In Western tattoo culture, the snake symbolizes betrayal, suspicion, and mistrust.
Snake tattoo design also provides elements of duality when combined with other more positive associations, such as the heart, rose, or even a skull.
In Japanese and pre-Christian cultures, the snake lacks the ties with evil and temptation that many in the US or other western cultures have grown up with.
The snake symbol is often seen as a phallic/sexual device or one linked to protection, rebirth, and the element of water.
The following article delves into the leading symbolic snake tattoo meaning, so you can choose the right kind of reptile ink for you.
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Japanese Snake Tattoos
One of the more popular and striking Japanese tattoos (Irezumi) is the snake. Unlike in predominantly Christian cultures, a Japanese snake is considered a powerful tattoo design related to masculinity and sexual aura, and the concept of rebirth.
1. Japanese Snake Tattoos
The Japanese snake tattoo, or hebi, can have a few different symbolic connotations. It’s often seen as a phallic/sexual symbol but also closely linked to protection and the element of water.
Snake tattoo design, as in many other cultures and mythologies, can also be tied to rebirth and immortality due to the reptile’s ability to shed its skin and start again.
The snake’s links with male sensuality and machismo mean they’re a popular totem for brightly colored tattoos belonging to the Japanese gangsters known as Yakuza.
2. The Pit Viper
The Japanese pit viper is another popular snake design. The “mamushi” is a beautiful animal with a circular pattern in the scales on its back and a more detailed black and white mosaic on its belly. While generally small, this venomous snake is excellent at sneaking up on its prey when they least expect it.
In tattooing, you’ll notice Mamushi snake tattoo ideas by their hatchet faces and an emphasis on the creature’s coils.
3. Supporting Images in Japanese Snake tattoos
Supporting imagery is extremely important to the symbolic meaning of all Japanese tattoos, as they are never inked by the central theme (shudai) alone.
A hebi themed tattoo will often be paired with a secondary motif (keshoubori) such as koi fish, peonies, or cherry blossoms, matching up with the snake’s cycle of movement in spring or themes of wealth.
The elements are also hugely important for filling out and supporting the major theme of large and complex Japanese tattoo designs. This is known as Gakoubori. Clouds, rocks, waves, and wind are always used to flesh out a tattoo and make the snake more elaborate.
Classical Snakes in Contemporary Tattoo Art
Older religions saw snake symbolism as a link to regeneration, desire and fertility. It’s popular across a range of styles, including realistic snake tattoos or designs featuring a close-up, detailed snake eye.
Snakes are also well-known for their ability to shed their skin and begin anew, and they’ve been revered as a powerful symbol of rebirth and healing in other cultures and societies from Ancient Egypt to Native American tribes.
4. Medusa Snake Tattoo Design
Medusa was once betrothed to Poseidon, but after forgetting her vows, she was dealt the brutal punishment of having a venomous snake nest instead of hair.
Her gaze not only disgusted, but also mesmerized any onlooker who regarded her, turning them to stone.
I really enjoy how Medusa snake tattoos can slither in different directions with the help of a creative and talented tattoo artist. From realistic snake design on the brow of a beautifully etched woman to more classical Greco-Roman style body art, the evil Gorgon sister can be portrayed in many interesting styles from complex small snake tattoo to large abstract body art pieces.
5. The Ouroboros Tattoo
The ouroboros serpent tattoo is an interesting design that symbolizes infinity, regeneration and the interconnected nature of the universe.
First appearing in the iconography of Ancient Egypt, the snake symbol (or dragon) eating its own tail made its way into the Western culture via Greece, and eventually became a key image and concept in Alchemy.
The ouroboros tattoo can also represent the transmigration of the soul, representing the human experience extending beyond the physical world into the next plane.
6. The Two-headed Snake
In the British Museum, there’s an Aztec sculpture of a double-headed venomous snake, presumed to be a gift to the 15th century Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
The serpent is believed to represent the underworld and powers of rebirth, the ability to shed one’s skin and inhabit another multiple times throughout the course of a lifetime.
Since then, the two-headed snake has wound its way into the Western conscience, adapted by tattoo artists for a wholly modern representation.
7. Tribal Snake Tattoo Art
The serpentine figure has been a notoriously sexy symbol throughout history, conjuring up symbolic meaning from the garden of Eden and beyond for centuries.
There is something exciting yet dangerous about a tribal snake tattoo, an element of juxtaposition many in the tattoo community find especially appealing.
Traditional Western Snake Tattoo Meaning
In contemporary Western culture, a serpent tattoo is a powerful symbol of betrayal, mistrust, and suspicion, and can demonstrate evil when combined in traditional tattoos with more positive themes to represent duality.
Older religions saw snakes as the symbol for fertility, which is why the serpent was used as a symbol of temptation in the Old Testament of the Bible. Many believe the snake received such a horrible reputation due to the Christian religion attempting to deface pagan gods.
8. American Traditional Snake Tattoo
A snake tattoo idea is often viewed through a mixed lens thanks to the role they play in many religious texts, particularly the role of evil and temptation in the Christian creation story.
Snakes are well-known for their ability to shed their skin and begin anew, and they’ve been revered as creatures of rebirth and healing in different cultures including among Native American tribes.
Rattlesnake and cobra tattoo design are the most popular serpents used in old school style tattooing.
9. Snake and Dagger Tattoo Meaning
The snake-and-dagger symbol carries multiple meanings in ink culture, and its tattoo likeness will no doubt elicit equal parts fear and awe from those who glimpse upon the viper curled around a blade or with it driven through the skull.
The dagger (or the similar snake skull tattoo) represents the dangers that may lie ahead, and the courage needed to overcome the many faces of adversity represented by the snake.
Perhaps you put your safety and well-being on the line every day and aren’t afraid to risk security for the sake of unknown valor.
The serpent-and-dagger tattoo is more than just a symbol of good vs evil, but the necessary balance one must maintain between the two.
10. Join or Die/Don’t Tread on Me Tattoos
Chances are you’ve seen the yellow Gadsden flag with a black coiled snake on it. The flag and tattoo symbol dates back to Christopher Gadsden, an American statesman and general, and has made its way into snake tattoos.
Much like how we wish to live our own lives without external interference, so does the coiled snake, who aims to warn before striking. It’s meant to be thought of in the sense of the people protecting their rights.
The fierce snake cartoon representing Join or Die originally called on the American colonists to join together against the French. Later, it became a rallying cry for the colonies to join together against the tyranny of the British.
Each piece of the broken snake design was created to represent each colony joining forces against enemies both domestic and foreign.
Contemporary Snake Tattoo Symbolism
In modern tattoo culture, snakes are popular tattoo options for those who admire strength, healing, and the cultures of the ancient past. As more people come to admire snakes for their natural beauty, tattoos of such creatures will increase.
11. Neo Traditional Snake Tattoos
The neo traditional snake tattoo honors the animal’s earliest renderings while translating it for a modern age, in an equally modern spirit.
Viewed as a mystery and miracle of birth and renewal, the snake is a spirit animal to the individual who moves with a keen understanding of the life-death-life cycle, and embraces it without fear or hesitation.
12. 3D Snake Tattoos
A 3D tattoo of a snake is a very striking image because the snake has always been associated with danger or evil.
A Christian might associate the image with evil and temptation, while other people look at the symbol and connect it to rebirth. This connection is made because the snake has the unique ability of shedding its entire skin.
The individual wearing a snake may be telling the world that they have changed who they are or that life forced them to shed their old self and transform.
13. Snake Skeleton Tattoos
In different cultures around the world, the snake skeleton is a powerful and much-prized treasure tied to strength and superstition.
Modern Western inhabitants generally prefer it for decorative purposes, and occasionally the serpentine vertebrae winds their way into unforgettable tattoo art.
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