Why are Aztec Tattoos so Popular?
Though the Aztecs have been lost to Western invaders, the tradition of Aztec tattoos has not been forgotten.
Aztec tattoos may be popular because they were considered sacred.
These tattoos are more than just pleasant imagery.
They are considered to be a symbol of devotion to one’s gods.
They also may be popular because of their aestheticism.
Aztec tattoos, almost always done with black and grey ink, are tribal tattoos that have a ferocity about them with intricate lines and even 3D effects.
They have powerful look that is rugged and often manly providing them with a great look on the body.
Aztec tattoos come with some ancient knowledge, like a faint whisper from an old Aztec woman telling you stories from the past.
They celebrate the Aztec heritage and the powerful empire itself by telling and retelling its stories through design.
It’s no wonder Aztec tattoos are so popular: they come from a rich past that anyone would be privileged to participate in.
What is an Aztec Tattoo?
The Aztecs and Mayans were incredibly proud of their body art and showed it off as a tribute to many things that were important to them.
An Aztec tattoo used to often be something that was done in honor of an Aztec God.
These tattoos were done in tribute to the Gods, which seems like a great concept for a religion (more tattoos? Yes please!).
Unlike many cultures, tattoos to the Aztecs were empowering and a collective activity that denoted a prosperous life rather than criminal activity or punishment.
They also were more intricately designed than tattoos of many other cultures during the period.
Aztec tattoos were also used to designate a bodily representation of belonging to a specific tribe.
Each type of tattoo designated the person’s warrior status, so everyone could see how powerful they were and knew not to mess with them.
It was a sign of ultimate respect for their accomplishments.
That way, everyone could instantly identify their rank in the tribe by simply looking at that person’s tattoos and showing that respect to that member of the tribe.
Aztec tattoos, as we mentioned, are mainly in black or grey ink and typically have some form of a tribal pattern.
They can be of a skeleton, a warrior’s face, or of a woman.
These figures often wear a headdress, which was a symbol of great status to the Aztecs.
They are often different animals or a combination of animal parts, all representing a different God which the Aztecs would get a tattoo to show their devotion.
Another popular Aztec tattoo is of a metal Aztec plate with tribal symbols.
The Aztecs were advanced in metallurgy and made many objects out of gold, copper, and tumbaga (a mix of gold and copper).
This style of Aztec tattoo may be reminiscent of items people have seen in museums and represent the Aztec civilization.
We will discuss more what these tattoo designs mean in the last section.
History of Aztec Tattoos
The Aztec Empire controlled Central American from the 14th to the 16th century.
I call them an ‘empire’ rather than a ‘civilization,’ because they were an advanced empire that dominated their region for centuries, making them more advanced and deserving more recognition in history than simply being a ‘civilization.’
The way we use words in academia to describe certain groups of peoples has the potential to label them as lesser or greater than other groups, so it is important to refer to the Aztecs as not only civilized but a great and complex society that, as we all know, Hernando Cortes on behalf of Spain completely ended.
The Aztecs were a complex and highly structured society that involved the art of tattooing greatly.
Not much is known about the history of Aztec tattoos, but it is known that tattoos were performed in rituals for Gods such as Cuauhtli or Uitzilopochtle.
Even children were tattooed in Aztec culture; often of certain Gods in the hope that the child would remain faithful to that God and forever see them as their deity.
To instill faithfulness to God, the Aztecs would tattoo them on their chest or wrist.
Body placement mattered greatly for the Aztec’s and certain areas on the body had ritualistic meanings.
The most important concept other than the Gods to the Aztecs was the sun.
In the center of their calendar, the Aztecs worshiped the sun as the bringer of all new life.
This was a popular tattoo for this reason.
If only we had more concrete evidence of Aztec tattoo history, but there’s no doubt that their history is relived through modern-day Aztec tattoos.
Aztec Tattoos and Their Meanings
Aztec tattoos each have a specific meaning, as we’ve discussed, either relating to a God or tribal status.
Today, these meanings have been added to and morphed into modern-day symbolism.
Here are some of the most popular Aztec tattoos and their meanings:
Huitzilopochtli Tattoos – The Sun God
Huitzilopochtli is a major deity in Aztec mythology and the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan.
He is the god of war, sun, and sacrificial rituals in Aztec legends.
Often, Huitzilopochtli is depicted wearing either a hummingbird’s beak (which led to the nickname “Hummingbird from the South”) or an eagle’s beak.
Huitzilopochtli tattoos often feature these symbols, too.
Huitzilopochtli tattoos usually represent traits that go hand-in-hand with war.
These might be bravery, sacrifice, or honor in the face of difficult experiences or challenges.
The Aztecs believed in many suns and even offered human sacrifices to the sun Gods.
The sun represented the entire world and everyone who lived on it.
The sun had a lot to do with Aztec heaven, called Tollan, which only accepted warriors and women who lost their lives in childbirth.
The sun was seen as the end all be all of their people and was cherished rightly so.
Therefore, the Aztec sun tattoo symbolizes oneness with the Earth and acceptance for all human beings.
It represents the love we all share for the world.
It also represents protection from evil because the sun is the light in the world and comes up into the sky every day.
Aztec Eagle Tattoo
A common tattoo for an Aztec warrior, this design typically shows the eagle facing to the west with its beak open and its feathers protruding from its head.
It can also be depicted as spread apart with its wings filled with geometric tribal patterns.
Whether it’s a more realistic-looking tattoo or more symbolic, the eagle has a powerful meaning.
This tattoo symbolizes courage, honor, and strength.
The Aztecs would have worn an eagle tattoo to show their tribe that they belong and that they have what it takes to be a warrior.
Aztec Crocodile Tattoo
The Aztecs believed that the crocodile’s body was used to form the Earth.
Therefore, it was held in high regard as a godly figure and was honored on peoples’ bodies with tattoos.
They also typically mixed toad and fish imagery with the crocodile into one interesting tattoo.
The Aztec crocodile tattoo was a tribute to the Gods because of its mythological story, but today it symbolizes strength.
It also symbolizes the aptitude to solve complex problems (such as forming the Earth with your body).
Overall, it represents creation itself.
Aztec Warrior Tattoo
This tattoo typically represented what tribe the warrior belonged to.
The warrior in the tattoo would be dressed the same way are their fellow tribesmen and would symbolize their forever commitment to that tribe.
The Aztec warrior tattoo today symbolizes loyalty, power, and courage.
Often done with a shield or a headdress, these tattoos mean that you have both the heart and the strength of a warrior and that you are committed to those traits for life.
Jaguar Warrior Tattoos
The Aztec Jaguar warriors were the elite military forces of the Aztecs.
They wore distinctive jaguar skins with black spots on them, hence their animalistic name.
In battle, jaguar warriors were known for their extreme endurance and patience.
They always viewed battles as a chance to pay tribute to the warrior goddess Malinalxochitl.
Jaguar warrior tattoos are meant to evoke the same traits that defined the jaguar warriors themselves: endurance and patience.
People who get jaguar warrior tattoos are usually trying to represent their ability to stick with things, even when they get tough.
They might also be trying to remind themselves that not all good things happen overnight.
Eagle Warrior Tattoos
One of the more popular Aztec tattoos is that of the eagle warrior.
In Aztec society, eagle warriors were known and respected for their strength and skill in battle.
They represented the best warriors the society had to offer – roughly the equivalent of knights in medieval Europe.
This tattoo design has different meanings depending on who’s wearing it, but typically it’s seen as a sign of courage, strength, and the willingness to fight for what you believe in.
Aztec Feathered Serpent Tattoo
Named Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent was a powerful God who the Aztecs believed to be the world’s ultimate protector.
He was also the God of knowledge and learning in life.
Also, he was considered the God of fertility and creativity.
Being such an important God, the Aztec feathered serpent tattoo has many meanings.
It can mean that you are using the tattoo a token of protection from evil.
Alternatively, the tattoo can symbolize that you are always pursuing more intelligence and want to remember to continue to make attaining knowledge your goal in life.
Aztec Calendar Tattoos
The Aztec calendar has been a guiding force in many people’s lives for centuries upon centuries.
These types of tattoos often represent significant personal or familial events or celebrations, and often feature dates and years along with the classic, Aztec-inspired calendar.
This tattoo design is a great way to honor important people or events with a style of tattooing that is a bit less common than tattoos featuring simple names and dates.
Tláloc, or “He who makes things sprout”, is the Aztec god of rain and fertility.
Tláloc is typically depicted with a pronounced red tongue and swollen lips, which some say is a reflection of all the drinking he must do to maintain his domain over water.
In tattoos, the design sometimes includes an ax that allows Tláloc to cut into rain clouds to release life-giving water from them during times of drought.
The meaning of Tláloc tattoos varies between people, but many choose to get this design as a representation of their respect for the Earth and all it gives us.
Tezcatlipoca is the Aztec god of constellations and the night sky.
Tezcatlipoca is often associated with death and rebirth because he rules over the moon as it disappears and reappears over the course of many days.
In tattoos, Tezcatlipoca is typically depicted with a black face or jaguar headdress.
Many believe that through tattoos, Tezcatlipoca can be immortalized.
Tezcatlipoca tattoos are symbols of nighttime, darkness, and endings.
They can be representative of challenging experiences you’ve overcome and dark periods of your life that have come to define you.
Xipe Totec Tattoos
Xipe Totec tattoos are imbued with the mythology and history of ancient Aztec societies.
Xipe Totec’s name translates to “the flayed one”, and he is believed to be responsible for the rebirth that occurs when spring descends on the Earth – specifically to Aztec fields of wheat.
The worship of Xipe Totec often involved ritual maize harvests whereupon his priests would wear robes made of jute fabric to imitate snakeskin.
As the god of spring rebirth, Xipe Totec tattoos can symbolize new beginnings after periods of difficulty.
To some people, they can also represent fertility and renewal.
Xochipilli, or “flower prince”, is the Aztec god of games, art, music, and flowers in Aztec mythology.
This deity was frequently shown wearing clothes made of flowers while being surrounded by pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds.
Many choose to get Xochipilli tattoos as representations of their inner happiness or their appreciation for the beauty and positivity that surrounds them.
A Xochipilli tattoo is a fantastic reminder to look on the bright side and focus on the things that make you happiest in life.
Mictlantecuhtli is the Aztec god of death and the underworld.
His name translates to “Lord of The City of the Dead”, a reference to Mictlan, the mythical city of the dead he rules over.
In Aztec mythology, Mictlantecuhtli was said to guide the souls of those who died to his domain where he would judge them to decide their fate.
Despite the dark subject matter that Mictlantecuhtli evokes, many people choose to represent him in permanent ink on their bodies.
Mictlantecuhtli tattoos are a reminder that life should be lived to the fullest while it’s still possible, while others see him as a way to honor loved ones who they’ve lost.
In Aztec culture, skulls were seen as symbols of the cycle of death and rebirth that dominated their mythology and religious beliefs.
Aztec skull tattoos are often depicted with boldly colored outlines, golden highlights, and brightly colored details that make the pieces stand out on the body.
People get them as reminders that life is temporary and that every moment on Earth is precious.
Coatlicue is the goddess who gave birth to the sun, stars, and Huitzilopochtli.
Her name translates to English as “Lady of Skirts” in reference to the serpents that typically create a mosaic pattern on her skirt.
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue is considered the creator of all life and the mother of all that exists.
For many people, Coatlicue tattoos are a reminder that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, whether that’s a community, family, planet, or universe.
For others, Coatlicue tattoos symbolize the mysteries that surround our existence.
Ometeotl is an Aztec creation diety that was formed by the merging of husband and wife duo, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl.
Ometeotl is believed to have given birth to several major gods and goddesses in the Aztec pantheon and is highly respected as a personification of life, death, and all things.
Ometeotl tattoos are difficult to assign meaning to given the diety’s wide-ranging role in Aztec culture.
Some choose this tattoo as a way to pay tribute to the Aztec creator of life as we know it.
Others choose this design as a way to show appreciation for the incredibly long chain of cause-and-effect events that led to their creation.
Chalchiuhtlicue is the Aztec goddess of water.
Her name translates to “She of the Jade Skirt” in reference to the shiny skirt covered with thousands of fish scales that she is frequently depicted wearing.
Often, she is also shown carrying a serpent in each hand.
In contrast with many other Aztec deities, Chalchiuhtlicue is calm, kind-hearted, and generous.
People who choose to get Chalchiuhtlicue tattoos are usually trying to show their appreciation for the gift of life that the Earth has given them.
These tattoos are optimistic and positive, making them ideal for anyone who always tries to look on the bright side.
Mixcoatl is the Aztec god of the hunt and is often depicted with the features of a deer or rabbit, carrying a bow with an arrow ready to be let loose.
Mixcoatl tattoos are commonly worn by people who need a reminder that patience is crucial when they’re pursuing the things they want.
Whatever you’re ‘hunting’ for, it will likely take time.
Mixcoatl tattoos are a reminder to slow down and appreciate the journey.
In addition, Mixcoatl tattoos are also believed to offer protection to the wearer when they’re in dangerous situations.
Many believe that the spirit of Mixcoatl can see into people’s minds and warn of any jealousy or ill will lurking there.
Xochiquetzal, or “Precious Feather Flower”, was the Aztec goddess of fertility, love, and beauty.
She is often depicted in tattoos carrying a bowl full of seeds with flowers in her hair.
Xochiquetzal tattoos are most commonly worn by people who hope to attract a partner with assistance from the love god Xochiquetzal herself or those who have found love and want to show the world.
However, to some Xochiquetzal tattoos are meant to show appreciation for the meaning and value that feelings of love bring to our lives.
Tonatiuh is an ancient, Mesoamerican sun god that is similar in many ways to the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli.
In fact, many Aztecs believed that Tonatiuh was simply an earlier incarnation of Huitzilopochtli, who they believed frequently died in cataclysmic events.
Tonatiuh tattoos are frequently seen as symbolic of light, positivity, and inner power.
Many believe that the sun god’s warmth will help them remain happy and strong in times of struggle or hardship.
Coyolxauhqui, or “Golden Bells”, is the Aztec goddess of the moon.
Her mother is Coatlicue and she is a sister to Huitzilopochtli (the sun god).
Coyolxauhqui tattoos are most commonly worn by women because she is seen as a symbol of femininity and maternity.
In addition, many people choose to get Coyolxauhqui tattoos as a way of honoring their love for their families.
In Aztec mythology, Tlaltecuhtli is known as the “Goddess of Earth”, responsible for the physical creation of the planet that we all call home.
Though she is not one of the major Aztec deities, she is still the basis of many tattoos due to her important role in the origin of humanity within Aztec legends.
There are a number of reasons why people get Tlaltecuhtli tattoos, ranging from a symbol of gratitude for the beauty and abundance of nature or sign of respect for the complexity of our planet and its ecosystems.
Double-Headed Serpent Tattoos
In Aztec culture, the double-headed serpent is a symbol of transformation and rebirth due to the serpent’s ability to shed its skin and be born anew.
It is also associated with fertility and birth due to the prominence of the color green in depictions of the design.
Like many tattoos, the symbolism of rebirth allows for deeply personal interpretations and meanings.
Some see the design as a representation of their personal growth between one stage of their lives and another.
Others see it as an acknowledgment of the fact that they are still a work in progress.
Ahuiateteo is a name used to refer to a group of five gods and goddesses in the Aztec pantheon.
Often worshiped together as a single deity, Ahuiateteo was seen as the god of excess and pleasure as well as the consequences of both.
People who choose to get Ahuiateteo tattoos are frequently reminding themselves that to live a long, happy, and healthy life, moderation is important.
This is a great reminder to anyone who sometimes gets too caught up in the good times and forgets that they have other responsibilities.
Huehueteotl was the Aztec god of fire and blood.
He is often depicted as a wizened, old man wearing crimson attire to symbolize the elements under his domain.
Due to the god’s embodiment of blood and fire (two things necessary for survival), people often choose to honor him with tattoos in the hopes of gaining his protection against anything that would do them harm.
Toltec is the name of an ancient Mesoamerican culture that thrived from the 11th century AD to the 14th century AD.
They built many important buildings and monuments, including pyramids and temples, and were renowned for their art and culture.
Many people in Aztec societies saw the Toltecs as their predecessors.
Toltec tattoos pay homage to Toltec culture by representing their art and mythology in ink.
The meanings for Toltec tattoos vary depending on the chosen design.
There are hundreds of designs to choose from that range from imposing humanoid statues that symbolize steadfastness to impressive pyramids that symbolize royalty and power.
Aztec Butterfly Tattoos
In Aztec mythology, butterflies were representations of the souls of the peacefully deceased.
When you saw a butterfly, it was the soul of a loved one returning to Earth to assure you that they were doing well and watching over you.
As a result, Aztec butterfly tattoos are often seen as symbols of the everlasting memories of departed loved ones.
They are fantastic pieces for honoring those you’ve lost and reminding yourself that they are never truly gone.
Aztec Frog Tattoos
The Aztec frog was one of the earliest symbol tattoos to be used by humans.
Frogs were often associated with water which is crucial for both health and agriculture.
For that reason, Aztec frog tattoos were sometimes worn as protective amulets that promote swift healing and safety.
Today, people choose to get Aztec frog tattoos for many of the same reasons.
The symbolism of the design is believed to offer the wearer nature’s guidance and protection.
Huehuecoyotl is the Aztec god of song, dance, and mischief.
He is often depicted with a red face and wearing ear ornaments shaped like musical notes.
Huehuecoyotl tattoos are perfect for anyone who loves music, dancing, and having fun.
They’re often worn by people who want to celebrate their free-spirited and fun-loving personalities.
Xolotl is the dog-headed, Aztec god of fire, lightning, and… dogs!
In Aztec culture, dogs were valued as companions, hunters, and protectors, and because of that Xolotl was a highly revered deity.
Xolotl tattoos can be a meaningful and subtle way to pay tribute to a canine friend in your life or to celebrate the loyalty, commitment, and love you see within yourself.
Ollin is an Aztec symbol associated with the god Xolotl.
It is seen as a representation of seismic change and periods of great transformation.
These characteristics make it an ideal tattoo design for anyone who wants to remember where they came from while looking forward to where they’re going.
Aztec tattoos are popular because they signify a warrior power that is very attractive to those who seek more assertiveness in their life.
The main points of their history lie in showing respect to the Earth and mankind and loyalty to their tribe.
These old concepts can relate to how we view Aztec tattoos now because many of their meanings such as protection from evil, a want to attain knowledge, courage, honor, are all part of the character traits and attributes that many of us aspire to today.
Aspiring to one of these traits and deciding to put an image symbolizing it on your body proves to yourself that you are committed to being the person you want to be.
Or, alternatively, you have proven to yourself that you have achieved that goal, for example, bravery, because you have saved someone’s life or helped someone in a dangerous situation.
There are so many personal forms of tattoo choice, but if you choose an Aztec tattoo to express yourself you must remember that you are following a long line of people who have been getting Aztec tattoos and you are part of a great history of tattooing.
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Alyssa Renee McCormack is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!