No matter where you are in the world, chances are you’ve seen some of the symbols associated with the Day of The Dead. Human skulls decorated in swirling colorful patterns with flowers adorning them like a crown. Or perhaps you’ve seen costumes for La Catrina in your local costume shop when you’re nearing Halloween time.
Another common way that you’ll see these symbols being used is in tattoos. They have great significance to Latin cultures, especially Mexican culture, and can help the living feel connected to those who have passed on.
What Is The Meaning of Day of The Dead Tattoos?
The specific meaning of a Day of The Dead inspired tattoo will vary depending on who got the tattoo, but the general meaning of Day of The Dead is the same. To honor loved ones who have passed on from this life.
Getting a Day of The Dead tattoo could also be a way of connecting someone to their culture and having a constant reminder of their country’s history on their body.
Why are Day of The Dead Tattoos So Popular?
Day of The Dead tattoos have become so popular for one major reason: they carry meaning. It can be hard to decide what you’re going to get tattooed. After all, it’s permanent. Unlike a piercing where you can simply take it out, and all you’ll have is a small scar, a tattoo is there for good.
By choosing to get a Day of The Dead tattoo, you are choosing to get a tattoo that is full of meaning. Historically, culturally, and personally. Day of The Dead tattoos can be a representation of the culture of Latin America and how it has evolved. They can be a reminder of a cultural practice that you grew up with. Or you can get one to specifically honor one of your relatives that has passed on.
The History of Day of The Dead
Day of The Dead celebrations can be traced back to early Aztec traditions, where they used skulls to honor those who had passed on. The first records of a “day of the dead” begin then, and the celebration has only evolved since then.
Latin culture, in general, is strongly associated with the Catholic church. However, it hasn’t always been this way. As a matter of fact, Catholicism is a fairly recent thing in Latin culture if you look at Latin America’s entire history.
Catholicism first became the main religion in Latin America when the Spaniards invaded in the late 1400s. The Spanish conquered all of the indigenous nations and forced them to adopt Catholicism as their religion, with the threat of death being the consequence if they didn’t. The Spaniards took the indigenous people’s traditions and merged them with Catholic feast days to better assimilate the culture into the Catholic church. In this case, they merged with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to create Dia de Los Muertos, also known as Day of The Dead.
Now, the Day of The Dead is believed to be the one day out of the year where spirits will travel home to visit their family members. In preparation for this, families will assemble altars with photos of their loved ones and some of their favorite things like a favorite food or toy.
Where Do Day of The Dead Celebrations Take Place?
No matter where you are in the world, it’s likely that you have at least seen some hints of a Day of The Dead celebration. After all, it’s not too uncommon for someone to move to another country, and just because they moved doesn’t mean that they’ll leave all the traditions of their mother country behind.
If you want to see an authentic Day of The Dead celebration in all of its glory, you’ll want to travel to Latin America, specifically Mexico. Although other countries celebrate Day of The Dead, most images that you’ll see and the largest celebrations are from Mexico.
At one point, I lived in Mexico, and during that time, I was able to witness a traditional Day of The Dead parade. Everyone was decked out in bright colors with their faces painted. All the little girls were dressed as La Catrina. It was absolutely stunning. The parade went on for hours as over a hundred floats went by.
What’s the meaning of different designs?
There are a couple of different symbols that originate from Day of The Dead that you’ll commonly see people getting tattooed with. These are a sugar skull, a skull and owl, la catrina, and marigolds or cempasúchil.
A sugar skull tattoo is a very traditional Day of The Dead design. It’s usually a white human skull covered with colorful patterns and flowers. These skulls directly connect to Aztec culture as they have been used since that time to honor those who have passed on.
Skull and Owl
In Mexico, where the Day of The Dead is most strongly celebrated, owls are considered to be symbols of witches. So, while they are not traditionally used to represent the Day of The Dead, you’ll often see them combined with other symbols to represent the idea of death and the underworld.
Depending on your beliefs, this could be seen as a disrespectful design. After all, witches are typically considered taboo in Latin culture, and combining them with a religious symbol, like a sugar skull design that’s meant to honor the dead, could be seen as demeaning to the tradition.
If you go to any Day of The Dead celebrations, one of the most common symbols that you’ll see is a full skeleton, typically adorned in fancy dresses and many vibrant colors. This skeleton is known as La Catrina.
The image of La Catrina was originally created in 1910 by Jose Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina symbolized one who was ashamed of their culture and trying to imitate European culture, hence the fancy dress.
Since then, La Catrina has also become a symbol associated with the Day of The Dead. She is a common symbol in folk art, and oftentimes you’ll see children and adults walking around with their faces painted as La Catrina or wearing a full costume.
The final symbol we’ll discuss today is the marigold, known in Spanish as cempasúchil. If you go to any Mexican town during the whole month leading up to the Day of The Dead, you’ll see an abundance of marigolds. They seemingly cover everything. Many cities will even commission gardeners to makeover the city’s grounds for the month leading up to the celebration.
The idea behind the marigolds is that the spirits of those who’ve passed on will be able to find their way home to the altars their family has prepared using the marigold’s scent and vibrant color.
What Do The Colors Represent?
Several colors are associated with the Day of The Dead. You’ll see them in almost every decoration and on every altar. The most common colors are Purple, Pink, White, Red, Yellow, and Orange.
Although Day of The Dead is meant to be a time of celebration, that doesn’t mean it completely lacks elements of mourning. After all, you’re celebrating and remembering those who are no longer with us, and that carries at least some pain.
Purple is meant to symbolize grief and mourning. So, if someone has recently passed away or it was particularly tragic, you may see their altars, or the tattoos representing that person, all decked out in purple.
Pink is a color of celebration. It is meant to show that you are celebrating the lives of those who have passed on and are not still living in the grief that comes with death.
Just as it does in almost every corner of the world, white symbolizes purity and hope. Hope for the future and hopes that your heart will heal as time goes on and that you’ll be able to look to the deceased for inspiration.
The color orange symbolizes the sun. It is also the color of the marigolds that are often used to decorate gravesites and altars.
Red is the color of blood, and as such, it is a symbol of life. The Day of The Dead has become so closely intertwined with Catholic tradition that it uses the color to symbolize life after death. That this life on earth is not all there is and that somebody we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.
Like orange, yellow is also the color of the marigolds used to guide the dead back home to their families.