Hourglass tattoos are a beautiful way to express a complicated idea.
The passage of time is something we’ve always been fascinated by and frightened of.
Some surrender to the clutches of time, while others spend their whole lives trying to fight it.
If you’re someone who keeps up with today’s trends, you likely use your phone to track time.
But chances are you also know what an hourglass is.
Other ancient timekeeping devices have become obsolete or merely decorative.
But the hourglass has some staying power.
It may not be our primary mode of time management, but it’s practical in specific applications.
But most people aren’t getting hourglass tattoos because they’re into cooking eggs or playing boggle.
The hourglass is a highly romanticized piece of history.
Its shape, the materials it’s made from, and the slow, ominous drip of sand from one vessel to another.
It all comes together to create an unforgettable, almost ethereal image.
Why are Hourglass Tattoos Popular?
Are you considering an hourglass tattoo?
In this article, we’ll discuss the hourglass.
Its history, its symbolism, pop culture references, and mythological associations.
But first, what is it about an hourglass that is so compelling?
Why are they an object of fascination for so many people?
The aesthetic appeal of an hourglass is not up for debate.
The curvaceous bulbs of glass have a smooth symmetry.
Curvaceous, symmetrical lines are pleasing to the eye in any context.
The sand has a slow, almost liquid way of moving from one bulb to another.
The stand for an hourglass is often more rigid, made of either metal or wood.
The solid frame contrasts and showcases the fluidity of the glass and its contents.
Many artists take the stand as an opportunity for an intricate design.
These opulent hourglasses may be the inspiration for some tattoos.
Large hourglass designs are ornate, often with mythological references.
Even the tiniest plastic egg timer, stripped of the fancy aesthetics, has its charm.
So the first reason why so many people have hourglass tattoos is simple: they’re pleasant to look at.
Standards of beauty may change, but people have been attracted to the hourglass figure since they were able to write about it.
Women’s bodies have been objectified and idealized for thousands of years.
You may argue that, in the past, people liked a curvier woman.
While that may be true, the ‘ideal’ distribution of weight has been consistent: up top and around the hips.
Slender waists have always been considered beautiful.
Some say an hourglass figure is a mark of fertility, which we’re hardwired to find attractive.
In most culture’s writings, some of the earliest texts were written to praise women’s bodies.
Full busts, trim waists, and shapely hips are a constant.
Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, the hourglass is something of a sex symbol.
Time is so complicated.
It’s hard, for the uninitiated, to imagine building a wristwatch from scratch.
Few people know where to place a sundial.
The inner workings of a timekeeping device are often mysterious.
But an hourglass is transparent. And it’s consistent.
You know that, with the right amount of sand, it will empty in the same amount of time every time.
Your phone may lose its charge, your watch may stop, and a sundial stops working at night.
But an hourglass will always work if there’s someone around to flip it over.
There’s something about their simplicity that makes the humble hourglass extraordinary.
So, to sum up, people like looking at hourglasses because:
- They’re fun to look at.
- Their curves awaken something in us.
- They are impressive in their simplicity.
- They’re reliable.
Hourglass Tattoo Symbolism
We’ve discussed the hourglass in the literal sense.
What it is, what it’s shaped like, and what it might remind us of.
But there’s more to this ancient timekeeper than meets the eye.
Hourglasses are not only pleasing to look at, but they’re also powerful alchemical symbols.
They often appear in art, pop culture, and tattoos to represent broad, unfathomable concepts.
So, for most people with hourglass tattoos, it’s about looking beyond the beautiful object, toward its deeper meaning.
There is some debate in the world of alchemical symbols about this one.
Some associate the hourglass shape with a lemniscate, a symbol that has been around for centuries and gained popularity in 2010 and onward.
The lemniscate is a mathematical symbol that represents the concept of infinity.
It was first used in 1655 by a priest and mathematician by the name of John Wallis.
The looping curve of the design represents something that goes on forever.
Some say the hourglass cannot be an infinity symbol because, when tipped on its side, it remains stagnant.
When it’s upright, it is all beginnings and endings.
There is no hourglass on earth with an infinite amount of sand in it.
To others, when the hourglass is tipped on its side, time stands still.
If time doesn’t march forward or backward, it doesn’t end.
When something has no beginning and no end, a sense of eternity is implied.
Which side of the debate are you on?
For the second group, an hourglass tattoo is a creative way to depict the infinity symbol.
A person with an infinity symbol tattoo may be a mathematician, a romantic, or both.
In a poetic context, the infinity symbol often represents everlasting love.
When we consider the finite nature of an hourglass, it can be an interesting juxtaposition.
It might represent the idea that a person dies, but the love they shared lives on.
With the infinity symbol in mind, an hourglass tattoo may be a great choice to memorialize a loved one.
It could also be a pledge to be with someone until the end.
The Inevitable Passage of Time
An hourglass is an excellent metaphor for the death/life cycle.
Death does not have personal feelings about who it “should” and “shouldn’t” take and at what time.
It just takes people away.
Similarly, an hourglass doesn’t wait for you to be ready, and you can’t pause it.
Once an hourglass is in motion, it moves along just like a human life.
It can help you learn to take time, loss, and grief, less personality.
To know that every person has their own little life hourglass, and they’re all going to run out at some point.
In modern Western society, people often deny the concept of death.
It’s unpleasant, so they avoid talking about it.
But that can make it quite difficult to deal with when it comes along.
When someone has a symbol of death, it isn’t always for morose reasons.
Often, it’s just a way to recognize the inevitable.
When someone faces the concept of death with open arms, they free themselves up to live life more fully.
The End of Days
In a more bleak interpretation, an hourglass can remind us that our time on earth is limited.
As we accelerate technologically, we seem to deplete our resources that much faster.
Environmentalists may get hourglass tattoos to remind us of the gravity of our greed.
Religious folks may get this design if they believe in a day of reckoning.
Living a Balanced Life
Throughout time, many religions and belief systems have found ways to communicate this idea: in life, we must seek the balancing point between two extremes.
You may be familiar with the yin/yang symbol, which represents living harmony between opposites.
Where there is dark, there is light.
Where there is light as a feather, there is stiff as a board.
Where there is candy, there are vegetables. And so on and so forth until the end of time.
When we swing pendulously between extremes, chaos reigns.
The idea of balance is communicated through hourglass imagery in two ways: first, the two globes have to have symmetry to work correctly.
Second, the stable base balances and protects the fragile, curvaceous glass.
It creates a harmonious balance between two extremes.
A Tranquil Image
Since the technological boom of the early 2000’s, we’ve become more exposed to rapid imagery, light, and technology than ever before.
This can cause anxiety in some people.
If you have trouble focusing during meditation, an hourglass can help.
Focusing on one simple thing, like the slow drip of the sand through the hourglass, has been proven to aid in relaxation.
A person who suffers from anxiety may get an hourglass tattoo to remind them to slow down.
As you can see, there are many reasons a person may get an hourglass tattoo.
An ancient timepiece design may represent:
- Everlasting love
- The passing of a friend, lover, or family member
- Accepting death as a part of life
- Acknowledging environmental issues
- Living harmoniously between extremes
- Taking time out to focus before getting overwhelmed
Hourglasses: A Brief History
Hourglasses preceded the sundial and the candle clock.
With a sundial, time is kept by tracking the sun’s position in the sky, using an angled centerpiece to cast a shadow.
A candle clock is a long taper candle with markings in it, or sometimes nails driven into the side.
When the flame burns down to the pre-set markings, it indicates that a certain amount of time has passed.
As we went over above, these timekeeping methods have their flaws.
A sundial can only work if the sun is out, and we all know how temperamental a candle’s flame can be.
Hourglasses may have been invented earlier than our written records show, but the first hourglass we’re aware of was made in eighth-century Europe.
It was likely designed and executed by Luitprand, a French monk.
The invention was embraced across Europe.
They were used by royals and sea travelers alike.
Hourglasses were often fitted with a heavy base, so that they couldn’t be tipped or turned accidentally.
It seems like a primitive design now, but it was a remarkable piece of technology until the 1500’s, when other timekeeping devices entered the ring.
Still, the hourglass remains an unforgettable invention, and it is still referenced in pop culture today.
Hourglasses in Movies
Hourglasses are often used as an object of magic and whimsy in pop culture.
So many of our favorite magical movies feature an hourglass.
Watch closely the next time you’re munching down some popcorn, and you may spot an ancient timepiece on screen.
Are you a big movie buff?
Maybe you’ll want to base your hourglass tattoo on one of these iconic films:
Wizard of Oz
The wicked witch of the west has a magic hourglass at her evil disposal.
With black wrought iron gargoyles surrounding the glass, it sure looks spooky in the original 1939 film.
Adding to the creepy effect, the hourglass is filled with crimson sand.
Flipping the giant prop upside down, the witch taunts Dorothy: “You see that? That’s how long you’ve got to be alive. And it isn’t long, my pretty. It isn’t long.”
Pretty scary stuff for the children who watched it at the time.
The original prop was later filled with real sand, but at the time of shooting, they used strawberry Jello.
This was both because they weren’t able to effectively dye sand at the time, and because the Jello showed up more vibrantly on camera.
Something to keep in mind if you’re ever intimidated by a wicked witch- her scary hourglass may be filled with sugary treats!
If you’ve got a witchy streak, you may consider this blood-red hourglass as inspiration for your next tattoo.
In the modern fairy-tale Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia is asked to accomplish 3 tasks.
These tasks are going to help her regain her status as Princess Moanna, the immortal daughter of the King of the Underworld.
While she battles the evils of the human world, she finds treasures from the fairy-tale kingdom below to aid her in her tasks.
One such treasure is an hourglass.
To accomplish her second task, Ofelia must retrieve a dagger from the pale man.
She must do this before the hourglass runs out, or the portal between her two worlds will close.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, time and mortality are strong themes.
The hourglass, with orange sand and claw-like markings on the glass, has become synonymous with the film.
A perfect piece of inspiration for anyone who loves a twisted fairy tale.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
If you’re a Slytherin, you may consider a Slughorn’s hourglass tattoo.
Slughorn is a pure-blood potions master, highly revered in the house of Slytherin.
His hourglass, adorned with green snakes, has magical properties.
It will run slower or faster, depending on how stimulating a conversation is.
If you’re having a nice time with someone, it will run slower.
If you’re bored with them, it will run faster.
There is no mention of this hourglass in the books, but it has become a popular collector’s item for fans of the film series.
In the movie, the sand was white.
But for added Slytherin appeal, the replica of the hourglass has green sand.
Which way would you depict Slughorn’s hourglass in your tattoo?
In Disney’s Aladdin, Jasmine tries to outsmart Jafar.
When he discovers this, he uses his power to trap Jasmine in a giant hourglass.
This imagery echoes the sandy landscapes we’ve seen throughout the film so far.
As the sand rains down on Jasmine, she begins to drown in it.
We see her hand disappear underneath the sand and fear the worst!
Until Aladdin appears to smash the glass and save his lady love.
If you’re a big Disney villain fan, an hourglass tattoo featuring a trapped Princess Jasmine would be a very original choice.
Hourglasses in Classic Art
If you’re a fan of classic art, you likely know about Vanitas paintings.
Hourglasses feature heavily in these pieces, which come from the Netherlands.
The Dutch artists of the 17th century’s Golden Age started a macabre trend.
In these paintings, beautiful items and timepieces are paired with images of decay.
This may include skulls, rotting fruit, and frayed books.
The paintings serve as a warning not to get so caught up in material wealth.
They pair beautiful items with organic materials to communicate that, one day, you will die.
No matter how much life you experience before that day, there will always be food you didn’t eat, or a book you didn’t read.
The hourglass in a Vanitas painting is there as a grim reminder: your time will come.
But it’s also a reminder to enjoy things while you have them, so it’s bittersweet.
Common Themes in Hourglass Tattoos
Have you fallen in love with the hourglass yet?
Are you thinking this shapely design may work for your next piece?
If you’re still stuck on ideas and need some inspiration, let us give you a little nudge.
We’ve searched the farthest corners for the coolest hourglass tattoos on the web.
Here are a few popular ideas to spark your curiosity.
Landscapes and Nature
One creative design we’ve come to love is the landscape inside an hourglass.
In these images, natural elements fit into the two glass globes, for a truly stunning effect.
A landscape hourglass tattoo is an original way to pay tribute to your favorite outdoor spaces.
You can also use this as an opportunity to add some symbolism to your tattoo: add significant plants and animals to the design for a custom piece that is uniquely you.
What Does It Represent?
A landscape inside an hourglass may symbolize different things to different people, but here are some of our ideas:
- Take care of the environment, time is running out.
- Spend more time in nature.
- Life is short: see as much of the great outdoors as you can.
- There is so much beauty in the world and not enough time to see it all in.
Flowers and Hourglasses
Similarly to the above, we see a lot of floral designs in hourglass tattoos.
Because flowers have such unique individual meaning, you can choose a bouquet that best represents you and your loved ones.
What Does It Represent?
Flowers have such delicate, temporary beauty.
When we see them paired with timepieces, we can’t help but be reminded of the Vanitas art described above.
You may also notice that the shapely design of an hourglass, paired with beautiful flora, has a distinctly feminine vibe to it.
Here are a few ideas as to what these tattoos may symbolize to the wearer:
- Your time will come, appreciate natural beauty while you can.
- Don’t be so caught up in material possessions, you can’t take them with you.
- Stop and smell the roses.
- Honor the divine feminine in your life.
- Embrace your feminine side.
Beaches and Sand
Because an hourglass is filled with sand, it lends itself to beachy imagery.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own little private beach, one you could visit with the simple twist of an enchanted hourglass?
What Does it Represent?
If you have a memory of a favorite beach, you may choose to bottle that memory in an hourglass.
To most folks, beaches are a special experience.
They aren’t somewhere a person goes to work, they’re generally seen as spaces for rest and reprieve.
Beaches are often associated with dream-like imagery and “time out of time,” where everything seems to stand still.
A beach inside an hourglass may represent:
- Wanting time to stand still.
- Holding onto a childhood memory.
- Remembering to take time to relax.
- Remembering that time is a human-made construct, existing in liminal space.
Hourglasses in Space
Some people’s preferred landscape is a spacey one.
For Sci-Fi lovers, having spacey imagery in an hourglass tattoo may be incredibly meaningful.
This is also a great idea for someone who likes to think beyond human boundaries, who sees our current constructs as an illusion.
What Does it Represent?
Space can represent scientific concepts, science fiction, and thoughts that are considered “far out” to the uninitiated.
Do you want to believe?
Your spacey hourglass tattoo may represent:
- Time is a flat circle.
- All time exists at once.
- Wanting to travel through time.
- Honoring the space travel and resulting scientific discoveries we’ve made in our lifetime.
Broken Hourglass Tattoos
Are you done with the limitations some people put on you based on time?
Do you want to live beyond what’s appropriate “for your age”?
Broken hourglass tattoos can represent death, but they can also represent no longer caring about time.
What Does it Represent?
Broken hourglasses are fragmented.
The resulting imagery implies themes like:
- Playing by your own rules.
- Being rebellious.
- Feeling unlimited.
- Having unlimited potential for what you can achieve.
An Hourglass Being Held by Hands
Some hourglasses are drawn in human hands, or even skeletal hands.
These hands often have an otherworldly, almost divine feeling to them.
It has a very spiritual effect on the final design.
What Does it Represent?
Hands holding an hourglass can take on many connotations.
It can be the spiritual idea that life is a gift from God, but it can also communicate our limitations as mortals.
Depending on the design, hourglasses with hands can symbolize:
- The divine gift of life.
- Not wanting to waste your life.
- Death has you in its clutches.
- God has your life in his hands.
Hourglass Tattoo Styles
So, there may be more to these novel timepieces than you realized.
Are you sold on the idea of an hourglass tattoo?
It’s an item with a rich history that can say so much.
Still looking for the perfect piece of inspiration?
Take some time to check out our hourglass tattoo gallery!