Skull Tattoo Designs and Meaning

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The skull tattoo is perhaps one of the most common tattoo designs out there. Skull tattoo designs are a varied lot that run the entire spectrum of tattoo styles and, these days, are often incorporated into designs where you might not expect them. In this post, we’ll comb through a few examples of skull tattoos and discuss their meaning.

Skull Tattoo Designs

There are a pretty wide variety of tattoo styles out there– some official (or at least widely recognized by the tattoo community) and some not. Yet despite the wide variety of tattoo styles available, almost every style seems to use a skull design in some way, shape, or form. It’s popular, to say the least. But why do skull tattoo designs hold such an interest and fascination? Perhaps it goes hand in hand with the idea that only the tough get tattooed? Or maybe it plays into the desire to be somewhat intimidating, or cooler-than-you, which for some may be a reason for getting tattooed in the first place. Or, maybe you’re just a little (or a lot) goth and the Misfits’ “Skulls” speaks to you on a profound and personal level. 


Skulls and SnakesSkulls and Snakes


Two great tastes that… well, you know. Skulls and snakes just go together. It’s especially true in American Traditional or Neo-Traditional tattoo styles. Both are pretty well known for featuring skulls in their tattoo designs. This example (by Josh Autrey of Salvation Tattoo Gallery, Richmond, VA) is more of a neo-traditional style, but in terms of a skull tattoo, you couldn’t ask for anything more upfront. It’s just straight up badass. 


Skull Tattoos and (Insert Inanimate Object Here)

Skull Tattoos and (Insert Inanimate Object Here)

Skull tattoos are often paired with an object that either has meaning on its own, separate from the skull (think flowers–particularly roses), or has a meaning that is enhanced by the skull. We’ll discuss skull tattoo meanings in a bit, but right now let’s dig this really nice linework skull. This is another Josh Autrey piece. This skull tattoo features an old-fashioned fountain pen and an ink well. Is that blood dripping from the skull? Ink? You decide.


Classic American Style Skull TattoosClassic American Style Skull Tattoos


Sometimes the original is good enough. Traditional American style tattoos are still around and it’s an easy to recognize aesthetic. They stand out as having a distinct design, which is perhaps why so many people love them. This particular example isn’t what we’d call 100% authentic, but the style is spot on and honestly, what’s not to love about a cowboy skull tattoo? Take note of that one gold tooth. Devil’s in the details, huh?


A Different Kind of Skull Tattoo DesignA Different Kind of Skull Tattoo Design


This one stands out as being noticeably different from the others. I mean, sure, these tattoos are all unique– but this is something that would definitely stand out in a line-up. A take on the American Traditional style of tattooing, this piece (another Josh Autrey piece– damn, does this guy love his skulls!)  utilizes bright colors and bold lines. Like the cowboy skull tattoo, this tattoo plays on the theme– this time it’s a pilot skull, goggles and all.

Elegant Skull TattoosElegant Skull Tattoos

That last one sets us on a new trend. Modern tattoo designs are sleeker, more like paintings or illustrations. This piece is no exception. Done by Teresa Sharpe at Unkindness Art in Richmond, VA this is one sexy skull tattoo. We’re inclined to believe that, at least at first glance, this tattoo is giving a nod to the ol’ poison apple (apple + skull = poison apple, right? Of course.). The color is rich and the shading it detailed. This is a different kind of skull tattoo. Speaking of “different kind”…

New School Alien Skull Tattoo

New School Alien Skull Tattoo


If you’re dead set on a skull tattoo design, but want to stand out, Jason Stephan can hook you up. How about a teal-ish alien skull tattoo design in colors so bright they’ll make your eyes bleed? There’s something about the face that kind of suggests a zombie… the sallow cheeks and sunken eyes. Is it a skull, a zombie, or an alien? Who knows. Who cares? This is a hot piece. Color and shading are on point and it’s definitely one of a kind.

Sugar Skull Tattoos

Sugar skulls, or candy skull tattoos (They’re actually called calavera, but these are the most common names) are another popular skulls aesthetic. These tattoos stem from a Mexian Dia de los Muertos tradition. The holiday celebrates and honors the dead; as part of that traditions delicate and ornate candy skulls made from sugar are often sold as decoration. The tattoos mimic the real sugar skulls in their ornateness and sometimes attempt to convey small details about the wearer through the design. Check out these great examples of sugar skull tattoos.

His and Hers sugar skull tattoos by Sam Lyam Waiting, Manchester, UK.His and Hers sugar skull tattoos by Sam Lyam
Waiting, Manchester, UK.
A colorful sugar skull tattoo by Mark Heredia
A colorful sugar skull tattoo by Mark

So What’s the Meaning of a Skull Tattoo?

That depends who you ask. The meaning of skulls in works of art, including tattoos, can depend on context, the wearer, both, or neither. That’s not much of an answer though. Here’s what we mean. The style of the tattoo can help shape the meaning of skull tattoos. For example, in Western art styles (think Europe and the Americas) the skull has a negative connotation–typically signifying death or evil. It’s a foreboding symbol and one that, in general, repels the viewer while at the same time serving as a source of fascination. But not all cultures are so macabre. In general, Eastern cultures– such as Japanese Tattoo culture, are less repelled by the thought of death and the idea, as well as the imagery of the skull, is more readily embraced. It’s a little too long to go into here, but the history of the skull in art surfaces many of the ideas and meanings behind the skull tattoo in its various forms.

Amazingly detailed black and gray skull tattoo by Niki Norberg.Amazingly detailed black and gray skull tattoo by

Niki Norberg.

For our purposes here, the skull tattoo meaning tends to be one two things: an imposing image designed to conjure images of death, relate the inevitability of the end we all face, and be generally imposing– or it is purely an aesthetic choice. Although traditionally the skull in Eastern art is merely a representation of the passing of time and the fleeting nature of life– however, it is less common to see Eastern style skull tattoos. 



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