From the beginning of religion, there have been captivating goddesses and mother figures in every culture for us to admire and look to for guidance.
These goddesses typically make very popular tattoos, as they speak to the universal idea of mother energy in all its complex forms.
We don’t always get along with our mothers, but they are the reason we exist in the world, and they made sacrifices to bring us into it.
One such legendary mother is Kali- a Hindu goddess with a very complicated backstory.
Some fear her, some admire her, most of her devotees do both. Kali makes a popular tattoo because, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, she’s pretty metal.
There are no subdued, peaceful portraits of Kali. Or if there are, they are in the minority.
Who is Kali, this chaotic goddess with her tongue hanging out? Let’s delve a little deeper before you get that Kali Tattoo.
Why is Kali called The Terrible Mother?
To unpack this, we have to think of the term “terrible” in its less popular definition.
In modern times, calling someone a terrible mother would imply that she doesn’t take proper care of her children.
Kali is a good mother, but she is terrible in the sense that she causes terror. Kali is, put simply, kind of scary.
Other Names for Kali
Kali is derived from a Sanskrit phrase meaning “she who is black” or “she who is death.” Her name can mean “black” or “time”.
Kali exists outside of the mortal idea of time. She was alive before the universe was born, and she will be alive after it dies.
This strange relationship with time is one of the clues we can use to understand Kali.
She cannot be defined as “bad” or “good” because she exists outside the limitations of our mind.
It is really only in modern colonial practices that religious figures need to be either pious and pure or devilish and evil.
Traditionally deities are quite a bit more complicated. Even Jesus had moments when his humanity got the best of him.
So the first step to understanding Kali is knowing you are too limited in your human brain to truly understand Kali.
Is it Ok for Anyone to Get a Kali Tattoo?
Short answer, no. Long answer, it depends who you ask. Kali tattoos can sometimes be frowned upon because she is such a complicated deity.
Hindu people use her image carefully, knowing that she can be as vengeful as she is generous.
Getting a tattoo of Kali when you are not Hindu can be seen as cultural appropriation.
There are many Hindu people who are persecuted for their beliefs, yet if a non Hindu person gets a tattoo of a Hindu god or goddess, most people will just see it as a cool art piece and not bat an eye.
This is, obviously, an unfair double standard and one of the many reasons why people are having conversations about cultural appropriation these days.
There are also spiritual complications to getting this tattoo. You are making an allegiance with a very powerful entity, one that is mysterious to even the most devout follower.
If none of this bothers you and you still want a Kali tattoo- consider getting a beautiful, respectful design on a clean part of your body.
As a general rule, you should not get tattoos of Eastern religious figures below your waist.
These parts of your body touch the ground, go to the toilet, etc. and are considered a sign of disrespect.
Try to keep everything on your arms or torso.
So, Who is Kali Anyway?
Kali is one of 10 Mahavidyas. The Mahavidyas are aspects of the one supreme goddess in Hinduism, known as Adi Parashakti.
It is said that she is the great creator. It is she who birthed the universe and she who can destroy it.
She is incarnated in the goddess Parvati.
What Does Kali Tattoo Symbolize?
Some fear Kali because she represents death, destruction, sexuality and violence. Chaos, the collapse of order.
While all this is true, she also represents motherly love, creativity and fertility.
It was Pablo Picasso who said “every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” and this quote rings true here.
Think of that first squeeze of a pristine tube of paint, the splash of color on a pure white canvas, the carver making their first mark on a big chunk of marble.
Creation is destruction so Kali represents both. One of the ways to best understand Kali’s death imagery is as a death of the ego.
She exposes the illusions we’ve created to make ourselves comfortable, and blasts that door open so we can awaken to our truest selves.
Common Themes in Kali Tattoos
Kali has a few trademark images that separate her from the pack. You’ll want to incorporate these so your Kali tattoo is an accurate one.
Tongue Sticking Out- Kali has her tongue out, always. She is the only goddess who is depicted this way. One of the reasons for this is to show her disregard for the rules. Kali does not observe social traditions, and mocks her followers with her tongue as a sign of this.
One of the stories behind her legendary tongue involves a deadly battle. Durga is fighting Rakta-bija, which is no easy task. For every drop of Rakta-bija’s blood that hits the ground, a clone of him stands in its place.
Durga becomes desperate and summons Kali to help. Kali then spreads her great tongue across the earth, devouring Rakta-bija, the drops of blood, and all his clones in one gulp. Go Kali!
Necklace of Skulls- This necklace of skulls or severed heads is known as the Mundamala and is worn by some other Mahavidyas. The blood of the heads drips down Kali’s body, a very fearsome sight. This is symbolic of the children who she has released from their ego or “I am the body” illusion.
Nudity- Once again, Kali transcends human form. She has no need for clothing.
Standing on Shiva- Shiva protects and transforms the universe. He is also Kali’s husband. During one of Kali’s destructive dances, Shiva throws himself under Kali’s feet to stop her from destroying the whole world. She kills Shiva and, upon realizing her mistake, becomes subdued. Together they represent protection and destruction.
Kali Tattoo Ideas
Still think Kali is the one for you?
Take a look at our Kali tattoo gallery for some divine inspiration.
Kali Tattoo Artists