry a deeper meaning and even cultural association. Well, if you’re looking for such a tattoo, you’re at the right place. A sugar skull or Calavera tattoo might be the right choice for you.
The sugar skull or Calavera symbolism is associated with the Mexican culture, or to be more precise, with El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. In the following paragraphs, we’ll take a look at the symbolism and meaning of the sugar skull tattoo, as well as look at some design ideas. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Sugar Skull Tattoos – Origin and Symbolism Explained
El Dia de los Muertos Celebration
Sugar skull or Calavera symbolism is associated with the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on October 31, November 1, and November 2, which is also the All Souls Day. The celebration starts at midnights on All Hallow’s Eve, October 31.
This day originates from the Aztec tradition and rituals where instead of mourning over the death of a loved one, people honor and celebrate the departed, beloved member of their community and family. The tradition has remained to this day and in some parts of the world, it has even merged with the modern, Catholic belief and practices.
As we mentioned, the sugar skull is one of the main symbolism of this tradition. It was brought by the Europeans, or the Spanish in the 17th century as a part of honoring the departed ones. The sugar skulls were placed at the altars where the rituals would take place. It is believed that the skulls represent the memory of the departed ones or the ancestors.
The Meaning of Sugar Skull or Calavera
Sugar skull or Calavera represents a human skull, which is often handmade from sugar paste or clay. The skull is often decorated with items like icing, colored foil, feathers, beads, etc.
One of the main attractions of these skulls is how colorful and cheerful they appear, since skulls globally are considered to be dark and morbid, as well as associated with the negative aspects of death.
However, sugar skulls serve the purpose of honoring and celebrating the departed ones, the ancestors, and their lives. They also carry the meaning of rebirth into the next stage of life, which removes the sad and negative aspects of death. To these people, death is just a cessation of this life and the start of another one.
Sugar Skull and Modern Culture or Interpretation
The Day of the Dead is celebrated to this day, and many countries or cultures around the world are starting to celebrate this day as well. Since the Day of the Dead co-occurs with Halloween, many people connect these two holidays and celebrate them together.
In some parts of the world, instead of bringing actual handmade skulls to celebrations and rituals, many people tend to do face and body art using the popular elements of the sugar skull or Calavera. This has also become a popular Halloween costume, but many consider it cultural appropriation rather than honoring the Mexican culture.
Other modern interpretations of sugar skulls come in the form of tattoos. For the purpose of tattoos, people turn to Calavera or the image of a sugar skull. This has become one of the most common tattoo choices in the past few decades. We’ll talk more about this in the following paragraphs.
Sugar Skull and Calavera Tattoos – Design Explained
Calavera Skull Design
As we mentioned earlier, a Calavera tattoo is a tattoo of a sugar skull image. It is one of the most common sugar skulls or the Day of the Dead tattoos.
The design of a Calavera tattoo is pretty similar to the actual sugar skull. The tattoos are often colorful and generally represent a female type of skull rather than a male. The reason for this lies in the very tradition of the Day of the Dead rituals being centered around Spanish female saints and Aztec goddesses.
A Calavera tattoo is generally characterized by a lot of linework and dots, detailing, heart and flower shapes, and, of course, numerous colors. The flower and heart shapes are often placed in the eye area (or the eye sockets). The tattoos can also feature more Western symbols, like a cross, jewels or diamonds, stars, etc.
Sugar Skull or Candied Skull Design
A sugar or candied skull tattoo is pretty similar to the Calavera tattoo design. It generally features a variety of colors and cheerful symbolism characteristic of the Day of the Dead. The skull design is focused on the linework which is more intricate than that of Calavera tattoos.
However, unlike Calavera tattoos which are more like memorials, sugar skull tattoos are just decorated skull designs. That is why they can feature several different symbolisms, like heart- or flower-shaped eyes sockets, or butterfly nose and eyebrows. The tattoos often feature different patterns, swirly line work, a lot of lacy overlays, and dotting.
Sugar skull tattoos are unique because they often feature lines or words of inspiration, in line with the Day of the Dead symbolism. The words like ‘Forever’, ‘Hope’, or even names of deceased ones can appear in sugar skull tattoo designs.
Decorations and Ornaments In Sugar Skull Tattoo Designs
The majority of sugar skull tattoos feature decorations and ornaments to honor or symbolize the Day of the Dead celebration. Such traditional decorations include;
- Marigold flowers – the Mexican marigold flowers, or Cempasuchitl are used to decorate altars where sugar skulls are placed, as well as the graves of the dead. It is believed that marigolds can attract the souls of the departed ones through the bright colors and wonderful fragrance.
- Red roses – blossomed and vivid red roses are often paired with a black sugar skull tattoo design to commemorate and signify undying, everlasting love. Such tattoos are often done by people who have lost their partners, or the love of their life.
- Earth symbols – the symbols of fire, water, wind, and earth are often featured in sugar skull tattoos. Earth is often represented by some kind of fruit or the ‘bread of the dead’ (Pan de Muerto used during traditional rituals). Water is generally represented by tears, wind by fluttering strings, and the fire is symbolized by flames or bright red color.
Colors Used in Sugar Skull Tattoos
The colors used in traditional sugar skull tattoos are often bright and vivid, to truly honor the celebration of the Day of the Dead. However, some sugar skull tattoos only feature black and grey tones, to show the mourning over the death of someone beloved. Here’s a short overview of all the traditionally used colors and what the symbolize;
- Red – usually represents flame/fire or blood. It often symbolizes a passionate, undying, and everlasting love, or the Christian passion and mourning over the sacrifice and death of Jesus.
- Yellow and orange – usually represent the Mexican marigold flowers, the Sun, the light, and overall joy and happiness.
- Pink – different shades of pink can be featured in sugar skull tattoos to represent celebration and happiness for those who have died and are now entering a new life.
- White – usually represents the innocence of the departed one, or hope that they will enter a new stage of life.
- Purple – symbolized grief over the death of a loved one, as well as suffering and pain the death brings to the ones left behind.
- Black – symbolizes death in its ‘true’ form; it also symbolizes the Aztec mythology.
Sugar Skulls and Calavera Design Ideas
Memorial or Portrait Sugar Skull Tattoo
The memorial sugar skull tattoos are a famous variation of the very sugar skull symbolism in regards to the Day of the Dead. These tattoos are portrait tattoos, where the design is based on a real person but they have the same features as a sugar skull.
Such tattoos are often realistic and life-like, so they can be really difficult to do properly. For such a tattoo, one would need to find a rather professional tattoo artist who has had experience doing realistic memorial tattoos. These tattoos are generally very detailed and heavily embellished with linework, dots, and items like flowers, butterflies, etc.
When it comes to memorial sugar skull tattoo designs, the design is based on an actual picture of a person. Then, the tattoo artist creates a new design incorporating the features of the person and the sugar skull. Once the designs are combined, the artist will start transferring the image onto your skin.
So, where should you place your memorial sugar skull tattoo? Well, these tattoos are meant to be visible. So, go for the shoulder area, the side of the neck, upper back, forearm, calf area, etc. And because the tattoo will be highly detailed and colored, you can expect to pay over a thousand dollars. The price increases in regards to the size of the tattoo, the complexity of the design, and the body placement.
Black, Geometric Sugar Skull Tattoo
Sometimes sugar skulls aren’t honoring and celebrating the death of a loved one. Some sugar skull tattoo designs are showcasing the mortality and the inevitability of death. That is why such tattoos are, instead of colorful, often black, geometric, and heavy in details.
However, even though the tattoo designs are black and geometric, the tattoos often feature the typical, cheerful symbols like flowers, hearts, butterflies, etc. Some tattoos even feature clocks, or weapons to symbolise the passage of time and the inevitability of death.
The black, geometric sugar skull tattoo can be small, or big, depending on your preferences. They can also feature more feminine or masculine symbolism and items, to fit you personally. Black sugar skull tattoos are generally versatile in design and can feature interesting and intricate detailing or shading.
Even though these tattoos don’t feature any solid colors, they are still really difficult to execute, since a lot of detailing and geometric intricacy takes place in the design. So, you can expect a significant cost of the final tattoo, especially if the tattoo is large and placed somewhere complex on the body.
Celebrity Honor Sugar Skull Tattoo
A variation of a black sugar skull tattoo is the one featuring a stylized skull and a date of death of a famous person, or a celebrity. Some people go for celebrity honor tattoo design as a form of honoring and commemorating the life of a celebrity who has affected their lives.
Such tattoos are often done in black color with a lot of grey shading, to truly translate the mourning over the death of a celebrity. Some varieties of celebrity honor tattoos feature the actual portrait of the celebrity, but most of the time the design comprises a stylized skull and the death date.
Masculine Sugar Skull Tattoo
As we mentioned earlier, sugar skull tattoos often feature a feminine skull design, based on the rituals and practices of Aztec goddesses and Mexican female saints. The sam feminine skull design is used for both male and female design interpretation.
However, in masculine design, the skulls feature a more dark, bold, ominous, and realistic appearance, compared to the regular sugar skull tattoos. Moreover, instead of featuring items and symbols like flowers and hearts, these tattoo designs often incorporate symbols like ghosts, spiders, webs, other skulls, owls, etc.
Nevertheless, it is believed that both masculine and feminine sugar skull tattoos symbolize death the same way, only the masculine tattoos are in the more realistic realm and tilt towards the negative aspects of dying and the inevitability of death.
Masculine sugar tattoos are often black and feature grey shading. There is also a lot of linework and dotting, characteristic of the standard sugar skull tattoos. The tattoos can be of any size, but it would be best to get a medium sugar skull tattoo, just to make the detailing and line work better visible.
Hedonistic Sugar Skull Tattoo
Another popular design variation of a sugar skull tattoo is the one featuring symbolism of partying. The idea behind such a design is that death is simply a one-way ticket to an everlasting party. That is why the sugar skull is accompanied by items like liquor, sombrero hats, a striped poncho, and other symbols of Mexican heritage and the culture of hedonism and indulgence.
The hedonistic sugar skull tattoos often feature a black sugar skull surrounded by the aforementioned items that can also be black or colored. The tattoo can be small or big, the majority of such tattoos tend to be smaller and fit, for example, behind the ear, forearm, ankle, back of the neck, etc.
The sugar skull tattoos are surely a part of the Mexican heritage and culture. However, these tattoos also show how culture and tradition transcend countries and people and take the world by storm through its symbolism, meaning, and incredible appearance.
Nowadays, sugar skull tattoos have become a mainstream design in the tattoo community. But, even though the tattoos are popular, each sugar skull tattoo design is still distinctive and unique to the person wearing it. So, if you’re looking for a cool, but meaningful and unique tattoo design, then go for a sugar skull tattoo.