While the history of the hourglass is not precisely known, the meaning behind them is almost as crystal clear as the connected glass bulbs are.
Some claim the invention traces all the way back to ancient Egypt with dates ranging from c. 350 AD to 150 BC. Yet, to historians these two connected glass bulbs with sand inside still remain quite a mystery.
Regardless, the symbol of an hourglass has been found on everything from pirate flags to coffins and gravestones in England. Needless to say, it’s popular and for a good reason too.
The meaning behind this design stems from the eternal passage of time. A look inside of one and you’ll know exactly why as you watch the sand slipping away until there is none left. For some men, this idea serves as a reminder that life itself is finite. In other words, remember to make the most of it while you still can.
Other men interrupt this symbol based upon its two parts: The upper and lower bulbs. With a single turn it shows the constant cycle of life and death.
Another popular meaning stems from the direction of flowing sand. Sometimes in life we must stop and reverse the direction we are going in. As time passes it gives us the opportunity to contemplate our actions before it’s too late. Not to mention, the hourglass can serve as a reminder of the contrast in life with things such as joy and sadness.
With that said, spend some time exploring these top 60 best hourglass tattoo designs for men below. You’ll discover masculine ideas from realistic art to cool winged hourglass tattoos and more.
1. Neo traditional hourglass tattoos
Here are some great pieces that take this approach and turn it towards these most timeless of timepieces.
This big, bold chest piece uses vibrant, fully saturated color, an interesting design, and prominent placement to display the wearer’s relationship with the fleeting nature of time.
This is an interesting side piece that takes an hourglass with broken glass and sand leaking out of the bottom and uses bold line work and attention to detail (notice the wood grain on the hourglass) to create a unique tattoo.
This is an incredible neo-traditional ¾ sleeve that uses a stylized hourglass containing an eye to create a more interesting composition, along with a woman’s face that is reminiscent of art nouveau prints, to complete this full-color tattoo.
An interesting color scheme is utilized in interesting this neo-traditional piece that uses fully saturated gold and yellow ink to capture a nautical scene contained within a stylized hourglass.
Here, the artist takes a more realistic approach to capture the infamous mushroom cloud and the plant sprout below it to create an interesting juxtaposition that adds to the appeal of this meaningful tattoo.
This tattoo uses deep tones of fully saturated black and purple ink as well as white highlights to capture the details in the feathers of the raven as well as the graveyard background and the hourglass at the bottom of the piece.
Some of the most popular tattoo designs—the classic images of skulls, ships and swallows—come from the American traditional school of tattooing. However, just like all art, tattoo styles are constantly shifting and evolving as new artists push the envelope of what is acceptable while creating unique and interesting designs. One of these styles that have grown from American traditional tattoo work is the neo-traditional style.
This more modern take on the original American tattoo style is typified by a broader color palette: to be a true American traditional tattoo a number of rules are in place. Neo-traditional tattoo artists are not as restricted as some of the die-hard purists that argue for the limited palette and motifs that define the style.
Neo-traditional pieces are also free to incorporate higher levels of realism that increase the appeal of these vibrant, brightly colored designs.
2. Hourglass skull tattoos
Here are some great examples of skulls being successfully incorporated into hour-glass tattoos.
In this piece, the artist takes a more realistic approach to the application of black and gray ink that is used to create shadows and texture in the skulls and bones that form this macabre hourglass tattoo.
This tattoo uses fully saturated black ink as well as negative space and white ink for highlights to create the effect of bright light reflecting off the highly polished surface of the wood and glass that form this timepiece.
Several interesting elements are incorporated into this unique tattoo, including a realistic skull, a well-executed candle burning within the glass and a stylized backdrop of neutral tones that help the focal point of the piece to stand out.
Here is a black and gray piece that uses excellent gray wash shading to create the mangled skull with missing teeth that forms the base of the timepiece as well as an informed execution of the glass that gives the impression of light refracting through the upper bulb.
This tattoo also uses expert black and gray shading that is reminiscent of the Chicano tattoo style to complete the realistic image of a skull wearing a crown, captured within an hourglass that perfectly complements the other portions of this full sleeve tattoo.
A striking piece, not only because of the size and prominent placement but also because of the excellent gradation in tones in the gray wash that perfectly capture the different elements in this tattoo, including the skull, shirt collar, hourglass and smoky border.
This piece uses excellent black and gray shading to create the hourglass with a skull melting into the sand of the timepiece, although perhaps the most interesting aspect is the use of negative space at the bottom of the design to give the impression of skin peeled back to reveal the image beneath.
Instead of black and gray, this piece uses blue and white ink to create this interesting design that incorporates the face of a grandfather clock above a skull within the hourglass to emphasize the finite nature of life.
Perhaps it is an underlying sense of irony that pushes people to tattoo skulls on themselves: these striking images bring to mind the temporary nature of our human life, while we use ink and needles to permanently etch them on our bodies. Whatever the case, few images have become so iconic in the world of tattooing as the skull. Whether they are stylized cartoon skulls, American traditional designs, or photo-realistic depictions of these macabre reminders of our mortality, this element is everywhere in the tattoo world.
It is no surprise then, that the instantly identifiable image of death would be incorporated into designs with another essential visual representation of the limited timeline of human life. As we will see, skulls make for dramatic additions to these powerful tattoos and allow talented artists the opportunity to show off their skill at drawing anatomical features as well as creating striking compositions.
3. Unique color hourglass tattoos
Here are some great examples of hour-glass tattoos that stand apart from the crowd.
In this piece, the artist uses black and gray ink to create the hourglass at the center of the design and then lays swaths of red ink to create the feeling of paint or blood splattered across the piece and gives the tattoo a polka-trash sensibility.
This bold, full-sleeve uses black and gray ink, as well as negative space and white ink for highlights, to create the hourglass that contains a burning candle and red ink is applied to produce the ribbon that draws the eye up and down the entire tattoo.
Here is another hourglass tattoo that uses a candle to highlight the passing of time, although this artist uses an interesting palette of warm gold tones above and cool tones below to create a deeper contrast that works well in this tattoo.
This piece takes a more biological approach to the familiar hourglass trope, with red and yellow ink used to create a fetus in the top bulb and white and blue ink to produce the skeleton that sits at the bottom of the tattoo.
This piece is interesting for the stylistic contrast that is created thanks to the tight, concise illustrative work that makes up the hourglass at the center of the design and the looser application to the clock that serves as the backdrop for this tattoo.
Here is an excellent piece that uses attention to detail and vibrant, fully saturated colors to create an interesting hourglass tattoo that is perfectly incorporated into the wearer’s existing work.
Tattoos give people the opportunity to permanently decorate their bodies, and while many people use this art form as a way to solidify existing bonds with a group, just as many people search for unique designs to help them stand out from the masses. This is one of the qualities that make tattoos such a powerful and interesting art form: the sky really is the limit when it comes to tattoo designs.
While there is no doubt that there are rules in certain artistic traditions, for every rule, there is an artist that feels the need to break it. Tattoos are no different. Out of American traditional came neo-traditional, out of neo-traditional came the even brighter new-school style. Tattoo art is always growing and changing thanks to imaginative artists and the people who use their bodies as canvases for the unique works of art.
4. Innovative black and gray hourglass tattoos
The following pieces demonstrate how a solid design and expert application can make for excellent tattoos without the need for color ink.
In this piece, the artist uses black and gray shading as well as some careful line work to create this stylized hourglass, but instead of sand flowing through the timepiece, it is shadowy silhouettes that are falling from one bulb to the next.
The level of realism the artist is able to achieve in this tattoo is impressive: notice the accuracy and consistency of the highlights on the glass and polished wood of the hourglass, all produced with only black and gray ink.
This excellent black and gray tattoo takes the common hourglass theme and adds a ship’s anchor that perfectly uses forced perspective to give the impression of light being distorted at the bottom of the ocean.
Big and bold, this piece uses an excellent application of gray wash shading as well as clean line work to create this full side tattoo that blends elements of American traditional style with more modern design choices.
Eschewing color and shading, this full chest tattoo uses precise and consistent line work to create the details in the layered feathers and uses a large portion of negative space to produce the stylized hourglass at the center of this interesting design.
These matching hand tattoos utilize fully saturated black ink and a creative use of hatching and stipple work to create depth and texture, while a playful placement makes this interactive piece all the more interesting.
This side piece uses black ink and precise, consistent line work to give the design a feeling reminiscent of woodcut lithographs that is enhanced by the large size and prominent placement of this excellent tattoo.
In this piece, bold lines and excellent whip shading are used to create the large Grim Reaper that is watching over the hourglass containing a cityscape complete with minarets and billowing clouds.
Here, an hourglass containing a figure, slowly being overwhelmed by the falling sand is created using gray wash with white highlights and incorporated with existing work through the use of gradual shading that creates the effect of smoke rolling over the piece.
Bold lines and black and gray ink are utilized to create this stylized hourglass, shattering and spilling its contents in front of a backdrop produced with negative space, stipple work and whip shading that improves the overall composition of this tattoo.
This is a clever design that uses fully saturated black ink and subtle gradation to create the upper bulb containing Saturn, while the lower portion uses lighter tones and excellent negative space to create the mountain peak that forms the lower bulb of the hourglass.
Here, the artist uses clean black and gray shading to produce this realistic and detailed hourglass, complete with a carved lion perched above, that looks like it could come straight out of a museum or private collection.
Different shading techniques, precise line work (notice the texture in the wood grain) and fully saturated black ink are used to create the glass, wood and bones that form this interesting hourglass tattoo.
This tattoo uses an excellent application of black and gray shading to create the different tones that help produce a feeling of depth in the design and allow the figure in the lower portion to stand out, appearing to be trapped within the glass of the timepiece.
This excellent tattoo is impressive for the variation in tones of gray wash that are achieved, from the negative space of the wisps of smoke, to the almost completely saturated black in the creases of the ghoulish hand at the top of the piece.
In this stunning full sleeve, the hourglass is only one portion of a much larger design, however the level of detail is impressive and the artist uses a trained eye to create a balanced composition that provides all of the different elements in this black and gray tattoo their own space.
This piece uses black and gray, along with white ink for highlights, to produce an ornate hourglass covered in filigree, and excellent gray wash to create the smoother texture of the sand in the lower portion of the tattoo.
Here, black and gray shading and precise line work are used to create this nautical hourglass, complete with a sinking ship, circling gulls and a half-revealed skull slowly being buried in the sands of time.
Some people prefer vibrant colors to help their tattoos standout; other people use large designs to draw attention to their unique pieces. There isn’t any doubt that these two approaches can make for some excellent designs, but there are few things as timeless and classic as well-executed, black and gray tattoo work. There is something about these designs that bring to mind archetypal representations of different design elements, and this remains true of black and gray hour-glass tattoos.
In the hands of a talented artist, black and gray designs can be just as stunning as the most vibrant color tattoos, while maintaining a certain level of subtle appeal that is hard to top. In the best examples of the style, there is a subdued nature about these black and gray tattoos that brings to mind classic film and photography from a bygone era.
5. Hourglasses and animals
The following designs are some great examples of how animals can help create one of a kind hourglass tattoos.
The artist takes a more illustrative approach to this excellent black and gray half sleeve, with smooth gray wash used for the background that lets the saturated blacks and white highlights in the raven really stand out.
This is an interesting black and gray tattoo that combines the disparate temporal concepts of an hourglass representing the finite nature of time and the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail known as an ouroboros that embodies eternity.
Here is an excellent black and gray design that combines a photorealistic rendition of a falcon gazing over an hourglass with a clever use of negative space and black lines to give a sense of movement and create a more dynamic tattoo.
This is a great owl hourglass tattoo that uses black and gray shading along with negative space and white ink highlights to realistically produce one of these nocturnal birds of prey presiding over a detailed hourglass.
Tattoos have incorporated different animals in their designs for hundreds, if not thousands of years, for a number of reasons. In some ancient cultures, tattooing an animal on your skin was believed to imbue the wearer with the strengths and characteristics of the animal. As time carried on, this animist belief was replaced by a more reason oriented worldview; however the desire to incorporate animals into body art as remained.
In modern times these elements in tattoos serve a more aesthetic function, although there is little doubt of the symbolic significance that people associate with the animals they adorn their bodies with. Birds and snakes are some of the most common animals that people incorporate into tattoos thanks to the powerful meanings associated with these creatures. When used in conjunction with an hourglass, a deeper significance becomes apparent, with the mystical nature of crows and snakes being brought to the forefront of these powerful tattoos.
6. American traditional hourglass tattoos
These tattoos display how a talented artist that is familiar with the rules of American Traditional style is able to bend them just enough without breaking.
In this American traditional piece, bold line work and dense color are used to create the hourglass and pansies that are typical of the style, while excellent gray shading and highlights perfectly produce the effect of the skull being behind glass within the lower bulb.
Most striking about this color tattoo is the bold placement on the throat, and while the overall design and application are pretty good, this piece suffers from poor execution of some prominent lines in the bottom portion of the tattoo.
Perhaps the most iconic style of tattoos is the instantly recognizable elements associated with American traditional designs. As kids, when most of us thought of the word “tattoo” the images that came to mind were the skulls, ships and pierced hearts that originated out of this tattoo school. For many, this is what a tattoo should look like. While there are still die-hard traditionalists that feel American traditional tattoos need to follow a list of approved motifs, in more recent times, as long as the limited color palette and bold line work that define the style are present, it is generally considered to be American traditional.
This opens the door for these interesting interpretations of hourglasses in the American traditional style. The tattoos featured here are great examples that incorporate elements of the style, including the ubiquitous pansy as well as some simple script work.
7. Traditional realist hourglass tattoos
The tattoos featured here are examples of a traditional realist approach to tattooing that can make for some interesting pieces.
This is a stunning tattoo that uses black and gray ink mixed with some level of blue to create a hand that is impressive in the level of detail achieved: notice the accuracy in the highlights on the hand that give the fingers a realistic texture.
This is another black and gray piece where the artist expertly uses dramatic gradation in tones—from deep black to white highlights—to create a surprising level of realism in this clean tattoo.
For some people, art must imitate life, the more accurately the better, and for these people, the obvious choice is a realistic approach to tattoos. While not to everyone’s taste, the level of artistry and skill on display in these pieces is incredible, with the best of these tattoos having a hyper-realistic look that gives the impression of a photograph printed on the skin. A talented artist, through an expert application of black and gray ink, is able to create a sense of depth and gradation of tones and texture that take these pieces to the next level.
It is also worth noting that just because a tattoo is executed using a photo-realistic approach doesn’t necessarily mean that the elements within the tattoo and their composition need to be realistic. Some people take a realistic approach to the different aspects of the tattoo and use a more artistic composition to create a more interesting design.
Hourglass Tattoo FAQ’s
What does an hourglass symbolize?
Clocks, ouroboros and the infinity symbol. All of these disparate images represent different aspects of the mystical nature of time; however, there is no image more instantly recognizable, which is so inextricably tied to time than the hourglass. While the exact origins of these powerful chronological tools are unclear, they have unquestionably existed since at least the 8th century in Europe. Prior to the development of these temporal devices, man’s ability to measure time was limited to examining the natural world around him.
Since their creation, it seems these arresting devices have come to represent the fleeting nature of time, specifically of man’s life. The hourglass often depicted with wings, further emphasizes the transitory essence of our time on this plane, and the inability to recapture the time we’ve lost.
As the grains of sand pass from one glass bulb to the next, so do the moments of our lives move from the future before us to the past at our backs. What better way to embrace the fleeting nature of our lives than to permanently mark our bodies with this most archetypal symbol of the transient nature of time?
What does a broken hourglass represent?
While an hourglass is an incredibly powerful symbol of passing time and our limited time on this mortal coil, a broken hourglass has become a popular element in tattoos for its different, but equally important meaning. If an hourglass represents the sands of time slipping through our fingers in the daily experience of life, then what does a broken timepiece symbolize?
Even though every tattoo holds specific meaning for the individual wearing it, these damaged hourglass designs do have some general symbolic meaning that is safe to assume. In the past, these dramatic pieces represented death and time running out for some poor soul, however, in more recent times this image has taken on a more positive meaning.
Like many of us, people often struggle with their connection to past events, often traumatic, that make it difficult to move forward in a positive direction with their lives. These shattered timers are often used as a representation of an individual breaking free of the past and carrying on with their lives, unencumbered by emotional baggage.
Whether its addiction, abuse or any other difficult circumstances, these tattoos can make for powerful reminders that even though we all have a past, every day is a new chance to start over and live a more free and positive existence.
Enjoy these hourglass tattoos but looking for more inspiration? Click on more galleries below: