Marie has been an online freelance writer for over eight years. She has a particular interest in culture and history.
What Do Day of the Dead Face Painting Designs Mean?
A mixture of Aztec and European symbolism infuse the meaning of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) face painting designs. The tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of indigenous Mexican people.
The most common design is to paint the face to resemble a skull. For people not familiar with Latin American culture, this might seem strange and even scary. However, the skull has a uniquely positive meaning in Día de los Muertos, very different from the skeletons and ghosts of Halloween. The multi-day holiday is an opportunity for families and friends to gather, pray for, honor, celebrate, and remember friends and family members who have died.
One of the more common symbols of the holiday is the skull (or calavera), a design that celebrants display in food (sugar or chocolate shaped like skulls), masks called calacas (skeletons), and (most recently) face paint.
Symbols in Day of the Dead Face Painting
Let's take a look at some of the more common symbols used in Día de los Muertos face painting designs.
Although face painting is not exactly an ancient tradition, the calavera design itself is quite old. Skulls—known as calaveras or calacas in Mexico—are an essential part of the symbolism of Día de los Muertos in Mexico. They are used not only as the basis for painting faces, but they also are the shape of candy such as sugar skulls and for many skeleton-inspired decorations.
The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a fascinating mixture of Spanish Catholic and native Aztec traditions and beliefs. Skulls and skeletons were an important part of All Saints Day festivals in medieval Europe, especially since the Black Death ravaged the population of Europe in the 1300s. Across Europe, artists, playwrights, and poets have mused on the theme of 'memento mori' (reminders that we all must die one day) and the 'dance of the dead.' Many artworks and books depicted dancing skeletons or portraits with skull faces.
At the same time, in Mexico, the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion—death was a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. For the Aztecs, skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth.
People in Mexico wear traditional skull masks, and the tradition of painting faces to look like skulls has grown up as a variation of this practice. Masks have always been powerful objects in many cultures, ones that often allow the wearer to get in touch with their darker, chaotic side. Skull face painting is a chance to overcome the fear of death, act recklessly, and get up to the mischief that is forbidden at other times of the year!
Flowers are also symbolically important. Many skull designs incorporate flowers, and the one that is most closely associated with Día de los Muertos is the marigold, or cempazúchitl, which is known as the flower of the dead. In Aztec belief, the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. When the souls of departed family and friends return to earth, it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps to guide them back.
Flowers are often incorporated into the face-painted skull designs (and tattoos, for that matter). This mixing of skulls and flowers may seem strange to some, unless you remember their purpose: to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life.
Elegant Skulls: La Catrina
Skulls may seem neither elegant nor feminine at first glance, but the elegant skull has grown into an important day of the dead tradition.
La Calavera Catrina (the Elegant Skull) is a 1913 etching by José Guadalupe Posada. The image shows a skeleton dressed in the finery of a wealthy lady, a reminder that even the rich and beautiful carry death within them. Nowadays, la calavera catrina is a source of inspiration for women's skull face-painting, which is both scary and beautiful at once.
In Mexico, it is common to see 'catrinas' around the time of the Día de los Muertos. They are figurines of ladies in fancy dresses, but with bare skulls showing under their flowery hats.
Learn More About Día de los Muertos
- Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) - HISTORY
On the Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration.
- Día de los Muertos: History and Meaning of the Day of the Dead
The history and meaning of Día de los Muertos come from a mixture of indigenous beliefs and Catholic traditions. This article explores the celebration of Day of the Dead not only in Mexico, but also Peru, Haiti and Brazil.
© 2011 Marie McKeown
olivia on October 25, 2018:
How do u find source cited stuff on this?
bruce on October 17, 2018:
im am so thankful
Amanda Edwards on August 18, 2018:
Thank you for explaining this.
Aidan M. on March 08, 2018:
I am looking to see if any of the particular shapes they use mean anything. I understand the list of colours and what they represent, and of course, it does mention the marigolds, but the different dots, and swirls and other designs around it, are those just designs or does each shape represent something?
Justin Bieber on February 20, 2018:
Thrjtjtjt on January 17, 2018:
Wow this is interesting
Thomas on December 04, 2017:
Why do they panti there face
hi on November 01, 2017:
what do colours represent on the painted skull
Yo on October 30, 2017:
why are they sometimes half painted?
Boi from the dead on September 27, 2017:
I found this interesting
JustMe... on September 13, 2017:
Good read. Thx
Isabel M on October 27, 2015:
This website is awesome
ashley m on November 01, 2013:
Sorry I ment lost love...
ashley m on November 01, 2013:
I think the meaning behind the half face painting is list love like meaning half of you died because your not with the one you love
Elizabeth on November 01, 2013:
I am curious to know too...Is there a meaning behind half the face being painted?
Djs434 on October 21, 2013:
Is there a special meaning for those who only paint a half face?
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on August 26, 2013:
Estoy de acuerdo!
HolidayGiftIdea on August 23, 2013:
Me gusta el dia de los muertos! Pienso que es interesante como todos somos difereentes. Asi anidimos valor porque no todos somos la misma persona.
methhead on October 31, 2012:
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on October 24, 2012:
I am glad you did too - thanks for your feedback!
Marla Barton on October 24, 2012:
Wow,Im glad I read this!
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on October 15, 2012:
Do you have something particular in mind?
Boo on October 15, 2012:
I need good meanings
ugh on October 08, 2012:
I know its cool right dam dam
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on November 01, 2011:
Thanks Tina. I'm not the author of the youtube clip but I searched through the options to find a good one - the girl does a good job of explaining it all, doesn't she?
Tina Clippinger on November 01, 2011:
2011 I have watched almost EVERY dia de los muertos sugar skull tutorial on YouTube. Yours is precious in that you used the most basic and affordable face painting kit. I used that very Klutz kit when my kids were little on 100s of little faces. You demonstrated the beauty of the makeup presented in a simple, doable form. Thank you.
D Kane on October 30, 2011:
I have been trying to find the meaning of the face paint for my tattoo and this was such a helpful article. Thank you!
Tara Lani on October 05, 2011:
I love Dia de los Muertos everything! And what a great tutorial. Thank you so much. 2011