Hourglass Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning
The relationship between mankind and the hourglass dates back to the 8th century, which explains why they’re such popular tattoo designs. Thanks to their universal symbolism and simple beauty, they can be used with a variety of inking styles.
Some designs use the glass in isolation, while more elaborate ink may incorporate the symbol into its overall theme. If you set your heart on the more elaborate illustrations, be sure to get it from a tested artist—the bigger the project, the more experienced the artist needs to be.
The hourglass tattoo is an excellent symbol for your first tattoo or for adding detail to an existing illustration. It’s among the safest ink designs—meaning it’s not associated with gangs and criminals. With very few tweaks and modifications, this tat can be used to express a wide range of ideas.
Meanings of Hourglass Tattoos
An hourglass tat may mean different things to different people, but here are a few typical interpretations:
Flow of Time
In its simplest interpretation, this symbol denotes the passage of time. The tattoo may also suggest a need to always put your best foot forward, seeing as time runs out eventually.
Cycle of Life
Hourglass tattoos are most often used to depict the cycle of life. This reference can be positive or negative, depending on the design and the objects inside, or around, the design.
Checks and Balances
This tattoo may also represent the balance, or duality, always present in life—a little like yin and yang. On one side—where there’s no sand—there’s light and vitality. On the other, there’s darkness and death.
Hourglass vs. Clocks
An hourglass is the polar opposite of a clock: time doesn’t run out with a clock, it only starts over in an endless cycle. On the contrary, when the sand in the glass runs out, it implies a definite ending.
Nothing Is Permanent
This ink can also be seen as an observation of the fading nature of youth and beauty. This doesn’t have to be a negative reference, however. It can be a simple reminder to enjoy life to the fullest.
Another important thing to consider with an hourglass tattoo is how much sand there is in each half. If there’s more sand in the top than the bottom, it means there’s still time. If the sand is running out, it may be taken to suggest a more negative worldview.
Popular Hourglass Tattoo Designs
The illustration can be detailed and ornamented or consist of minimalist outlines. You can even play with the shape, as it’s very adaptable to different styles and tastes. For example, you can design the two bulbs to be round, strictly triangular or even diamond-shaped.
The meaning of an hourglass is universal, but different designs can modify it depending on what you want to express. The placement of the objects within or around the design can carry another similar or distinct message.
Typically, whatever is at the top of the ink is a representation of the old, while the bottom represents the new.
Many people like to surround the tattoo with other objects to amplify the underlying idea or give it a twist. For others, the symbol on its own is enough to convey their message. Below are three simple designs:
A broken bulb with the sand running out can be seen to imply that time has definitely and irrevocably run out. This could signify disease or death.
In a more positive interpretation, it can also imply that time has stopped, or you’re living in the moment.
Sometimes, something is breaking out of the hourglass to escape it. It can mean a victory over death, deadly disease, or other life-altering circumstance.
An hourglass on its side means time is paused. It suggests that you’re optimistic and ready to conquer the world without making excuses.
Hourglasses were used for keeping time and measuring speed in ships. It should come as no surprise that, even now, nautical themes are still common in these tattoos.
Sometimes, a ship is depicted sailing on the sea in the upper bulb, and a shipwreck in the lower half. This helps elaborate the yin-yang symbolism commonly associated with the ink.
Nautical themes and anchors go especially well with traditional and realistic styles.
Skulls and Bones
Skulls and bones are traditional and very versatile, and they go well with most different styles.
Skeletons can be drawn inside or around the design, especially in the lower half of the hourglass—to signify the finality of life. They can also be combined with objects that symbolize life, power and potency—think stars, hearts…
Roses are very common in tattoo designs. For the hourglass, they can either be depicted around the globes or inside them.
These flowers are a common symbol of life and vitality, and they may be placed in the upper bulb of the art to enhance the optimism carried by the tattoo. If you want an elaborate contrast, have something on the opposite bulb that depicts a negative force, such as a skull.
Since roses are such a traditional design object, they should combine flawlessly with many other traditional objects and themes, including nautical and Mexican styles.
Plants or Trees
Other types of plants can also be included in the hourglass to symbolize life. One option is using dried-up trees in the bottom and vital flowers growing at the top.
Turning this setting upside down changes its meaning: If the top of the hourglass is full of optimistic symbols, the entire tattoo is considered optimistic. If darker objects populate the top-most portions of your ink, it may be considered pessimistic.
Clocks and Candles
Clocks are also commonly placed inside or around an hourglass to emphasize the idea of the flow of time. Clocks can be drawn in combination with other objects, like skulls or candles, or roses and other plants.
Often, a candle is represented on top or inside the hourglass. This, especially when the candle is burning near the end, implies that time is about to run out.
Sometimes an hourglass is depicted with wings on the sides. The meaning is literally that time flies. This design looks especially good when it’s in a bigger tattoo.
To give the tattoo a more ecological point of view or underline the “cycle of life” interpretation, the hourglass can be drawn with our planet inside. This can be at the top or the bottom, or both, depending on the intended meaning.
Common Hourglass Tattoo Colors and Styles
The most popular choice for an hourglass is black ink. In realistic or minimalistic outline tattoos, this is the look most people go for. However, there are many options, depending on the style you’re most interested in.
For traditional-style tattoos, you could use a simple palette of two to four basic colors, depending on the other objects you intend to include. A red rose, for example, contrasts well with a black hourglass: A nautical theme in the design combines naturally with tones of blue.
This object is also very adaptable to Mexican-style designs with skulls, roses and an extensive palette of colors.
An hourglass with watercolor-style splashes in the background or inside the bulbs can really stand out with different hues of reds, purples and blues. The great thing about this style of tattoos is that they work with pretty much any color you may be interested in.
Popular Hourglass Tattoo Placements
The most common placement for an hourglass tattoo, especially a bigger one, is the upper arm or the calf. Thanks to its shape, the illustration looks great on the limbs, in general.
Smaller designs fit onto practically any part of the body. They can be used to add little details in bigger tattoos covering the entire back, or small minimalistic outlines in the arms and hands, feet, or shoulders.
Wing designs with an hourglass in the middle look especially good when they’re on the chest or back. This is particularly the case if the tattoo is big enough to cover the entire area.