Spoken since the era of the Roman Empire, the two words memento mori have encouraged millions of people to live their life to its fullest.
In English, the mantra translates to “remember that you must die”, which, without context, has morbid implications. If taken the wrong way, these words could be taken as a statement of nihilism.
But despite all the macabre imagery associated with memento mori, its meaning and intentions run deeper than simply thinking of death’s inevitable arrival. It’s a phrase that teaches to someone the value of life—a concept that can only be taught thanks to the existence of our mortality.
In this article, I’ve compiled 35 of the most meaningful, creative, and detailed “Memento Mori” tattoos there are on the internet. Each piece’s artist is credited so that you can check out more of their work or choose to message them directly. Enjoy!
Getting the Tattoo
The majority of the people that get a memento mori tattoo are often stoics. That is to say, they are firm practitioners of stoicism, a Greek school of philosophy that, at its core, teaches you that you shouldn’t be stressing too much about the petty day-to-day things in life.
Grim reaper with a rose and lantern drawn in American traditional style, by Noah Howell (@noahowelltattoos on Instagram).
Much like other text-based tattoos, the memento mori tattoo is best placed on at least a semi-flat surface like the forearm. It provides enough space for the phrase as well as providing a flat enough surface so that the tattoo doesn’t look warped.
In Japanese, memento mori is “futsuumeishi”, by Sheila Oi (@sheila_oi on Instagram).
You can also opt to have it on your chest, directly beneath the collarbone and oriented in a curved fashion, following the shape of your clavicle. Another popular choice to put a text-based memento mori tattoo is the upper arm—easily hidden but visible enough.
Featuring a skull and crossbones in front of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, by Rodrigo Brummelhaus (@guigobrummelhaus on Instagram).
But perhaps the best thing about the memento mori tattoo is you don’t have to have yours written in plain text. There are many brilliant pieces that incorporate symbolic elements into their design.
This piece uses the style used in old school movie posters, taking on a more dynamic approach to memento mori, by Mr.Sixtynine69 (@pascal_rosenhauer_tattoo on Instagram).
In fact, the entire idea of memento mori is philosophical, so if you’re into getting a fresh, unique design, you can collaborate with your artist to conceptualize a design that’s creative but still manages to deliver memento mori in a poetic way.
An hourglass memento mori tattoo that encapsulates the fleetingness of time, by Jarosław Janiszewski (@jarotattoo on Instagram).
Like you’ll see in many of the pieces in this list, the skull is an immensely popular element that you can incorporate into your tattoo design. It’s a symbol that has been associated with death and mortality since ancient times, which makes it a perfect visual element for any memento mori tattoo.
Minimalist memento mori tattoo on the chest, by k_okai (@k_okai on Instagram).
Other popular elements usually combined with the base memento mori phrase are: crows, hourglasses, daggers, skeletons, vintage pocket watches, and other symbols associated with death and mortality.
A very detailed memento mori tattoo featuring a skeleton holding the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ and a skull and crossbones, by blackspelltattoos (@blackspelltattoos on Instagram).
One design element I don’t see very often are the original Greek philosophers that built the school of stoicism from the ground up. Some of the most notable stoic philosophers from ancient history include Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. If you’re interested in learning about these famous stoic philosophers, I urged you to keep reading until the end for a brief overview of each one.
A direct to the point memento mori tattoo featuring an hourglass, skull, and freshly blossomed flower, by RUNA TATTOO (@runatattoojc on Instagram).
Designs are often accented in shades of deep blacks and bold reds, which are also colors associated with death. Other than Traditional Tattoo style, which does very well to illustrate the aforementioned elements, you could also opt for a Trash Polka style tattoo to give your tattoo a slice of realism and creativity.
An edgy memento mori tattoo with a scythe with what seems to be a scorpion tail at the end of the handle, by Rei (@ink_rei on Instagram).
However you want to personalize your design is completely up to you. If you want to copy a design directly off this list, that’s perfectly acceptable! But just remember that your tattoo artist will likely be more than willing to help you make something unique only to you. The pictures and backstory in this list alone should be enough for you to catch some inspiration along the way.
Memento mori calligraphy tattoo, by STROKER TATTOO BANGKOK (@strokertattoo_bangkok on Instagram).
Memento Mori: The Great Stoic Mantra
Black and grey memento mori sleeve with a skull and an analog clock, by Rafael Almeida Alves (@rafaelalmeidatattoo on Instagram).
If you aren’t familiar with what memento mori means, the English translation is literally “Remember that you must die.” Without context, it’s a pretty grim phrase, and it might even strike you as pessimistic. But despite the prevalence of macabre imagery associated with the phrase and the tattoo designs based on it, it’s actually not pessimistic at all—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. To explain this, we need to take a few moments to understand the philosophical foundation that this phrase was built on—stoicism.
Minimalist memento mori skull tattoo holding a rose between its teeth, by Sam Ryan (@saamuelryan on Instagram).
Stoicism is a Greek school of philosophy established at around 300 BC by Zeno and his loyal disciples. Interestingly, the sole reason why we know stoicism by its name instead of “Zenonism” is because of Zeno’s humility. It was unlike any other philosophical school or religion founded during that time which were typically named after their founders. It’s evident that Zeno wasn’t a man who cared much for trivial things such as pride—true to his philosophy.
Detailed memento mori tattoo with a skull, heart, and flowers, by Veleno Tattoo Studio (@velenotattoo on Instagram).
Some of the greatest stoics in history are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius was a peculiar Roman emperor. Unlike his numerous predecessors and successors who partook in the pleasures of the flesh and enjoyed acts ranging from merely sinful to downright evil—Emperor Marcus was wise and virtuous—not what you would expect from emperors of his time.
Crystal ball with a girl tattoo with the words memento mori etched on the base, by Mathilde (@berlininktattoo on Instagram).
His rule was described by the historian Edward Gibbon as a rule “governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. It was a great time for Rome. Marcus Aurelius was a ruler who possessed traits that, even in modern times, very few world leaders have failed to emulate.
Detailed hourglass tattoo with a skull in the top section, by ari_tattooer (@ari_tattooer on Instagram).
And for Emperor Marcus, Stoicism played an important role in helping him deal with the stress-filled daily life brought on by being the leader of the greatest empire in history. In order for him to cope and improve his skills as a leader, he journaled. Thankfully, his journal, called Meditations, has been kept intact despite the passing of millennia, and you can still read about his meditations today.
Black and grey skull tattoo wearing a rosary and the words memento mori etched into a scroll, by Bruno Nobre (@brunonobre87 on Instagram).
Seneca the Younger was son to the great Roman writer Seneca the Elder, and is a stoic who is notoriously interesting to even the scholars of today. Unlike most stoics who choose to live humbly, deviating from lavish lifestyle, Seneca lived as a rich man.
Skull tattoo with a rose between its teeth in front of a mandala design, by caraalucia (@caralucia_tattoos on Instagram).
In 41AD, Claudius, emperor at the time, exiled Seneca on allegations of adultery with the emperor’s niece. During his exile, he wrote a few of the most inspiring pieces of stoic literature.
Melting skeleton upper arm tattoo drawn in a trippy art style, by James M. Steele (@steel_carnage_ink on Instagram).
Nine years later after being exiled, Seneca was recalled from exile by Agrippina, the mother of the future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius. Seneca had been appointed as the future emperor Nero’s tutor and advisor.
Hourglass tattoo with skulls in each section, by Kayla Gardner-Yunt (@kaymariegardner on Instagram).
Now, this part is what makes Seneca so interesting to scholars and philosophers. Suddenly, at the age of 53, Seneca was elevated from a life of exile to a life of lavish wealth. His position as the personal tutor of future emperor Nero made him one of the richest people in the Roman Empire—unusual for a stoic.
Hyper realistic hourglass tattoo with memento mori etched onto a scroll, by Paul Orsi (@paul_orsi on Instagram).
In the end, it seemed Seneca had little effect on the future emperor. Emperor Nero turned out to be one of the most notorious and tyrannical emperors in the history of the Roman Empire—which raises some concern about the integrity of Seneca.
Funny minimalist snail tattoo with a skull for a shell, by Wiki Mouse (@wiki_mouse_tattoo on Instagram).
Some experts call him a hypocrite. How can he have been the tutor to one of the most evil leaders the world has ever seen yet also be the author of some of the most inspiring works of moral writing known to exist?
A window memento mori tattoo with stairs leading to the sky, by AKUNE (@akune_ink on Instagram).
Nonetheless, his teachings were of great contribution to the realm of stoicism and all schools of philosophy moving forward. He taught how one could manage to get by with the volatility of our fortune.
Half living half dead woman tattoo with flowers surrounding, by Marina Latre Tattoo (@marinalatre on Instagram).
This is one of his most famous quotes found in his short letters:“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” It is worth taking the time to reflect on. You’ll find that it invokes the same idea as memento mori.
Memento vivere—remember to live, by Manu Collante (@manucollantetattoo on Instagram).
Epictetus is perhaps the embodiment of a stoic and will be unlike the two we previously talked about. Unlike Emperor Marcus Aurelius or the great playwright and emperor’s adviser, Seneca the Younger—Epictetus was nothing more than a slave.
Awesome dynamic skull tattoo with watercolor elements, by INKEDPANDA (@inkedpandart on Instagram).
Epictetus was a slave to a wealthy man’s household. He walked with a limp, which some assume was caused by his master for no discernible reason. What’s interesting about Epictetus is how he viewed his impediment—as not one at all.
Day of the dead skeleton tattoo smoking a cigar and gulping a bottle of rum, by Johnny Hardcore (@johnnywhorecore on Instagram)
“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”
Lineart grim reaper tattoo sleeve, by David Bolotas (@davidbolotas_tattoo on Instagram).
After finally being granted freedom by his master at the age of 30, he engaged in teaching philosophy until his death. What’s fascinating is that Epictetus never actually wrote anything. Everything that we know from him and his teachings were documented by his loyal student Arrian.
Realistic broken hourglass tattoo with skull in upper section, by Nicole Dederer (@halflife_of_human on Instagram).
A lot of people try their best not to think of their inevitable death. Some foolishly think that they are out of its reach. And some cannot wait for its arrival. But won’t you agree that these are extremely dangerous ways of thinking?
Living king and dead king memento mori tattoo, by Rising Tide Tattoo (@risingtidetattoo on Instagram).
You see, memento mori doesn’t imply a pessimistic approach on viewing the world. “Remember that you must die” is not a death threat or a by-product of nihilism—it’s a reminder that you have to spend your days constantly thinking that you will die—that there is no time at all for you to waste.
Memento mori written in Gothic font next to a Celtic knot with watercolor elements, by Unknown Artist
Memento mori exists to remind us that we will all die in the end. It’s a mantra that you say at the beginning of each day, as the sun shines on your face, and at its end, before you rest for the next eventful day. But what good, you ask, can come from constantly reminding yourself of your inevitable death?
A nun holding a metallic cross with a reflection of a skull, by Memento Mori Tattoo (@mmoritattoo on Instagram).
You remind yourself of your death—so that you may truly live. Think of it as a classier, less cringey way to say “carpe diem”, or even worse, “YOLO”. If you force yourself to become aware of your unavoidable end, you will be able to see the value of today—and each day after.
Tempus fugit—time flies, hourglass tattoo, by EDUARD (@croccistudios on Instagram).
Memento vivere tattoo with river at the upper section running off into a skull at the lower section, by Gera Ramirez (@gera_negro on Instagram).
Memento mori tattoo written on an infinity symbol, by WAGNER SOARES (@wagnao_tattoo on Instagram).
Memento mori butterfly tattoo with skull pattern on its wings, by SABRINA ALFARA (@aliceink_tattoos on Instagram).
Hopefully the obscurity surrounding the meaning of memento mori has been cleared up. Through learning the stories of stoicism and the great stoic philosophers, you should not only be able to understand the gravity that two words can carry, but also apply its teachings in your own life. By marking your skin with these words, you’ll be constantly reminded that you must live your life. Memento mori; memento vivere—remember you must die; remember to live.
Did you enjoy those watercolor tattoos or are you looking for more inspiration? Check out the following links to see more designs from talented artists.