Aztec Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning
Aztec culture is fascinating. One of the most prominent civilizations in Central America and Mexico, the Aztec people left behind some incredible artifacts that tell us all about their cultures, beliefs, and traditions. One of the elements of this culture that has endured is the Aztec art of tattoos.
Once part of a ritual to honor the gods, Aztec tattoos are now used to remember the culture they came from. That isn’t the only reason Aztec tattoos are popular though, they also carry a wide variety of meanings for the people who wear them.
Aztec tattoos are varied in design. Generally, they depict gods, artwork, or animals that were important in Aztec culture. These tattoos are particularly popular among men because they are masculine designs. Some of the most popular designs include:
- The sun god, Huītzilōpōchtli
- The feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl
- The Aztec calendar
- The god of warriors, Tezcatlipoca
These designs each carry a wide variety of meanings, which tend to be a cross between Aztec symbolism and modern interpretations.
History of the Aztec Tattoo
Aztec tattoos were first worn by the ancient Aztec people who inhabited parts of Central America and Mexico. Their tattoos were applied as a part of rituals, meant to honor a chosen god. The art on their bodies was also used to differentiate between tribes and display a warrior’s prowess.
From 1200 AD to 1521 AD, the Aztec people built a sprawling empire that flourished in the valley of Mexico. Their cities fell into ruins after the Spanish conquest led by Hernan Cortes, but elements of their culture persisted.
Today, both descendants and admirers of mesoamerican culture pay tribute to the Aztecs in the form of tattoos. People from around the world love the style because of what the tattoos represent, and because the ancient artwork of the Aztec people is beautiful.
Meaning Behind Aztec Tattoos
Tattoos of an eagle represent inner strength, bravery, and power. Eagle tattoos were historically worn by Aztec warriors who were believed to derive their strength from these powerful birds.
The eagle is sometimes depicted as a warrior’s helm. It’s also occasionally shown with a snake in its mouth, which is a nod to modern Mexican culture.
Huītzilōpōchtli is the Aztec god of the sun and the god of war. Tattoos of this deity represent a belief in the afterlife because in Aztec culture, the rising and setting of the sun was said to be proof of a life after death.
Huītzilōpōchtli is often represented as a hummingbird or a brave warrior wielding a serpent.
The crocodile represented in Aztec tattoos is not meant to be an actual crocodile. It’s actually a great, serpent-like creature whose body was used to create the earth in Aztec mythology.
Tattoos of the crocodile mean strength and the ability to solve problems. They may also symbolize aggression. The crocodile is a popular choice of tattoo among men.
Quetzalcoatl is a god who takes the form of a massive feathered serpent. Considered one of the most powerful deities in Aztec culture, he is the god of many things, including learning, art, dawn, and fertility. Tattoos of Quetzalcoatl tend to mean creativity, strength, and knowledge.
The Aztec warrior is an especially popular design among men. In Aztec culture, the warrior represents a belief in the afterlife as well as competition, prowess, and an appreciation for mesoamerican culture.
Warriors are often depicted wearing helms resembling eagles and jaguars, two important animals in Aztec culture. They’re also shown holding shields and wielding traditional weapons, like bows, spears, and wooden swords called macuahuitl.
The Aztec calendar is an intricate design and a popular choice among those who admire the culture. It represents life, leadership, and strength. The calendar itself has two cycles: a 365-day yearly cycle, known as xiuhpōhualli, and a 260-day ritual cycle that’s known as tōnalpōhualli.
This design is generally tattooed in a realistic style with black and white ink, and it tends to cover a large area because it’s so detailed.
God of Warriors
Tezcatlipoca, or the god of warriors, is usually represented as a jaguar or a warrior with a quiver full of arrows on his back. He is considered to be the most powerful of the Aztec gods and is also the god of night. Tattoos of Tezcatlipoca represent strength and prowess.
Most Aztec tattoos are done in black and white. They tend to be very intricate and detailed designs, and colorless tattoos allow those details to pop. However, that’s not to say that colored tattoos of Aztec deities and motifs don’t exist: they do.
The most popular color choices for Aztec tattoos are red, green and yellow. The pigments used are typically vibrant colors rather than muted tones. Aztec tattoos that are colored tend to be less realistic than their colorless cousins.
In general, complex tattoos in realistic styles, such as the Aztec calendar, tend to be done in black and white. Stylized depictions of warriors and animals are often done in bright colors.
Some of the most popular placements for Aztec tattoos are:
- Back of the leg
Aztec pieces tend to be large, which means they need a lot of space. Because of this, placing the tattoo in a spot where the artist has a bigger canvas to work with makes sense.
The most common placements are on the shoulder and the chest, and the Aztec calendar is the most popular design to put in those places.
Images of brave warriors, vicious crocodiles, and eagles are often placed on the arm or the back of the leg. Back pieces tend to be intricate designs that incorporate multiple elements of Aztec culture.
Art Styles Used in Aztec Tattoos
Tribal tattoos are defined by their bold black lines, patterns, and depictions of different animals or warriors that bear significant meaning. It’s no wonder that the tribal tattoo style is often used in Aztec tattoos: the style suits designs like the Aztec calendar well.
Realistic tattoos are an interesting twist on the Aztec style. Instead of stylized warriors drawn in the style of the Aztecs, realistic tattoos depict the gods and animals as lifelike pieces of art. Realistic tattoos may also portray images like mesoamerican pyramids and the Aztec calendar. They tend to be large pieces covering the shoulder, chest, or back.
Traditional tattoos see the most variation in style, but they tend to have bold lines and bright colors. Some traditional tattoos are moderately realistic, and others are based directly on Aztec art. These tattoos tend to incorporate lots of other designs, like skulls.
Things to Consider When Getting a Tattoo
Getting a tattoo is a big decision. Whether you’re getting your first ink or your hundredth tattoo, there are some important points that you should consider.
First, do you love the design you’ve picked? Don’t rush the process of picking out your tattoo. The design will be on your body forever, so you want to make sure it’s something you love looking at. Take your time when talking with your artist, and work with them to come up with a design you’ll love forever.
Second, consider where to place the tattoo. If you need to cover it, is it in a spot that’s easy to conceal? Make sure that your tattoo ends up in a place that works for you. Work with your artist to come up with the best placement for your design.
Third, what is the meaning of the tattoo to you? We discussed common meanings of Aztec tattoos above, but in the end, the meaning of the piece is entirely up to you. It could simply be that you like the design, or it could be that you’re honoring your heritage—or something else entirely. Your reasons for getting a tattoo are totally up to you.
Whatever the case may be, don’t rush into the shop without really thinking about your new ink. Make sure your tattoo is something you love that’s meaningful to you. You’ll want to be able to enjoy that beautiful artwork for years to come!