The Day of the Dead or “El Dia de los Muertos” conjures up images of skeletons and graveside vigils and may seem macabre to observers from outside the culture. For those inside the festivities, though, macabre, spooky, and Halloween all miss the mark–by quite a bit.
The culture or, more accurately, cultures from which the Day of the Dead celebration has come are Latin American but the celebration is predominantly of pre-Hispanic origins in the area we know today as Mexico from the ancient people we call the Aztec. The influence of the ancestors in the everyday lives of the Aztecs was a given, an accepted participation by the spirits and the gods in all matters, and vice versa. The living were able to aid the departed on their journey to Mictlan (the underworld) with gifts of charms and tools. The living and the dead were so much a part of each other’s worlds that they conversed with one another, even celebrated with one another. Enter the goddess Mictecacíhuatl (meek tay kah SEE wahtl), Queen of Mictlan, who presided over the celebrations in her role as the keeper of bones (According to Aztec legend, the great god Quetzalcoatl had once managed to steal the bones of the previous gods from Mictlan, bringing back their shattered remains to the land of the living to create humans.) Known sometimes as the Lady of the Dead or Santa Muerte, she still makes her appearance during modern festivities at altars or on banners, and sometimes plays the role of escort to the souls of returning family members.
The returning family members are welcomed, even sought after, with altars in homes and presentations at graveside where photographs, candles, flowers (especially bright marigolds), food (especially sweet bread and sugar confections in the shape of skulls), and drink. Although the original celebration likely took place during the month of Miccailhuitontli (around present day end of July/beginning of August), Spanish missionaries moved it to the dates of an existing Catholic celebration known as All Saints’ Day on November 1st (commemorating all the saints, known and unknown) followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd (commemorating all the Catholic departed who may have entered purgatory). Oddly enough, All Souls’ Day had originally been celebrated on May 13th but had been moved to November in order to supplant a celebration by pagans in ancient Britain and Ireland (where November 1st was known as the end of summer). In England, All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows, and the evening before it (October 31st) became known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
In the realm of tattoo artwork, much Day of the Dead symbolism draws heavily from the work of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) and his religious and satirical engravings, most famously his calaveras (skull drawings). His Calavera de la Catrina was intended as a jibe at the finery of the social elite. Like the Day of the Dead celebrations with which they are so much associated, the calaveras emphasize the imminence of death and its universality but in an everyday and familiar way.
Although the original engravings were black and white, todays Day of the Dead celebrations and our Day of the Dead tattoos abound with bright and vivid colors. Just as the white sugar skulls get their colorful flower frosting adornments, so do the skulls of Day of the Dead tattoos. All walks of life and all manner of occupations and hobbies (in keeping with Posada’s various subjects) have found their way into Day of the Dead tattoos. Unlike other memento mori tattoos, Day of the Dead tattoos very often reflect the same flowery abundance and color of the actual celebrations. With a nod to the bold color and heavier shading of Classic Americana tattooing and with their intricate elaboration, varied poses, clothing, and accoutrements, they allow for a sort of artistic exuberance that may initially seem at odds with skulls and bones but is completely at home with the Day of the Dead.