Tattoos are a permanent fixture on your skin, so if you’re the type of tattoo fanatic who appreciates the deeper meaning of getting inked, it’s important to understand the meaning behind something before going under the needle.
Take, for example, the people who get Chinese symbols as a tattoo thinking it means dragon or strength or courage, only to find out that it actually says chicken noodle soup, lady, water, or even “I don’t know, I don’t speak Chinese.”
In fact, just take a look at what Ariana Grande did with the tattoo she got on her palm the other day. Her intention was to make her tattoo say “7 Rings” in Japanese Kanji symbols in honor of her new hit song. While she got the Kanji symbols right in her music video (七つの指輪), she thought that since the first character on its own meant “seven” and the last character meant “ring,” it was acceptable to use only these two for her tattoo. Had she consulted with someone who understood Kanji, however, she would have found out beforehand that those two characters combined (七輪)isn’t “seven rings.”
It’s “shichirin.” Or in English, a barbeque grill.
While the shichirin is traditionally a circle, it’s the only thing remotely related to what Ariana was trying to do. If only she had done her research earlier, she might have known what her tattoo really meant. Now she either has to pay more money to get it out or re-do it, or live with the fact that she has “BBQ grill” on her palm for the rest of her life.
Do Your Research Before Getting Inked
It is instances like these that warn people to do their research first before getting inked. And this isn’t even limited to foreign letters. Some people might be okay with getting a tattoo of whatever catches their fancy, and that’s alright. But in my years of experience, more often than not, people have a specific reason behind getting a certain tattoo because of the meaning it conveys.
And every now and then, as a tattoo artist, I have to point out that that symbol isn’t what they think it means. Our job isn’t as easy as people think it is because those of us who provide quality tattoos do a bit of research on symbols.
One time, I had two guys who were EMTs who wanted to get a medical symbol on their arms. Each of them had a totally different idea: one wanted the universal symbol for medicine, the Rod of Asclepius from the Greek God Asclepius who was known for his healing and medicine; the other wanted Hermes’ caduceus which was a common misconception in the US as a medical symbol but was actually the symbol for commerce, the dead, shepherds, liars, gamblers, and thieves.
The latter guy insisted his was the right symbol and told his friend to get one with two snakes and a pair of wings until I cleared out the confusion. Had these two gone ahead and went with the caduceus, they would have been branded with the mark of gamblers and thieves, not medical healers.
While I do respect people’s decisions and what they want inked on their bodies, I try to make sure they understand what it means before they get tattooed. Take, for example, the skull tattoo, the sword tattoo, and creative combinations of both. It’s one of the most common types of tattoos I’ve worked on, and while a lot of people have a good reason for getting one, a lot of them don’t seem to understand what it means.
If you’re getting a skull and sword tattoo, here’s what you need to understand.
In Latin, the term “memento mori” simply means “remember you will die.” It seems pretty macabre – something a lot of people are going for nowadays – but it can either appear creepy, motivating, or uplifting, depending on the way you choose to see it.
The phrase is a fancy way of telling you that life is fleeting and, eventually, you will die. In Christian terms, it is a reminder not to cling to earthly pleasures because you’re only transiting through this world and, by clinging to sinful but pleasurable earthly goods, you won’t be welcome to experience the joys of the afterlife with God.
Those who believe the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, can look at Memento Mori differently. Nietzsche taught his students that there was only one life and that there was no God or afterlife waiting for us after we die. And because life is fleeting and we are all bound to die soon with no reward in the end, what is keeping us from living life to the fullest? He encourages people to live the way they want without fear because life has no reward waiting in the end.
Put it this way: the Christians will tell you to avoid the pleasures of earthly goods because you will die a sinner and God will punish you for it. Nietzsche will tell you that you will die and there will be nothing waiting for you at the end, so why not seize the day and do what you will while you’re still alive? As the kids would say, YOLO.
Memento Mori Symbolism
Because all other religions and beliefs have their own take on death, each of them has a way of reminding you what awaits (or doesn’t await) you in the afterlife. However, more than just a philosophy, mindset, or way of thinking, memento mori can also be an image.
What reminds you of death? Some symbols are fairly obvious. A skull and coffin are fairly obvious examples. In English culture, a cloaked man holding a scythe represents the Grim Reaper, the personification of death. In Mexican cultures, it’s anything that reminds people of Santa Muerte, their culture’s own version of death.
You can even see memento mori images in unusual ways. Back in the Victorian era, when people could die for simple diseases that are minor inconveniences in the present day, people would choose to memorialize their dead by taking a photo. However, the photo wasn’t like a photo of your deceased love one inside their coffin, but a photo of them looking healthy (at best, they looked like they were sleeping) in a relatively normal poses you’d expect from people of that time, but with symbolisms of death such as a dead bird or drooping flowers.
Skulls are an obvious form of memento mori, so if you’re looking to get it as a tattoo, you’re either looking at it at a Christian or Nietzsche perspective on life. Though if you were going for the former, remember that tattoos are frowned upon.
Skull Tattoo Symbolism
Skulls from both humans and other animals generally signify death and mortality, but there are variations to the way it is portrayed. Back in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, skulls were the symbol of prostitutes, brothel owners, pimps, and people who were sexually adventurous. In Mexico, until the present, skulls were a symbol of the Day of the Dead, but it was used in a celebratory and colorful festival, not in the dark and somber tradition Americans do.
When you get a skull tattoo that features crossbones, it can represent toxicity, danger, or pirates. This symbol has been used for so many purposes that its meaning has become divided. When put into a tattoo, however, it could mean that you either like to live a lifestyle that – compared to the regular life where people find a stable job, raise a family, and retire – is much more active, or you are the person who takes no bull from anyone and are not afraid of butting heads with other people to assert what you want.
Buddhists recognize skulls as symbols of fierce deities. These are the forces which destroy the obstacles to enlightenment. If you’re a practicing Buddhist or enjoy reading about Buddhism, getting a skull tattoo similar to the ones in Buddhist culture symbolizes that you’re not going to let anyone or anything stand in the way of your goals. You, like the deities, are a fierce destroyer of obstacles, and will destroy anything that tries to stop you from living your best life.
If you have Celtic heritage, a skull tattoo may mean more to your culture. The early Celtics believed skulls represented power, enlightenment, and spirit. They, too, saw skulls as a memento mori and the fleetingness of life, but they saw skulls as a way to concentrate on what mattered in life. The skull was considered the house of the soul, so a tattoo of a skull meant that you were in touch with your soul and welcomed the energy that came with it.
Animal skulls are also a good option for tattoos, though more uncommon compared to human skulls. By choosing an animal skull, you’re not only evoking a memento mori and the symbolism mentioned earlier, you’re also referencing the skills and traits certain animals have.
A goat’s skull, for example, may seem a bit Satanic due to its references to Baphomet, but a goat is also a symbol of fertility, energy, masculine virility and feminine abundance. Like a mountain goat that continues to climb even the tallest mountains, a person who gets a tattoo of a goat skull may say that they’re ambitious and trying to climb as high as they can while they’re still alive.
A wolf’s skull invokes the ideas of loyalty, leadership, and fierceness. A wolf on its own is brave and can survive in extremely cold environments. However, a wolf recognizes that they perform stronger when they are in a pack. A person brave enough to tattoo a wolf skull recognizes that his family or group of friends are stronger together and always have each other’s’ backs. This person’s family and friends can expect that this person is fiercely loyal, and will always be there to defend them if necessary.
There are plenty of animals out there that represent a certain trait, so choose one that best symbolizes yourself. It doesn’t have to be a skull design, but having an animal skull design signifies that that animal trait is your own trait, so much so that if you ever die, you want people remembering you as someone who was energetic, brave, loyal, or anything your animal represents.
However, be careful with the meanings behind your animal because people may have the first wrong impression. As mentioned earlier, a goat’s skull may be mistaken for a Satanic symbol, which may earn the ire of your religious relatives who see that. A wolf is loyal, but it is also aggressive and people may mistake it to mean that you’re wild and cannot be tamed. That’s why it’s important to do your research so that the designing portion can help mitigate those negative implications.
Sword Tattoo Symbolism
Because of various cultures and the different types of swords available, they can mean a number of things. If you’ve heard of the proverb “live by the sword, die by the sword,” you could also consider the sword tattoo to be a memento mori. Before guns existed, swords were the most common battle weapon soldiers were equipped with. Violent and fierce people never die a natural death, says ancient Chinese text in the Tao Te Ching.
While people with sword tattoos are not necessarily violent or trying to harm other people, the imagery hints back to Nietzsche’s seize the day mindset. People who look at life with this mindset recognize that their passion in life is not a safe or comfortable choice, but they’re the type of people who would choose to live a life striving for their passion instead of a safe and comfortable life where they are unhappy. It was said that the best soldiers would fall on their swords with one command. These are the people who would willingly risk it all for all they love.
A sword is often used in battle, and when soldiers go into battle, they do so believing in a common goal that they’re all willing to die for it. Soldiers going off to war may get a sword tattoo to symbolize leadership, bravery, strength, and justice.
Because swords in real life are forged in various ways, it’s no surprise you’ll find an endless array of designs online representing a sword. A Japanese samurai sword can be a symbol of one’s cultural heritage, or it can reference the strength and code samurais of the past once followed.
A sword wrapped around in flames evoke the image of a sword being forged in fire. For a sword to be made, steel is melted, heated at extreme temperatures, beaten, and then repeatedly heated until a blacksmith achieves the desired product. When a person claims to be “forged in fire,” they too are subjected to tough challenges that hurt them, beat them down, and face the heat of the problems they face. However, once they come out forged, just like a sword, they come out stronger and much better.
The most famous sword in English literature is probably the Excalibur of the Legend of King Arthur. Excalibur is unlike any other sword: it is magical, unique, and reserved for only one strong enough to wield its power. While the sword is just a legend, those who turn it into a tattoo show their power and might.
Winged swords (sometimes with flames) are linked to Christianity. Angels were once depicted to have wings and carrying flaming swords who fought in the name of God. Those who get sword tattoos with wings and/or fire often nod towards their Christian beliefs. Not only do the flames provide color to a tattoo, it also shows a person’s willingness to be like an angel and fight for their religion. Wings, on the other hand, have a more protective meaning, saying that they are a guardian angel who is willing to defend someone or something. Winged tattoos are also a common design for people who have lost a loved one; a winged sword may also symbolize that your loved one is now your own guardian angel looking out for you.
The Skull and Sword’s Meaning, Combined
With all these information, what does a skull and sword mean? Well, whether you like it or not, a skull will always be a symbol of memento mori because of its connection to death. But this does not necessarily have to point to a gothic or biker gang aesthetic unless you want the design to look that way. The meaning is much deeper than a reminder of your death, and talks about the way you live and how you want to be memorialized by the people who know you.
A skull represents that life is fleeting. One day, we will all just be a bunch of skulls underground, so what we do before then is up to us. Depending if it is a human or animal skull, the tattoo reminds us of the person we want to be remembered by. When you’re six feet under and are just mere bones, will you be remembered as a brave person, a free person, or a person who kept their head down and went through life playing it safe?
Combine that with the meaning of a sword tattoo. Despite all the other meanings various swords and it additional accessories, a sword shows that you want to live bravely, strongly, and united with others for a cause. Like a soldier, you strongly believe in what you believe, and it’s enough that you will fight for your beliefs even if it kills you.
Combined, it’s both a reminder for the present and the future: remember, you will die. But how people will remember you depends on how you live your life today. It’s a truly deep message, one that inspires people to go beyond their comfort zones and be the best version of themselves. While some people may just find it an interesting tattoo they’d want on their arm, those who understand this much deeper meaning can appreciate the life they’re living every time they see their tattoo.
Designing Options: Creating Your Final Design
You can ask your tattoo artist to help you come up with a design. They have portfolios of designs they can do, and chances are you’re likely to find a skull and sword design you can combine, unless he or she already has a combined design. Some tattoo artists can customize one to your liking, but expect that it will cost you extra.
First, consider which part of your body you want tattooed. Take note that not all body parts have the same pain intensity, nor will your tattoo be visible in some parts of your body. Are you going for a tattoo you want visible whenever you wear your regular clothes, a tattoo you can hide when you put on your work clothes, or a small tattoo in intimate areas that only friends and people you’re close with can see?
Think of a theme. Usually, I get skull and sword tattoo requests from people who fit into the biker or gothic aesthetic, but it’s okay to get your own take even if you don’t fit the type. Look through other tattoos found in books and online websites featuring tattoos. I would discourage getting tattoos because it’s trendy. Once the trend dies, that tattoo will be there forever. So, stick to your style, not to whatever style is popular at the moment.
Preparing for a Tattoo
The most important thing you have to do is find a regulated tattoo parlor in your area. While some states don’t regulate the health and safety of their tattoo businesses, it’s much safer to work with businesses that do. This is to ensure that their health and safety standards aren’t dangerous for your short- and long-term health.
You can come up with a design in two ways. First, you can simply browse the web and draw or create a design on your own. Second, it’s helpful to go to the parlor beforehand and talk to the tattoo artist about what you want. They can help you plan a tattoo design based on your style or the message you want your tattoo to convey.
I recommend the latter, so you can determine the design and how many appointments or hours it will take to get it done. Some tattoo parlors also require a pre-consultation appointment. You can also pay the deposit for a tattoo. Tattoo designs that require more sessions or appointments have a higher deposit.
The day before you’re scheduled to get inked, you need to start preparing yourself physically. Stay hydrated because it helps your skin condition. While your tattoo artist will sterilize the area of your skin that’s going to get inked, having hydrated skin can absorb the ink better than when you’re dehydrated.
Get Enough Sleep and Avoid Blood Thinners
Get enough sleep and avoid alcohol or any medicines that thin your blood for at least 24 hours before your appointment. Alcohol and aspirins are blood thinners; if your skin gets pricked, you will be more prone to bleeding, which, if you’re squeamish, will make the process more uncomfortable than it really is.
There’s no need to dress up to get a tattoo, so wear loose, comfortable clothing. If you’re getting a tattoo on your upper arm, avoid wearing long-sleeve tops. Or, if you’re getting it on your leg, wear shorts or a skirt. Be smart about what you’re going to wear so it gives your tattoo artist easy access to provide the best quality they can.
Don’t Go with an Empty Stomach
Make sure you eat enough food before your appointment. Being hungry keeps you lightheaded and makes you more sensitive to pain. While there’s no food you should avoid except food that uses alcoholic beverages as one of its ingredients, I recommend eating meals high in protein. Protein helps you endure the needle pain for longer periods. If this is a particularly long tattoo appointment, you might want to bring some snacks.
What to Expect When Getting a Tattoo
Expect that there will be some amount of pain and that some parts hurt relatively more than others. Getting a tattoo on your upper arm will be irritating at best, but it will be mild compared to the pain of getting inked on your nipples, armpits, or genitals.
By getting a tattoo, you should be mentally ready for the pain. Because it’s not recommended that you take aspirin, the best you can do is to ask your tattoo artist for a topical anesthetic. This will dull the pain, but it will dull the color of the tattoo and lengthen the healing process. Cultures around the world use tattoos as a sign of a warrior’s accomplishments, so try to do the same and understand the beauty the pain will bring. At best, the lingering pain will feel like a raw sunburned sensation.
Expect that the larger or more complicated the design, the more sessions you will need. Your tattoo artist will draw and color your tattoo in sections, which may need an extra sessions to complete.
Post-Tattoo Session: Taking Care of Your Body
For the next few days, you’ll want to keep the area clean and avoid extreme activities until the stinging sensation on your skin fades away. Use a mild soap and water to gently wash your body part. Pat the area dry and avoid rubbing the skin. Add a mild moisturizer to the area several times a day to keep your skin from drying out.
During the healing process, avoid staying out in the sun for long periods of time for at least two weeks. Stay out of swimming pools, hot tubs, Jacuzzis, and any body of water. Wear loose clothing that won’t stick to the area. If the tattooed area develops scabs, this is normal and you should avoid picking at it to prevent infection and damage to your tattoo. See a doctor immediately if you think your skin is infected.
Implications of Getting a Tattoo
While getting a tattoo may be a milestone in your life, expect that a tattoo may have some setbacks. For one thing, some workplaces may not be thrilled to see that ink on your body. Some offices don’t care if you get a tattoo as long as you can do your job properly. However, it’s hard to deny that there is a stigma against people who have tattoos, especially those whose tattoos cover their entire arms or their tattoos are a controversial symbol, person, or word.
In some cases, you may be forced to hide your tattoos while working. Also, expect a few old, conservative people to give you a piece of their mind about your tattoo. We all know that some people look down on people with visible tattoos. You don’t have to honor (or even acknowledge) or take their comments to heart, but trust me – if you love your tattoo, the needle will hurt more than their words can.
Once you get your tattoo, you are unqualified to donate blood for one year. That’s because the ink and metal exposed to your blood can weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to viruses that could transfer to people who receive your blood. This is why you should get your tattoos in legitimate tattooing businesses with trained professionals who use sterile needles.
During that one-year window, you risk certain infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV, which will show its symptoms during that time. Legitimate businesses are regulated by your respective state, so the chances of these should be low.
A skull and sword tattoo is a common tattoo choice for many avid tattoo fans. However, if you think the meaning behind a tattoo is important, consider what a skull and sword means. If you enjoy the aesthetic of a skull against or on top of a sword and are the type of “live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword” person who exhibits strength, courage, and willingness to live their life freely, then this tattoo is the right one for you.