Few uses of symbolism are as old as memento mori, nor are there many others so richly rooted in so many cultures and traditions. A memento, or “reminder” of death, the memento mori has been used for thousands of years as a reflection on the virtues of introspection and humility.
That meaning goes back as far as ancient Rome, when an ordinary man would follow behind a triumphant general on his victory parade, whispering to him that he was only a mortal man after all.
Its use was resurrected as an art form during Europe’s medieval period, where it played a part in art and literature, and was a popular element among knights in showcasing their virtues of liege loyalty and humility.
Today, the memento mori is a popular theme in tattoos for men, but it retains much of its well-established meaning. Though it might make use of such symbols as a shroud, a skull, or a grim reaper, it is not a morbid or macabre symbol. Instead, it serves as a reminder of our shared destiny: we are all mortal men, fated to die, and should be concerned with the betterment of ourselves and the improvement of our character while we yet live.
1. Ambigram Memento Mori Tattoos
These tattoos use stylized text to create interesting designs called ambigrams. An ambigram is a “calligraphic design that manages to squeeze two different readings into the selfsame set of curves.”
The effect created using this interesting approach to script can leave the observer twisting their head, trying to read the different flipped and reversed text, like a tongue twister for the eye. There is also an added intellectual layer to these designs: no matter which way you look at it, we are all heading towards death.
2. Memento Mori Skull Tattoos
Perhaps the image most strongly associated with death and mortality, skulls are perfectly suited to incorporate into memento mori tattoos. Many of the oldest artistic representations of this concept incorporated skulls and skeletons thanks to their deep associations with death and being instantly recognizable. Thanks to the variety of styles and approaches that different artists take, skulls can be incorporated in many unique and eye catching ways.
3. Simple Script Memento Mori Tattoos
Script is a great way to get straight to the point in a tattoo, and when it comes to a phrase like, this script is absolutely necessary. The different styles and schools mean that there are hundreds of typefaces and fonts to choose from, ensuring that there is a script out there for every sensibility, although the ornate and highly stylized Chicano scripts are some of the more popular and impressive choices.
4. Trash Polka Memento Mori Tattoos
Trash Polka is an interesting style that developed in Germany and is characterized by the use of realistic imagery, often portraiture, with graphics, script and the effect of splattered and smudged ink (the trash in trash polka). This collage style is perfectly suited to memento mori tattoos, with their ability to tell a story and incorporate disparate imagery into a unified composition.
5. Black and Gray Memento Mori Tattoos
The classic style and subdued sensibility of black and gray tattoo work is perfectly suited for these mementos to our limited time in life. Through the use of precise line work and a gradation of gray tones, a talented artist can create images in a variety of styles: from hyper-realistic portraiture, to designs that are more reminiscent of lithographs from the turn of the century.
6. Hourglass Memento Mori Tattoos
Another powerful symbol of the transitory and fleeting nature of time, the hourglass is perfect to incorporate into these tattoos. From vibrant color tattoos that jump off the skin, to pieces that take a more subdued approach, hourglasses add a visual element that provides plenty of creative space for artists and can add a lot to a memento mori inspired tattoo.
8. Black Ink Traditional Memento Mori Tattoos
These black line work tattoos take an approach that is evocative of the hand cut lithographs that held the original Christian images of memento mori art. Through a bold application of precise lines, these artists are able to create unique pieces that utilize common themes like gravestones, skulls and skeletons to perfectly capture the sentiment behind this ancient concept.
9. Traditional and Neo Traditional Memento Mori Tattoos
The bold lines and fully saturated colors of American traditional and neo-traditional tattoo work are on full display in these interesting designs. Many of the design elements that are common in these styles—skulls, daggers, and roses—are expertly applied in these pieces helping to capture the depth of this concept while creating eye catching and unique tattoos.
10. Minimalist Script Memento Mori Tattoos
As we have seen, there are hundreds of different typefaces and fonts to choose from, and while many people prefer the flourishes and decorative elements of some of the more stylized scripts, some people have simpler tastes. These artists use precise lines a subdued approach to create these tattoos that perfectly capture the sentiment behind memento mori through the use of this restrained script work.
Memento Mori Tattoo FAQs
Where did memento mori originate?
The concept of memento mori is an interesting one, although it isn’t surprising that this focus on death grew out of the classical philosophy of Socrates and Plato. In fact in his recounting of the death of Socrates, Plato asserts that all philosophy is “about nothing but dying and being dead,” and in many ways he is correct.
Given our limited time on earth and the ephemeral nature of life, death provides man with a lens through which to view our deeds and actions with a laser focus. Death imparts every menial and mundane task with an importance and urgency once we have the clarity to see that each moment is remarkable and unique, only to be lost to the sands of time.
After the Christianization of the ancient world this concept became focused on the importance of humility and service, as defined by the teachings of Christ. This is where the majority of the memento mori images and designs came from, however this concept is not limited to Western traditions.
The Tibetan Buddhists have a practice called lojong, which is a meditation exercise based around coming to terms with the finite nature of the human body and the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a synthesis of Christianity and existing traditions of pre–contact Native populations.
While the term and definition of memento mori arose out of the Classical period of Western thought, the almost universal expression of this idea suggests that to recognize our mortality is distinctly human. It truly is no wonder that people continue to use art—especially tattoos—to create everyday reminders of the fleeting nature of life.