Santa Muerte Tattoo
Tattoo artists benefit from the steadily growing number of Santa Muerte believers - who immortalize an image of the scythe woman on their skin - often as a sacrifice to a promise or vow made to the powerful lady. Santa Muerte captivates people with her ever-changing face. As Death herself, she wears many masks that correspond to the personal preferences of those she approaches.
People have always been very interested in death, despite her sombre image. The image of death is given a symbolic meaning, which took its place in the art of tattooing. Santa Muerte tattoos are a vivid embodiment of such interest.
A Santa Muerte tattoo often shows a skeleton with a scythe. The skeleton saint can hold a globe in one hand and a scale in the other. The scales symbolise power and the globe symbolises the earth. So this picture shows that death has power over the whole world and that each of us will meet Santa Muerte sooner or later. She is considered the merciful mother and patron saint of all humanity. Furthermore, her followers believe that it helps them to survive among criminals, that it gives them strength, supports the family, and cures all kinds of diseases.
A Santa Muerte tattoo has a special meaning for criminals, policemen, soldiers, and for people connected to the drug trade. For them, this body art is a protective image against the bullets and cruelty of their opponents. Tattooing such an illustration on the skin is a sacred ritual, in which the wearer must fulfill strict obligations.
Although her followers in Mexico, the United States and around the world most often use images depicting her as a scythe woman, Santa Muerte grows with popular culture. A popular culture that makes Santa Muerte more humane. Perhaps this is a gentle expression of the hesitation with which many are confronted. Santa Muerte is often condemned in the media and equated with Satanism and narco culture.
One of the most common faces of the skeletal saints to be found is that of the popular Sugar Skull motif from the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), inspired by the famous illustrator José Guadalupe Posadas la Calavera Catrina. Santa Muerte tattoos hardly differ in their depiction.
Sketches of tattoos in Santa Muerte style are often depicted in the form of a woman's face with elements of the skull. In such tattoos the nose and eyes are highlighted in colour, earrings are depicted in a cross shape, the rose in the hair and the lines resembling the seams are shown in the mouth or lip area. A cross can be depicted on the forehead or chin. Different colours are used to place the Santa Muerte tattoo on the body.
Santa Muerte Tattoos as historical sources
Tattoos trigger memories in us - not only in the individuals who wear them on their skin, but also in the culture as a whole. The human body itself is a repository of history and represents an archive - without walls or catalogues.
Historians have neglected tattoos as a source, as artifacts that illuminate society. That is a problem. For years, historians were among the most conservative scholars in terms of methodology and theory - a conservatism that is particularly evident when it comes to the study of texts outside of institutions. That has changed in recent decades.
It is not known whether the origin of Santa Muerte lies in Mexican history before or after colonial times - perhaps in the grinning skull of the Aztecs - but today its cult is one of the fastest growing religious practices in the Western Hemisphere. Santa Muerte appears in various forms, but is always female; her skull and skeletal body are clothed in the flowing robes. Thanks to migration and the Internet - the followers spread the tradition mainly by word of mouth - Santa Muerte now has followers throughout Latin America and the United States.
As with so many other subaltern cultural productions, infidels view Santa Muerte erroneously and suspiciously and link their worship exclusively to the criminal underworld. People who commit horrible crimes seek the protection of the saints, but also bankers, lawyers, policemen and housewives. These different followers witness to their faith in different ways, but they give thanks for miracles by building altars laden with food, alcohol and tobacco.
For some devotees, an altar, but not a confession of faith, is enough. They show their devotion by tattoos of the saints as a scythe woman or another stylized form. They make their own body the altar for Santa Muerte.
In modern Latin America, tattoos are not nearly as popular as in the United States. Despite the slowly changing attitudes, tattoos in Latin America are largely viewed critically. But even without tattoos, Santa Muerte followers are confronted with hostility and marginalisation. Constitutional protection guarantees free worship, but the Mexican government banned the tradition and equated Santa Muerte culture with crime and even Satanism. When devotees show their lasting devotion with a tattoo, they carefully consider where: Torso, chest and back are preferred because they can easily be covered by clothing, but also because they need special protection. Even in the United States, where tattoos have largely become mainstream, a Santa Muerte tattoo, even if largely hidden, can cause all kinds of problems. Mexican citizen José Leonardo Díaz claims that the United States has refused him a visa because of a Santa Muerte tattoo on his back. Since the police continue to associate Santa Muerte with illegal activities, cases like Díaz's become the norm.
In view of the popular and state discrimination against Santa Muerte, a tattoo - regardless of the body part - shows a deep devotion to tradition or expresses gratitude for a miracle. Some followers bravely show their tattoos and express a belligerent attitude against the disapproval of tradition and those who wear Santa Muerte tattoos. MC Babo (Eduardo Dávalos de Luna) of the music group Cartel de Santa (from Santa Catarina, Nuevo León, Mexico) is a well-known follower with at least two Santa Muerte tattoos. In his lyrics, he evokes "mis tatuajes calaveras" ("my skull tattoos") and challenges those who may be different from his body art. In contrast to MC Babo, other followers show their Santa Muerte tattoos only in places and moments that are considered safe, such as ceremonies dedicated to the saint or shrines. These moments of public manifestation connect the devotee with the large community of believers. They show the tattooed person's strength of faith, a deep commitment to Santa Muerte. They also make it clear that the tattooed devotee is not afraid of potential retaliation or problems that may arise from the tattoo.
Like any other source, tattoos in their historical time must be carefully examined, historicized, queried and put into context. Tattoos can reveal information about followers and their belief systems, and they can reveal individual fates.
Without a proper context and historical understanding, confusion can easily arise about what constitutes a Santa Muerte tattoo and what its meaning is. The growing popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe figures with a skull folded in prayer and bony hands is not a Santa Muerte tattoo and also Dia de los Muertos tattoos (Day of the Dead), the stylized calacas (skulls) are not Santa Muerte tattoos. While tattoos of a naked virgin of Guadalupe or a calaca challenge the viewer with devious, seductive smiles and mischievous grins, the tattoos of Santa Muerte are supposed to honor the skeletal saint. The tattoos often show Santa Muerte with a scythe in his hand, ready and willing to protect the wearer from acts of violence, unjust imprisonment, vengeful enemies or whatever he fears. In a way, Santa Muerte tattoos resemble Japanese demon tattoos, which keep evil away from the body.
The reasons for tattooing sometimes change the character of the tattoos as well as their quality. In some areas, the scythe in the hand is less popular than the image of Santa Muerte holding the scales of justice. While some tattoos show thicker lines and signs of rough shading, the cleaner lines of professional tattoos and skilfully executed shading indicate differences in class and wealth. The poorer Santa Muerte devotees tend to have rougher tattoos, as professional tattooists demand more than less experienced, often almost amateur tattooists.
The Santa Muerte tattoo is a document of faith - the transformation of the body into nothing less than its own archive.