Aztec tattoos were, above all, a symbolic representation of the devotion of a people to their gods. On a lesser level, they symbolized the status and tribe to which an individual belonged as well as their achievements in life.
A large part of any Aztecs daily routine was devoted to pleasing the gods and ensuring success in life and in battle so to carry symbols of that devotion on your body was thought to be essential. The positioning of the Tattoos was not left to chance either and depended very much on the god whose favour you sought. Wrist, chest and stomach were popular locations as they were seen as ‘seats of power’ within the body.
The traditional Aztec Tattoo designs were highly colored, as is much Aztec art and very stylized. Culturally the Aztecs were a sophisticated race, as is demonstrated by the quality of their architecture, sculpture and textiles. This sophistication extended to their tattoo designs which were often complex and must have taken many hours to complete.
Tattoos were applied from an early age to both boys and girls and were a part of the process of growing up. As the children grew to adulthood, they would have more, carrying their life story with them as a constant reminder.
The main influence on Aztec life was the Sun, they developed an accurate calendar which was beautifully illustrated. The effect of the Sun, in it’s constant rising and setting was seen to be the certain proof of an afterlife and consequently the Sun god was most highly revered. The Aztec language, Nahauti, was pictorial and the symbols for the Sun were, and still are, used as Tattoo designs.
Traditional Aztec Tattoos designs are deceptive in their simplicity. There is little of the fine shading that we associate with some more modern styles. They are bold and make a statement or declare an intent. Animal and Bird images such the Eagle, a symbol of strength, were often used but most common were representations of the gods.
The god of warriors, Tezcatlipoca, with his fierce face was a popular choice. He is often depicted with his tongue sticking out, also a common warrior image amongst the Maoris.
Uitzilopochtle, the god of the Sun was represented in many different forms, and also the Calendar was used showing the importance placed on the observance of rituals at their proper time.
My own personal favorite is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered Serpent, god of weather, fertility and creativity. His was a unique place in the hearts of the Aztec people as it was on his benevolence that they depended for food, shelter and beauty in their lives. This beauty was demonstrated in the many variations of his image in Aztec Tattoo designs.