The snake has been a key figure in art and literature since the earliest civilizations in history, representing everything from temptation and evil to benevolence and even modern medicine.
Snakes are found on every continent except Antarctica and have many different meanings depending on the culture.
The snake remains a popular motif in tattoos to this day, with plenty of traditional and contemporary styles to choose from.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the meanings of snake tattoos and share ideas for snake tattoo designs and placement.
Snake Tattoo Meanings
The snake has so many potential meanings that it would be almost impossible to cover them all, so let’s cover the main interpretations.
The first and most obvious meaning of a snake tattoo is change or rebirth.
Similar to how a butterfly tattoo can represent a change in one’s life, so too can a snake tattoo, as snakes shed their skin when they outgrow it.
In the west, snakes often have negative connotations due to their deadly nature and their links to evil in the Bible.
Because of this, snake tattoos are often a sign of a rebellious nature and are particularly popular in punk and metal subcultures.
Snake tattoos have also been popular among bikers since the 1940’s as a sign of their dangerous lifestyle on the road.
Snakes aren’t always seen in a negative light.
In Hinduism, snakes often represent freedom as they are difficult to tame.
The snake in the Chinese Zodiac is cunning but it is also considered a symbol of wisdom and authority.
Is It Bad Luck to Have a Snake Tattoo?
A common superstition is that snake tattoos will bring you bad luck.
This is probably due to the negative connotations of snakes in certain religions like Christianity, where the devil appears as a serpent in the garden of Eden.
Some followers of Hinduism also believe that snake tattoos can mean bad luck, but there are no overt rules against snake tattoos in particular and this is by no means a common belief throughout the faith.
A snake tattoo may be a bad omen to some, but the meaning couldn’t be more different in Japan.
According to Japanese tradition, a snake tattoo can be a symbol of protection against bad luck or illness, as well as symbolizing wisdom and strength.
There are some tattoos that superstitious tattoo artists generally believe to be bad luck, but snakes are rarely ever among them.
As with any tattoo, the exact meaning is largely up to the person getting it done.
Types of Snake Tattoos
Although snake tattoos based on myths and legends are always popular, many choose to get tattoos based on real types of snake.
There are many different groups of snake in the wild, but some are more common than others when it comes to getting inked.
Let’s take a look at four of the most popular types of snake.
The venomous cobra is a master hunter known for its fierceness and agility.
In the halls of Ancient Egypt, it was considered a royal animal that would protect the pharaohs and even follow them into the afterlife.
One of the reasons it’s such a popular type of snake tattoo is its hood, which gives it a distinctive look.
Coral Snake Tattoos
The coral snake is another type of snake that’s popular due to its distinctive look.
There are two groups of coral snakes found in Asia and the Americas, and both have bold red, black and yellow markings.
In nature, this pattern acts as a warning sign as coral snakes have the second most deadly venom in the world.
As a tattoo, a coral snake can be used to represent danger.
Rattlesnakes don’t need to warn off predators with their markings, the sound of their tail does the job just fine.
They are commonly found in the Americas, and some Native American tribes associate them with violence and acts of revenge.
Other tribes consider the rattlesnake to be a sacred animal with links to lightning and rain, whereas across the Pacific in Japan, the rattlesnake is often associated with a strong spirit and seen as a sign of protection.
Unlike the other snakes we’ve discussed so far, kingsnakes are non-venomous.
There are forty five subspecies of kingsnake, and many of these have vibrant patterns similar to the coral snake.
This also makes them a great choice for a tattoo, as you can really show off a range of color, such as the reds, whites and blacks of the scarlet kingsnake.
Main Themes in Snake Tattoos
Since snakes are such a popular choice for a tattoo subject, themes range from Medieval mythology and folklore to modern pop culture.
Here are some of the main themes to consider for a snake tattoo.
Japanese Snake Tattoos
Both traditional Irezumi and neo-Japanese tattoos often incorporate animals and mythical creatures such as birds, fish and dragons.
The snake also appears frequently in these intricate designs, usually in coiled or winding motifs similar to Japanese dragons.
The mamushi (Japanese pit viper) is the most venomous snake in Japan and often forms the basis for a Japanese snake tattoo.
It’s fitting that the ouroboros has existed as a symbol through countless cultures and eras to the present day.
The symbol, meaning tail-devourer in Greek, has actually been traced back to Ancient Egypt and is a key motif in Hindu mythology.
Its most common form is a snake in a circle eating its own tail, which represents eternity.
Common ouroboros tattoo placements include the back of the neck, the chest and the forearm.
Celtic Snake Tattoos
Knot tattoos are a very common choice for Celtic tattoo designs, so it makes sense that the snake would also be a popular animal for this style.
The Irish Celts believed the snake to be a symbol for healing, wisdom and rebirth due to the shedding of its skin.
Formed of interlocking patterns, these intricate tattoos are normally black and white and share a similar complex style to Viking tattoos.
Feathered Serpent Tattoos (Quetzalcoatl)
Over in Central America, ancient Mesoamerican cultures such as the Mayans, Olmecs and Aztecs would worship a deity known as Quetzalcoatl.
Literally translating to feathered snake, this divine ruler was said to have traveled across the land and founded cities and kingdoms.
Quetzalcoatl tattoos often represent the forces of nature, particularly the rain, water and winds.
He appears as a serpent with the long green feathers of the Quetzal bird.
In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr (also known as the world serpent) is a gigantic sea serpent who was thrown into the ocean by Odin and grew to such a size that it was able to surround the entire Earth and bite its own tail.
Legend has it that when Jörmungandr releases its tail, Ragnarök will begin.
Jörmungandr is a great example of how the ouroboros has become an important cultural symbol in different mythologies.
Skull & Snake Tattoos
In art and culture, snakes have always been closely linked with the macabre.
Skull tattoos are an obvious symbol of death, and throwing a snake into the mix can add to the Gothic theme of the tattoo due to the creature’s often deadly nature.
However, as we mentioned earlier, snakes can also be a symbol of rebirth, so the exact meaning of a skull and snake tattoo is up to you.
These grim tattoos often see the snake curled around the skull or even moving through the eye sockets.
Snake Tattoos with Flowers
Flowers are usually incorporated into tattoos to add an extra flourish to a design and some variety to the colors.
Specific types of flower can also hold their own significance, with associations to different occasions and events.
Adding some flower tattoos to the design can really make your snake tattoo stand out.
- Rose and Snake Tattoos
With their bright red petals, rose tattoos symbolize love and romance.
They are also a key motif in Gothic style, with fashion labels such as Alexander McQueen adopting the flower as part of its identity, alongside skulls and insects.
This is perhaps due to the contrast between the rose’s beauty and the danger of its thorns.
A snake and rose tattoo builds on this theme and can represent passion or temptation.
- Peony and Snake Tattoos
The peony tattoo is often associated with good luck and prosperity, making it a popular flower to include in tattoos.
With Japanese and East-Asian tattoos, we see quite a lot of designs that pair dangerous creatures like lions and dragons with delicate symbols such as flowers.
This balance makes for a bold tattoo, particularly with a snake, which is seen as a protection against bad luck in Japan.
Coiled Snake Tattoos
A snake coils itself up when it’s ready to strike.
As a symbol, it’s often used to represent defense of deterrence, which plays into the theme of danger in snake tattoos.
A lot of snake tattoos show the reptile coiled around an object such as a skull, a flower or a sword.
Infinity Snake Tattoos
An evolution of the ouroboros symbol, infinity snake tattoos also represent eternity.
The infinity sign, which looks like a sideways number 8, is hugely popular with tattoos in general but fits perfectly with a snake motif and the idea of rebirth and renewal.
The infinity sign isn’t just seen in art either; it’s also been used to represent the mathematical concept of unboundedness since the 17th-century. Who knew?
Eagle Fighting Snake Tattoos
Tattoos that depict a snake fighting an eagle or similar bird of prey are known as Battle Royale tattoos.
As popularized by the 2000 film and the recent video game genre, this is a term that refers to a fight where there can be only one victor.
A snake engaged in combat with an eagle can represent several things, from East vs West to opposing forces of nature (the sky and the water/ground).
These tattoos have been popular since the early 20th-century.
“Don’t tread on me” Snake Tattoos (Gadsden Flag)
If you live in the USA, you may already be familiar with the Gadsden flag.
Named after the politician Christopher Gadsden, it was designed in 1775 during the American Revolution and used by the Continental Marines.
These days, it’s mostly associated with gun rights activists and has become a common tattoo symbol for firearms enthusiasts.
It’s also used to represent support for the US military.
It depicts a coiled snake with the motto “don’t tread on me” underneath.
Panther & Snake Tattoos
The panther and the snake seem to be natural enemies in tattoos.
Both top predators in places like Latin America, the pair have been known to fight when crossing paths in nature.
Most snake and panther tattoos show them engaged in battle, with the snake twisted around the big cat’s body or in between its ferocious jaws.
Double-headed Snake Tattoos
Double-headed snakes have been a figure in art since the Aztecs, where serpents played a big part in Mixtec religion.
Some believe that the Aztec double-headed snake represented the Earth and the underworld.
Today in tattoo artwork, a double-headed snake is often used to represent the choices we make in life.
Caduceus is the name of the staff of the ancient Greek messenger god Hermes.
It is a short staff entwined with two serpents and detailed with wings at the top.
It bears a great similarity to the Rod of Asclepius, which you may recognize as the main symbol of healthcare in the USA.
Both symbols represent medicine, with the only difference being the number of snakes (the Rod of Asclepius only having one).
Appearing on multiple flags and coats of arms, Caduceus is one of the most recognizable snake symbols, making it a popular tattoo choice.
Sword & Snake Tattoos
A lot of snake tattoos include a sword or dagger in the design.
The reason for this? Well, mostly it’s just because it’s an interesting motif that looks great and plays into the theme of danger that a snake tattoo represents.
Swords are frequently seen in American traditional tattoos, making it an excellent choice when it comes to deciding the style of your tattoo.
Most of these tattoos position the snake with its head at the hilt of the weapon and its tail wrapping around the blade.
Dragon & Snake Tattoos
Dragons and snakes share a number of similar characteristics, making them a perfect couple for a tattoo design.
Examples of these include tribal style tattoos or Neo-Japanese tattoos with the creatures intertwined or fighting.
Uraeus Tattoos (Egyptian Snake)
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and symbols are frequently used in tattoo art.
The Uraeus is a symbol associated with the early Egyptian serpent goddess, Wadjet.
Representing royalty and divine authority, the Uraeus is a cobra in an upright pose – sometimes with a sun disc and large horns atop its head.
Snake Skeleton Tattoos
The snake is a fearsome looking creature when it’s alive, but a skeletal snake can look even more imposing.
Creating a truly Gothic look with the reptile’s fangs and bones on full display, a skeleton snake tattoo emphasizes the deadly nature of the creature and the themes of death and rebirth.
Snake Tattoos in Pop Culture
The snake isn’t just a popular symbol in ancient art and mythology – it’s appeared in countless forms throughout modern literature, movies, TV and fashion.
Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic snake tattoo ideas in the zeitgeist.
- Gucci Snake Tattoos
Luxury fashion label Gucci has adopted the kingsnake as one of its recurring motifs, with the red, white and black reptile appearing on the brand’s designer clothes and accessories.
The use of the kingsnake comes from Creative Director Alessandro Michele’s love for animals and was chosen for its ties to power and sensuality in Roman mythology.
The Gucci kingsnake logo makes a great tattoo for fans of the Italian brand, as it’s subtle enough to pass as a regular snake tattoo while being a nod to those in the know.
- Harry Potter Snake Tattoos
Snakes are a huge theme in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.
Not only is a snake the official mascot for Slytherin house at Hogwarts, but the Death Eaters are identified by the Dark Mark: a magical tattoo of a snake and skull on the forearm.
We’re not sure we’d want to be associated with Voldermort’s followers, but the tattoo itself is undeniably cool.
Let’s not forget that snakes have been adversaries for Harry on multiple occasions, with the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, and Nagini, Voldemort’s Maledictus pet.
- ‘Join, or Die’ Snake Tattoos
Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, ‘Join, or Die’ is a political cartoon designed to emphasize the importance of unity in America.
It shows a snake cut up into eight segments, which represent the American colonies or regions.
The cartoon was very influential in encouraging the fight for independence leading up to and during the American Revolutionary War.
Today, it has become a popular tattoo design that represents patriotism and a strong spirit.
Snake Tattoo Designs
Now that we’ve covered some of the main themes and meanings in snake tattoos, let’s explore the different types of snake tattoo designs.
- American Traditional Snake Tattoos
Snakes work particularly well with the reds, yellows, greens and blacks often seen in American traditional tattoos, as these colors are typically found on many real types of snakes.
American traditional snake tattoos provide a visually distinct style that looks great on pretty much any skin tone due to the bold two dimensional images and saturated hues.
- Blackwork Snake Tattoos
Blackwork snake tattoos can work just as well as colourful designs, especially if you’re trying to achieve a Gothic aesthetic.
Blackwork tattoos have their origins in Polynesian tribal tattooing, but have evolved over time to include a broad range of graphic styles, with the only real requisite being a heavy use of black ink.
- Geometric Snake Tattoos
A geometric design can give your tattoo a contemporary edge through minimalist shapes and line-work.
Snakes are a great subject for a geometric tattoo, as their twisting form allows you to include multiple patterns.
- Watercolor Snake Tattoos
As the name implies, watercolor tattoos work best when there are many colors involved in the design.
Snakes are naturally vibrant animals, making them a good choice for a watercolor style tattoo.
These are designed to look as if they have been painted and often include sweeping “brush strokes” and splashes of color.
- Tribal Snake Tattoos
A tribal tattoo is another style that focuses on bold patterns.
Originally from cultures such as Polynesia, Samoa and the Maori, authentic tribal tattoos often tell an individual’s story, and we recommend you conduct your own research if you’re not from these cultures.
Many modern tribal tattoos share the same solid black patterns and lines without having as much significance.
A tribal tattoo can really show off the impressive markings on a snake’s back.
- New School Snake Tattoos
Originating in the 1970’s, New School tattooing is a style with exaggerated, almost cartoonish, subjects and a heavy use of color.
The New School style can give your snake tattoo a graffiti-like look that shows off the snake’s vivid markings and winding form in all its glory.
- Realistic Snake Tattoos
One design that will never go out of fashion is a realistic snake tattoo.
Whether you decide to go for a milk snake, rattlesnake or cobra, the great thing about realistic tattoos is the level of detail you can put into them through shading and color.
- Neo-traditional Snake Tattoos
An evolution of the traditional tattoo style, Neo-traditional tattoos make use of the same vivid colors and bold lines, while using minimal shading.
Neo-traditional snake tattoos share some similarities with new school designs, but they’re less cartoonish and show the snake with realistic proportions.
Snake Tattoo Ideas
You should have plenty of tattoo styles and themes to choose from, so now it’s time to get inspired and think about some potential snake tattoos in greater detail.
We’ve included a few of our favorite ideas here to get you started.
- Small Snake Tattoos
If you’re new to tattooing or want to go for something subtle that doesn’t draw too much attention, we recommend a small snake tattoo.
Popular placement ideas for small snake tattoos include the neck, the hand, and just behind the ear.
If you’re going for a realistic style, you could take inspiration from some real small snakes like the rosy boa, corn snake, or ball python.
- Simple Snake Tattoos
Snake tattoos don’t have to be elaborate or in-your-face, some of the best snake tattoo designs are kept simple.
A good idea for a minimal snake tattoo is to create a design that focuses on the snake’s silhouette; you can use black ink with blank spaces in between acting as lighting.
Alternatively, you could ditch shading altogether and go for an outline of a snake.
- Black & Grey Snake Tattoos
Snakes are naturally colourful creatures, but vibrant tattoos aren’t everyone’s style.
Black and grey snake tattoos can look excellent when using a realistic or illustrative style.
Popular placements for black and grey snake tattoos include the forearm and side of the abdomen.
- White-ink Snake Tattoos
White ink tattoos are a great option for dark skin tones or for creating a subtle design on lighter skin.
White ink is often used to add highlights to a tattoo, but some of our favorite snake tattoos go in a different direction and show a fully black and fully white snake entwined.
Not only is this visually striking, but it also has some nice Yin and Yang symbolism.
- Snake Tattoos around the Arm (Bracelet Snake Tattoo)
A serpent’s shape lends itself perfectly to a bracelet tattoo, which wraps around your arm or wrist.
You could go for an ouroboros design that shows the snake biting its own tail, or a realistic design with the snake’s head and tail pointing in opposite directions.
- Cute Snake Tattoos
Snakes don’t have to be the scary creature that some people see them as!
While a fearsome snake tattoo can look great, so can a cute snake tattoo.
Try using pastel colors or a New School style to give your snake tattoo an adorable look.
- Red Snake Tattoos
Red is a color often seen on a snake’s markings, so it becomes a good choice of ink for your tattoo.
There are lots of different ways to work red into your tattoo design, from a realistic snake with red and black stripes to a simple snake tattoo that only uses red ink.
Another popular choice is to have two snakes entwined in red and black ink.
- Snake Tattoo Sleeve
As we’ve mentioned in some of our other posts, the best sleeves tend to include an animal or object that can wrap around the arm.
And what better example of this is there than a snake?
You can go as simple or complex as you like with a snake sleeve, showing just the serpent itself or other elements like flowers or geometric patterns.
Figuring out where on your body you want to get a tattoo is an important step.
Depending on style and size, there are some placement options that work better than others for a snake tattoo.
Here are our top picks for snake tattoo body placement.
- Snake Leg Tattoos
The leg is a good placement choice for a snake tattoo, particularly when going for a realistic design, as there’s plenty of room to add detail.
Popular leg placement options for snake tattoos include the calf and the thigh.
- Snake Forearm Tattoos
The forearm is a classic spot to get a snake tattoo, as you can have the reptile slithering around your arm or wrapped around your wrist in a bracelet style.
Some of the best forearm snake tattoos we’ve seen start at the elbow and end with the snake’s head on the back of the hand.
- Snake Chest Tattoos
You have several different options when considering a snake chest tattoo.
Firstly, you can go symmetrical with two snakes on either side of your chest.
Secondly, you can cover the whole of your chest with a twisting snake tattoo, either in color or in black ink.
A third option is to go for a simple snake tattoo in the middle of your sternum.
Remember, chest tattoos can be quite painful but you also have the benefit of being able to easily cover them up.
- Snake Back Tattoos
Most back tattoos place the snake between the shoulder blades and up the spine.
Black ink tattoos are a popular choice for snake back tattoos, many of which feature floral embellishments for the snake to hide in.
As the back is such a large canvas, you can get really creative with different styles and colors should you wish to.
- Snake Finger Tattoos
In contrast to something as large as a back tattoo, snakes can also fit perfectly onto a small area of the body like your finger.
You’ll probably want to keep your design relatively simple, but you can choose to have the snake on the top of your finger or coiled around it like a ring.
Which finger you choose is up to you, but by far the most popular we’ve seen is the middle finger (for obvious reasons).
- Snake Thigh Tattoos
As we mentioned earlier, the thigh is a popular placement choice for a snake tattoo.
Skull and snake tattoos work well with this area of the body, as do floral and Neo-traditional designs.
- Snake Neck Tattoos
You can either go large or small with a snake neck tattoo.
Some of the best small tattoos are situated at the back of the neck or close to the ear, ranging from simple cute designs to detailed snake and sword motifs.
Larger snake neck tattoos tend to be done in a Japanese or traditional American style, with the snake’s open jaws at the side of the neck.
There are so many ways to express yourself with a snake tattoo.
The scaly animal has been a key motif in tattoo artwork since ancient times and we see no sign of it ever going out of fashion.
You can draw inspiration from different historical tattoo styles and mythological serpents or pay respects to your favorite franchises with a pop culture tattoo.
Whether you decide to go for a fearsome version of the animal coiled and ready to strike, a contemporary geometric version, or a cute and friendly-looking snake, we hope this article has given you plenty of inspiration for your next tattoo.
Thomas Arthur is a writer based in London. He graduated from De Montfort University with a creative writing & English degree.