There was a tradition in ancient Rome to celebrate the return of a victorious military general with a drawn out spectacle to sanctify the triumphant leader. On the day of his parade, the victor wore a crown and a purple, gold-adorned toga, otherwise reserved for kings. His four-horse chariot parted the streets lined with thanks-givers chanting “io Triumphe!” The roars of “Hurray, O Triumph” was muffled by the whisper of slave, positioned deliberately in the chariot behind his master’s throne, “Memento Mori, Memento Mori, Memento Mori,” the slave echoed. “Remember thou art mortal.” “Remember, you too must die.” The perfect reminder during a man’s momentary immortalization.
Philosophers, writers, artists, composers, and leaders since life’s inception have meditated on death habitually to motivate and inspire. Socrates said, “The one aim of those who practice philosophy is to practice for dying and death.” Shakespeare said, “Every third thought should be my grave.” Michelangelo said, “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.” Tolstoy said, “If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different.” Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And Mozart said, “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.”
Modern society regards death as an unpleasant reality best kept far from mind else awakening agonizing terror. But reflecting on and accepting the transient ephemeralness of our existence is the key unlocking lives of meaning and fulfillment. From the slave’s humbling whisper, Memento Mori evolved aesthetically and tangibly. Hamlet held Yorick’s skull, Thomas Jefferson carried a Memento Mori watch key, Mozart wrote his most famous composition Requiem, and Picasso kept a skull in his studio for purposes synonymous with the slave reminding the Roman general, “Remember, you too must die.”
The mediums by which Memento Mori reminders are expressed has progressed over time, but the comprising symbols have not altered. Skulls, hourglasses, skeletons, candles, and flowers, whether on a tombstone or a necklace, have long captured life’s fragility, time’s haste, and death’s certainty. While some put a painting on their wall or a skull on their desk, others opt for a more permanent piece of art. One they can’t leave home without: tattoos.
Etching pigments on the body dates back tens of thousands of years, as evidenced by tattoos found on mummified preserved skin. The purpose of body art varies culturally and historically. They’ve been sources of healing, rebellion, punishment, allegiance, expression, and remembrance. Trends shape the story of humans. Memento Mori tattoos are trending. Harry Styles, Adam Levine, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding, Kesha, and Johnny Depp are just a few pop culture icons wearing reminders of death on their skin.
DailyStoic reached out to readers to find out how they are remembering mortality through permanent body ink. Below is a collection of some Memento Mori tattoos and the stories behind them.
“I started learning about Stoicism in early 2017 and most everything almost immediately rang true in my life, especially Memento Mori. Working in law enforcement in this day and age, it was a concept I probably thought about everyday.
When the Memento Mori medallions came out I almost immediately bought two. One for me and one to give to a friend who would appreciate the concept. I don’t think I could have ever imagined the coin finding as much significance in my life, as it has now. I had carried it in my pocket everyday for a few months to include each day as an attendee of the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas (Sept. 29 through Oct. 1). Living through that event and in the moment being confronted with my own mortality that night gave me indescribable moments of clarity in the terms of ‘you could leave life right now.’
Thanks for bringing these amazing concepts into my Daily Stoic life.”
Tattoo done by Johnny Bravo (IG: @whoisjohnnybravo) at The Raw Canvas (IG: @therawcanvas).
“I originally got this tattoo sleeve done before studying any Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism. Once I read his Meditations it was a complete reflection of my beliefs, like the few represented on my arm.
The top half of the sleeve represents reflection of death (Memento Mori), philosophy, and grabbing hold of and controlling your time. Time will balance everything eventually whether you will it or not (Yin-yang within the clock).
The bottom represents reflection of life (Memento Vivere), growth of wisdom, and attaining victory.
The tattoo contains the following:
Plato: One of the great philosophy kings, he is simply meant to represent deep philosophy and control of outcomes.
Grandfather Clock: Plato is holding onto it because philosophy and thought will put you in complete control of whether the outcome of your time spent matters or not. It also represents the impending death, the same death we all face regardless of religion/philosophy, or lack thereof.
On the bottom is Athena: Greek Goddess of Practical reason, wisdom and warfare. Her owl represents wisdom as well, along with erudition and perspicacity. She’s releasing it as an action of free thought, and release of the mind to carry you through life and into what comes after.
Thanks for your time Daily Stoic.”
Tattoo artist: @skrazilla
“Before diving into Stoicism I really struggled with understanding my personal core values. I lacked a framework of which to contextualize and gauge my life experiences with. After adopting Stoicism as that framework – things began to shift for me – and a huge shift came when I learned the concept of Memento Mori. ‘You could leave life right now….’ that one hit home, and it hit hard. Aside from reading a days message from The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday every morning – I actively spurred myself to really consider those words from Marcus Aurelius. To contemplate mortality in a way that almost forces me to live. To not simply fear death, but to embrace life.
I thought many times of ordering the Memento Mori Print from dailystoic.com as a daily reminder hung upon my wall – but I chose to dedicate myself a bit more fully – and wear it on my skin. Now it’s with me constantly. And unless I lose my arm…always will be.
My beautiful wife is to thank for making it happen. She scheduled the session and paid for me to have it done by our tattoo guy (Gerrit Verplank @Firefly Tattoo Collective in Indianapolis) for our 10 year wedding anniversary :).
Thank you so much for everything. Stoicism has changed my being, and Daily Stoic has been an enormous part of that.”
“I got the tattoo after leaving a damaging relationship. I was on a journey of discovering who I was and wanted to be. I’d always been drawn to vanitas artwork. I was trying to find something new to maybe hang in my apartment. Of course with that style of art, the phrase Memento Mori comes up often. I started meditating on what that really meant. I started trying new things. I took an introductory piloting lesson, a glass blowing class. I started stepping out of my comfort zone because I didn’t want to eventually leave this life thinking I wish I’d tried that. To keep reminding myself whenever I fell into rut, I decided to get the tattoo.”
Tattoo artist: Margaret Able
“To make a long story short, I came to the realization one day that while I’m still young, I’m not getting any younger. My days are numbered and if I wanted to be successful and achieve what I wanted to achieve in life, I needed to constantly keep moving toward those goals. Now whenever I feel like I’m too tired to get out of bed or if I’m too sick to go to work, I can look down at my arm and see a constant reminder that I’m not immortal, I’m going to die one day, and I have to keep moving forward with my life.”
“When I was failing college and lost in life, I stumbled on the path of becoming a writer. My second year into the craft, I had great momentum—self-published my first book and finished attending Seth Godin’s three-day seminar that fundamentally changed my life.
Toward the end of the year, my psoriasis (didn’t knew I had it) flared up, blanketing my entire body. I fell into a deep depression. I was recommended the book, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and it gave me the framework and energy to flip this experience on its head. That year, I barely left my room, read a book a week, and devoted my time to writing and meditating. My dermatologist, after all, said there was no cure, only lowering my stress.
I remember being at my best friend’s house, watching Ink Masters, and he asked if I would ever get a tattoo. And I explained to him exactly what you see on my arm today. Jun Cha is my artist, and at the time he had a three year wait—it was also application only.
I got this tattoo of Marcus Aurelius, Nero, and Seneca because it’s a reminder that no matter how smart you may be, no matter how good of a support system you may have, ego can always win. Marcus sits at the top because he’s the North Star, the reminder of how to behave and what to return to when things go awry. Nero had potential to be a great emperor—his first five years were fruitful—but ego won. Seneca is one of those people I deeply admire for his thought but also his story.
Stoicism saved my life. It gave me a new operating system to think about failure, adversity, pain, and uncertainty. It replaced my Windows 98-style thinking and revamped it. It has helped me creatively, professionally, and spiritually. As Montaigne said, ‘For I must use these great men’s virtues as a cloak for my weakness.’ Meditations and Letter from a Stoic are my bible, and it’s the two books I always give to people who are lost in life, in pain, or need new perspective.”
Tattoo artist: @Juncha
Paul Jun’s website: https://pauljun.me
“Here’s my story behind the tattoo – it’s part of a broader sleeve of personal ‘glyphs’- images that tell the story of my 30s. Every picture represents an idea, experience or lesson learned. I intentionally refrained from tattooing any actual words, as I wanted the meaning behind each tattoo to be able to evolve over time.
Stoic philosophy really grabbed hold of me a few years ago as I was wrestling with my own religious and spiritual background. Trying to reconcile the way I experience the real world around me, and the narrative I was taught all through my childhood and young adulthood.
Memento Mori is a great centering thought, and something I wanted to see in the mirror every morning when I’m shaving.”
Memento Mori is one of the most practical ideas I’ve picked up in my study of Stoicism. Knowing that I can die at any moment really helps me be mindful of my time and how I spend it. In addition, it is the first thing I think of when my sons are giving me a hard time, or when I’m arguing with my wife or someone else I care about. Knowing that I may never see them again helps me check my emotions, and be more effective as well as happier.”
YouTube: Fat Fueled Family
Tattoo done by Jennifer Lynn (IG: @jenniferlynntattoo) at Trilogy Tattoos (IG: @trilogytattoogallery).
“For me, my piece is a daily reminder to assign purpose to every step taken and every action performed. Every life is short, but a life of purpose can have a lasting impact… also love everyone equally because we all end up in roughly the same-sized coffin.”
“The tattoo serves as a daily reminder of my finite and short time on earth, and creates a sense of urgency for me to take swift action toward my goals. Brooding over it had helped me tackle procrastination very effectively!”
The tattoo was done by Jack at ‘Black Poison Tattoos’ in Ahmedabad, India.
“I got mine a few years ago at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. You can read why this matters so much to me here.”
“Just finished Daily Stoic and many of my followers enjoying some of the pics shared of the book and its thoughts.”
“Memento Mori is a very simple instruction. “Remember that you have to die”. Remembering and accepting that I am going to die puts everyday life, struggles, and doubts in a new perspective.
Every second is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted on meaningless things. Death doesn’t make life pointless, it’s the opposite: the fact that I am going to die fills my life with purpose as it reminds me of what is important and meaningful in this life and what is not. Luckily, I don’t have to die to understand what is important and meaningful – my Memento Mori tattoo reminds me what is. Finally, Memento Mori brings me closer to the life I want to live.”
The tattoo was done in Kiev, Ukraine.
“I honestly don’t know where to start with Memento Mori. Familiarizing myself with Stoicism has been one of the largest, positive, influences that I’m proud to have incorporated into my life. I used to (still do) have moments where I’d be doing something mundane and the thought that I would cease to be alive would just pop into my thoughts. And that realization is a very profound experience if you allow yourself to explore it and understand why you feel the way you do about it. But, facing it head on and choosing to continue your life with it in mind, and in a positive light, has been very humbling for myself. We should all ponder what we want to leave behind in this world, no matter what that might be.
My tattoo is a bit of an inside joke, with regards to the vacuum, but it still speaks to how I regard Memento Mori in my life. I am a huge believer in creating order in one’s life in order to be productive and live a healthy life. Learning and incorporating Stoicism has only reinforced those practices for me and in the world we live in today. I think the need for these principles is only increasing.”
Tattoo done by Timm Nasario at Yer Cheat’n Heart in Hermosa Beach, CA.
Tattoo done by Alonzo Villa (IG: @alonzovillatattoo) at Guru Tattoo (IG: @gurutattoo).
My tattoo artist is Tito Aguayo in Orlando (IG: @titoaguayo85). I shared with him what Memento Mori is and what it means to me. We spent a month or two conferring on this design before getting started. Zoom in for the gorgeous linework and white ink details!
I am going through a major life change at the age of 52 and need to remind myself often to be mindful of the importance of not wasting life…
As we are reminded of death all around us, will you ignore your human reality? Or do you think it’s time to see death and dying in a new light? Please share if you think the world needs this new perspective!
Also, if you have a stoic tattoo you’d like to share, please email it with the story of why you got it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to all who shared pictures and thank you for reading!
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” – Marcus Aurelius
Read more about Memento Mori:
If you’re looking for less permanent ways to carry the powerful message of memento mori with you, explore Daily Stoic’s medallions, prints, and pendants below: