With the gradual increase in popularity of various schools of philosophy like Stoicism and Buddhism, which are founded on concepts like acceptance and contentment, tattoo designs featuring the theme of life and death have grown popular as well.
As the state of the world continually pushes people to strive for more in a stress-filled environment, more and more people are leaning towards things like mindfulness meditation in order to lower their stress levels and achieve better fulfillment and productivity. And even in mindfulness meditation (which is commonly seen as a positive experience), thinking of the inevitability of the arrival of death is key to achieving fulfillment.
When one is aware of death, it can become a potent doorway into mindfulness and gratitude. In a situation when you become agitated, try taking a moment to understand your feelings and emotions—how would you in the future, close to death, want you to react to this situation? Would they have wanted you to waste this moment succumbing to negativity?
You see, the concept of death, though taboo to some, is one that should be accepted. Not ignored nor chased after—but accepted. This way, one learns to control their urges and live a life worth living—a life lived well. And a life and death tattoo is a great way to both express yourself and stay on track.
In this article, I’ve compiled 50 of the most meaningful and detailed Life and Death tattoos on the internet, along with a brief overview of some of the approaches people have taken towards death. All tattoo artists are credited, so feel free to check them out!
Why Get a Life and Death Tattoo?
Interesting take on life and death featuring what seems to be Schrödinger’s Cat, by Kristina Bennett (@kristinabenet on Instagram).
If you’re someone who appreciates the philosophy of life and death, you probably, unlike many others, think of and fully embrace the inevitability of death. Whereas some people would rather draw the curtains closed and hide behind the illusion of anti-aging and constant denial—you accept death as an integral part of the cycle of life—everyone’s common destination.
Incredibly detailed blackwork chest piece of the grim reaper with God, by Josh Hagan (@joshhagantattoo on Instagram).
And, unlike how some nihilists would have it, this isn’t a negative way of thinking of life at all. In fact, the better one comes to terms with the concept of death, the better they’ll be able to live their life. It’s a dangerous thing, living with the thought of immortality. This is why the great philosophers of Greece came up with stoicism. In their words, “memento mori”, or “remember you must die.” One can only live one life—and one should live it well.
Vivid scene showing a graveyard with a skeleton next to a lively tree with a woman at the base, with the entire scene forming an image of a skull, by Katt Franich (@kattfranich on Instagram).
Detailed tattoo of a dead king’s skeleton contrasted by flowers at the edges of the tattoo, by John Lewis (@tattoosbylewis on Instagram).
Now, if you agree with everything I just said, perhaps you will appreciate getting a Life and Death tattoo. The Life and Death theme is often very metaphoric in nature and will be a constant reminder for you to live well, and live humbly.
Dichotomous tattoo of a woman and a skull with organic elements, by ALO LOCO. (@alolocotattoo on Instagram).
Choosing a Design
When choosing a design for your Life and Death tattoo, it’s best to pick and choose your favorite elements from other designs so you can create a design that’s totally unique to you. You’ll notice that a lot of the tattoos that use this theme often have macabre imagery contrasted by the lushness of life.
Skull and flower tattoo, by Paul Henry. (@paulhenrytattoo on Instagram).
A lot of the designs utilize images of things related to death and mortality. One of these design elements in the skull. The human skull is an interesting element since it presents an idea of duality. It is present when we live and remains when we die, making it a constant reminder of our mortality.
Dichotomous tattoo showing death riding a skeleton horse next to a baby inside a womb formed by a city slowly transitioning into dead trees, by Bernd Muss. (@berndmuss_tattoo on Instagram).
It’s an interesting dichotomy, life versus death. Like sorrow and joy, or good and evil, life and death (rather ironically) depend on each other to exist.
Half living, half dead Celtric tree of life featuring a symbol of the Celtic knot at the base, by telmotattooink28. (@telmotattooink28 on Instagram).
Like the seed of the tree depends on the nutrients of the dead to grow, a leopard depends on the lightness of its steps and the inattention of its prey in order to live. Life cannot be without death—and death, the same. This is why the dichotomy of life and death is a popular tattoo design.
Creative tattoo subtly incorporating the yin and yang symbol as a symbol of duality, by DERMAPUNCT TATTOO. (@dermapunct on Instagram).
When the image of a skull is paired with lush vegetation and rich wildlife, it can emit a feeling of serenity and gratitude. Intending to lessen the macabre connotations of the image of a human skull, the contrasting liveliness of accompanying elements creates an emotional visual narrative that can be relatable to anyone.
Creative thigh tattoo of the grim reaper with roses, by Sergio Ricardo. (@sergioricardotattoo on Instagram).
Another interesting dichotomous theme relating to life and death is war versus peace. By utilizing war related elements such as guns, soldiers, or armored war vehicles and contrasting those elements to the nonchalance of everyday urban life, the design can become a constant reminder of one’s privilege in a world where the misfortune of others is not easily seen—or hidden.
Partner thigh tattoos of two trees, one alive, the other dead, with branches forming an image of a human skull, by D.Michelle Nordeen. (@littleshelltattoos on Instagram).
Other designs also incorporate an image of an hourglass which symbolizes our mortality. It’s a clever metaphor for how the sands of time pass. It goes unnoticed until, unexpectedly, the last grain falls and death arrives—then the hourglass is turned over, and life begins anew.
A beautiful tattoo of Mother Mary with her skeleton counterpart holding Sacred Heart, by LAIA DESOLE. (@laiadesole on Instagram).
A great way to showcase the duality as well as codependence of life and death is to use the two words in an ambigram. A life and death ambigram tattoo shows the two words written in (seemingly) plain text, wherein a tattoo of the word “life” viewed upside down would reveal itself to also be the word “death”. This introduces a clever, minimalist spin into what would have been a seemingly plain text tattoo.
Half living half dead back tiger tattoo, by Kevin Huddart. (@hudds_tattoo on Instagram).
Depending on what you believe in, you can also incorporate a few religious elements into your design. Generally, religions approach death rather seriously, and each religion has its own interpretation.
Incredibly detailed dotwork thigh tattoo of a skull with organic elements, by josephhaefstattooer. (@josephhaefstattooer on Instagram).
One religious approach to Life and Death that is positive as well as beautiful is Hinduism’s, Jainism’s, and Buddhism’s approach to reincarnation. They believed karma played the most important role in determining a person’s status in their next life.
The grim reaper holding hands with a woman, presumably the personification of life, by SPAZ. (@tattoos_by_spaz on Instagram).
Depending on their accumulated karma, they would be reborn into either a higher or lower bodily form. The most popular karmic symbol is the karmic knot, which takes the form of an endless knot symbolizing the interlinking of cause and effect. The karmic knot is a very popular cultural motif in Asia, used in pottery, tapestries, and various religious items.
A tree grows from the side of a skull with glowing green eyes, by Kashi Vipond. (@kashivipondart on Instagram).
In Ancient Egypt, the ankh is an ancient hieroglyphic symbol commonly used in writing and in Egyptian art to represent the word “life”, which makes it a symbol of life itself as well. It’s usually held by ancient Egyptian deities and pharaohs to symbolize their power to sustain life.
Hourglass tattoo with natural elements at the top (symbolizing life) and a skull at the bottom (symbolizing death), by Skot Blake. (@lostnsirkus on Instagram).
If you’re contemplating the placement of your Life and Death tattoo, consider the size and orientation of your design. If you’re going for the life death ambigram tattoo design, then a very good place to put it is on your forearm. Horizontally oriented tattoo designs fit very naturally on the forearm. However, it’s too visible, especially if you’re working at a conservative workplace.
Day of the dead tattoo with a living woman kisses a skeleton, complemented with roses, by Ronny Altenau. (@ronnyaltenau on Instagram).
If you’re working in an industry where tattoo culture isn’t generally well received, then you can opt to put your tattoo on your upper arm or chest where it’s easily hidden but visible enough at the right times.
A hyper realistic black and grey tattoo of a skeleton resting on the trunk of a dead tree, by John Lewis. (@tattoosbylewis on Instagram).
For much larger narrative pieces, the chest and back are perfect places to put your tattoo. And depending on what tattoo design you go with, a Life and Death tattoo can easily take up the entirety of your chest or back, especially when it comes to detailed narrative pieces.
A half wilted rose with a stem shaped like a beat on a heart rate monitor, by Nimz Donde. (@monstersink.nimz on Instagram).
Life and Death in Different Cultures
Different cultures and religions have their own interpretations of life and death and what happens after. The core Christian belief is acceptance and belief of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their final destination is either of two realms—Heaven or Hell.
A clever tattoo design of a skull and an old man that changes with perspective, by Mo. (@motattoos on Instagram).
One is promised salvation and eternal life depending on how well they fostered their relationship with God. By strengthening their belief in God, (sometimes through prayer and collective worship) Christians are promised eternal life and salvation in the paradise of Heaven while others who stray from the path are sent to Hell to atone for their sins.
Another two sided tattoo with life on one side and death on the other, by Flaminia Luca (@flamishadow on Instagram).
The Vikings believed in many afterlives. Because of their profound feelings of respect for their dead, they performed sacred rituals at each funeral. The dead were given grave offerings such as weapons or tools of their trade.
A tattoo of a man drawn on paper, ripped to reveal his skull underneath, by mellon.milk (@mellon.milk on Instagram).
Their corpses, along with their grave offerings would be burnt at a pyre, one constructed in such a way that the pillar of smoke emitted by the flames would be as massive as possible in order to elevate the dead to the afterlife. From there, depending on whether they died in battle or of old age or disease, they would reside in one of many afterlife destinations such as Valhalla, Fólkvangr, and Hel.
A two part life and death forearm tattoo with a profile of a skull on one side and that of a woman on the other, by LUKA LAMA. (@mr_lama_tattoo on Instagram).
In Ancient Greece, souls of the dead would journey into the underworld. Thanatos, the god of death would first cut a lock of the dead’s hair as they died. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, would then lead the dead to the River Styx, where Charon, the ferryman, would transport the dead across the river.
Lady death kisses a man inside a noose, by Now Or Never Tattoo. (@now_or_never_tattoo on Instagram).
Towards the end, three judges would judge where a soul would go. Good souls would be allowed to go to Elysium (a land of paradise, where the sun always shone). Those who needed to be punished would be sent to Tartarus.
Hyper realistic tattoo of a tiger on one hand and a decomposed skull on the other, by John Lewis. (@tattoosbylewis on Instagram).
When someone died in Ancient Greece, their bodies were washed, and a coin would be placed on their mouths as payment to Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. Their bodies would then be mummified or burned, and their ashes stored in an urn.
Dichotomous upper arm tattoo featuring a skull seemingly whispering to the ear of a living woman, by John Lewis. (@tattoosbylewis on Instagram).
Buddhists believed in Karma, the law of cause and effect. All of a person’s actions, good or bad, influence what happens in their future. Depending on their accumulated karma, they would reincarnate as a high or low bodily form. This is why Buddhists treat their lives with great value and make every moment count, for death can come at any time.
A child swings on a tree where a man has hung himself, by tom kaoz. (@tomkaoz74 on Instagram).
A clever life death ambigram tattoo on the inner bicep, by Kevin Briceño. (@bricks.tattoo on Instagram).
Another life death ambigram tattoo on the upper back below the nape, by Butch Velez. (@syd.inkrespect on Instagram).
A tree half living, half dead, by Nimz Donde. (@monstersink.nimz on Instagram).
A clever forearm tattoo about aging that changes with perspective, by Helen Tinc Etherington. (@helen_tinc_etherington on Instagram).
A life death ambigram tattoo that uses shading to emphasize the meaning of the word you see, by wayne. (@the.bionink.man on Instagram).
Viking runes representing the words “Algiz” and “Yr” which mean “life” and “death” respectively, by Müllerschmidt. (@mullerschmidt on Instagram).
An hourglass tattoo with the words life and death engraved on the base, by leighanne devaney. (@devaney_tattoos on Instagram).
A minimalist tattoo representing the journey of a bird through life, by AmberRamirez. (@theartofamberramirez on Instagram).
A skeleton makes love to a woman, by shadyladyskandishoptattoos. (@shadyladyskandishoptattoos on Instagram).
A skeleton and woman with Day of the Dead makeup share a kiss, by Ewa Lidtke. (@animuscorpussanguis on Instagram).
A skull with glowing blue green eyes opens its mouth to reveal a blue lotus, a symbol of rebirth, by HappyNeedleArt. (@cowsmootoo on Instagram).
A life death ambigram tattoo on the inner bicep, by mark anthony briones. (@briones_markanthony on Instagram).
A gas mask on a railroad with sunflowers, by Brandie. (@artbyb_sitc on Instagram).
A minimalist, line art tattoo of a woman with a skeleton’s finger in her mouth, by Bernd Muss. (@berndmuss_tattoo on Instagram).
Another ambigram tattoo incorporating an hourglass that can also be viewed upside down, by James W Watson. (@james_watson_tattoos on Instagram).
A skull with petals emerging from its cranium, by Cross-Over Tattoo. (@cross_over_tattoo_flensburg on Instagram).
A hyper realistic tattoo of the skull of a ram with a cactus growing out of it, by Jimbo. (@jimbo_lifeanddeath on Instagram).
A hyper realistic upper arm tattoo of the grim reaper and a human face on its ribcage, by Jimbo. (@jimbo_lifeanddeath on Instagram).
An owl with a third eye, half living, half dead, by Sànta. (@yourtattlady on Instagram).
A life death ambigram forearm tattoo colored in dark purple, by Aaron McGrath. (@tattoosbyaaronmcgrath on Instagram).
A skull surrounded by flowers, by Tony Talbert. (@tonytrustworthy on Instagram).
The skeleton of a bird hangs from a nest in a tree lush with life, by Get Up Tattoo Society. (@getuptattoosociety on Instagram).
Though death can be a scary thing, training yourself to accept its inevitability will help you cope with the stress of daily life. It’s something that can bring you fulfillment in even the most mundane tasks, and will help you see life in an entirely new light. When you get a Life and Death tattoo, let it help you always remember—to live well.
Did you enjoy those life and death tattoos or are you looking for more inspiration? Check out the following links to see more designs from talented artists.