Snake Lady Tattoos: From Myth to Your Skin

Snake ladies have been around for centuries, and we’re still fascinated with their beauty and danger. We know they exist as towering Greek statues, paintings on Japanese woodblock carvings, medieval paintings in France and throughout Europe, words and paintings in ancient Chinese texts, and of course, as beautiful tattoos. The four snake ladies we’re going to take a look at today are Medusa, Nure-Onna, Bái Sùzhēn, and Mélusine, though more cultures have their own as well. For many modern feminists, snake lady tattoos have become a common motif, which is not surprising given their subject matter. These mythological snake ladies all have their own beauty, and danger, and that danger is aimed towards those who would harm them.

Left to right, Mélusine by Julius Hübner, Nure-Onna artist unknown, Medusa by Luciano Garbati, and Bái Sùzhēn artist unknown

According to research by Max Plank, humans have an automatic fear of snakes, dating back to our cavemen ancestors for pretty obvious reasons. Stay away from things that bite you! But snakes in the myths of many cultures are not just evil creatures, they are also symbols of fertility, hence why we have so many snake “ladies” throughout history. Granted many snake ladies are also described as twisted and horrible monsters, but they are almost always wronged by men in some way, and are just trying to live their best lives, even if it means killing and/or eating the occasional man (relatable though, right?). Even the Christians jumped on the snake lady bandwagon when Michelangelo depicted Satan not as a man in his painting “Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” in the Sistine Chapel in the 1500’s, but as a snake with the torso of a woman. So why do people keep getting these snake lady tattoos if they’re often depicted negatively?

Michelangelo’s Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Let’s have a look at our first snake lady Medusa, and why people might get snake lady tattoos of her. Medusa is immediately recognizable and is seen in all kinds of pop culture. At a glance, Medusa looks like a terrifying monster, but her character is much more complicated than that. According to Ovin’s Metamorphoses, Medusa wasn’t always the monster that she’s usually seen as. Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, and the only mortal one, was extremely beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that she caught the eye of the god of sea, earthquakes, and horses, Poseidon. Turns out Poseidon was a real scum bag and actually raped Medusa in the temple of Athena. When Athena found out what had happened in her temple, she got angry at the wrong person and cursed Medusa for desecrating her holy space. 

Medusa head by Ian Saunders
Medusa head by Frederico Rems
Full Medusa back piece by Zhuo Dan Ting

This curse turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, making her so horrible to look at that any who did would be instantly turned to stone. Medusa went from being written about like this, “Medusa once had charms; to gain her love. A rival crowd of envious lovers strove. They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace. More moving features in a sweeter face. Yet above all, her length of hair, they own, in golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.” To this, “In the middle is the Gorgon Medusa, an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.” So Medusa was forever transformed into a monster, one that could even get a hero some street cred if they were to slay her. Enter, Perseus. Perseus was the son of Danae, a mortal princess, and Zeus, mightiest of the gods. When Perseus grew up he was sent on a quest by King Polydectes, to bring him the head of Medusa. This was a trick though, as old King Poly really just wanted to sleep with Perseus’ mother, and was expecting Perseus to be killed by Medusa. But Perseus is the son of a god, so of course he’s not going to fight a monster empty handed and without a few tricks up his toga. He was given an invisibility cap from his uncle Hades, a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a reflective bronze shield from Athena, and a new sword from Hephaestus. Our story of the poor cursed Medusa ends here, as Perseus was triumphant and snuck up on her while she was sleeping and chopped her head off. 

Realistic Medusa half sleeve by Loren Miller
Black and grey Medusa head by Marisol Teran
Neo traditional Medusa head done by Claudio Erzi

For many people, Medusa is a relatable character, so it’s no surprise that when you search for snake lady tattoos, she’s going to be one of the first examples you see. Medusa was wronged by someone more powerful than her, but was then given the power in the form of a curse to keep people from hurting her (unless you’re Perseus). Medusa tattoos can be seen as a kind of armour, as Medusa turned people to stone with her gaze. If you rock a Medusa tattoo, she can handle glaring at that weirdo on the bus for you. 

Angry snake lady by Adam Ruff

Our second snake lady and corresponding snake lady tattoos, Nure-Onna, comes from Japan. The name Nure-Onna means, “wet woman.” As such, I’ll give you three guesses as to where she lives, and the first two don’t count. Quite simply, the water; coasts, rivers, and lakes. Really any body of natural water that can fit a giant snake lady. Traditionally she is native to Kyushu, Japan’s south-westernmost of the main island’s. But she can also be found as far north as Niigata and farther east in infamous Fukushima. Now unlike Medusa, Nure-Onna was never human, she’s pure creature, though not necessarily “evil.” She’s described as being large enough to flatten trees with her tail, strong enough to overpower men and eat them, and is quite a fast swimmer. In some legends she has arms like a human, and in others the only human thing about her is her head, plopped on top of a snakes body. Though all legends describe her face as quite snake-like, forked tongue and all. According to some legends, she really just wants to be left alone as she’s quite solitary and goal oriented. Usually coming ashore to wash her hair and eat. Her diet consists of both blood and entrails (delicious), but not specifically human blood and entrails, though don’t piss her off and test that. Now even though she’s way stronger than you or me, she doesn’t like to rely on brute strength when she is in the mood for some man meat. She’s smart and tricky. Nure-Onna uses magic to disguise herself as a distressed woman carrying a crying baby. She herself cries out for help from passing fishermen, sailors, or anyone unlucky enough to be passing by. If someone does stop to help her, she convinces them to take the baby, just for a moment, to let her rest. If she gets that far, the fake baby magically becomes extremely heavy, and she changes back into a snake lady, drains their blood, and eats their guts. 

Nure-Onna snake lady tattoos are another design that can be worn as a kind of armour, as we now know Nure-Onna is a force to be reckoned with! She’s also more creepy looking than Medusa, so for horror aficionados she’s a cool choice. For those who also enjoy Japanese tattooing, Nure-Onna can be paired with Japanese flowers, and background such as waves or clouds as she is a creature from the sea. 

Nure-Onna back piece by Lesha Sbitnev
Nure-Onna leg sleeve by Harriet Street
Nure-Onna rib piece by Giorgio Gun

Our third snake lady and her tattooed form is more of a romantic one than our first two. Bái Sùzhēn is a snake spirit from The Legend of the White Snake, one of Four Classic Folktales from China. These are old written works of historic and literary significance. Bái Sùzhēn was born as a magical sea snake that, after practicing Daoist magic, learned how to transform herself into a human. So, still a snake lady. This story takes place in beautiful Hangzhou, and begins with a boy named Xǔ Xiān, who accidentally purchases immortality pills that make him sick. He’s so sick that he throws up the pills into the lake. Bái Sùzhēn just happens to be swimming in the lake and swallows the immortality pills, but because she’s a spirit, she’s able to digest them. She is so happy and gracious that she immediately falls in love with Xǔ Xiān. 

Bái Sùzhēn by Ssab
Bái Sùzhēn by Weber Duan
Bái Sùzhēn by Jason Eisenberg

Bái Sùzhēn acquires a sidekick of sorts while traveling in human form. She sees a green snake being hurt by a man, and saves her by transforming her into a human as well. The green snake, now named, Xiǎo Qīng, swears to follow Bái Sùzhēn until the end of time. By huge coincidence, the two snake ladies come across Xǔ Xiān again, and shortly after their chance encounter, they get married. Years after their marriage, a jealous turtle spirit also turned human named Fa Hai, sabotages the marriage by telling Xǔ Xiān that his wife should try realgar wine during a festival. This wine repels spirits and and harmful creatures, and as soon as she drinks it, she is transformed back into a giant snake, giving her husband a heart attack that leads to his death. Loyal as ever, Xiǎo Qīng helps Bái Sùzhēn take Xǔ Xiān’s body to a sacred place to revive him. So happy to be revived he declares his love for his wife again, not caring that she’s a snake lady. Fa Hai of course finds out that his plan didn’t work, and he ends up, after various unsuccessful attempts to capture or kill the trio, manages to trap Bái Sùzhēn in the Leifeng Pagoda after her and Xǔ Xiān’s son Xǔ Mèngjiāo is born. Many years later, Xǔ Mèngjiāo passes the extremely difficult and competitive imperial exams with flying colours. He returns home with the title of top scholar, and is now a pious Confucian. He visits the Pagoda where his mother is trapped, to pay his respects. The heavens are so touched with his filial devotion that they finally free Bái Sùzhēn and allow the family to reunite. Another story featuring a bunch of men trying to bring a snake lady down.

Nude snake lady on the ribs by Clare Von Stitch

Snake lady tattoos aren’t just for those who love the gritty and gruesome stories, they can also be for romantics. Though Bái Sùzhēn is a snake lady, she’s also a true romantic, falling in love Disney style (ridiculously fast), and fighting for her family. If you’re wanting a snake lady tattoo with a bit of a romantic flair, but still has a strong fighting spirit, you can’t go wrong with her. 

American traditional snake lady head by Matt van Herten
Full bodied snake lady by Dawn Smith
Witchy snake lady head by Tyler Howard

Our fourth and final snake lady is another familiar one to all, though you may not know it. Her name is Mélusine, and while she is often described as a snake lady, she’s also sometimes more like a mermaid, but with two tails. If you’re starting to get an image in your mind, you might think of one of the most well-known coffee logos in the world. Starbucks uses the effigy of Mélusine on their cups, a smiling two tailed mermaid, or snake lady. In some myths she is described as a witch, but in many she’s more of a fairy. Mélusine was a French mythological creature coming out of the late 1300’s in France. She is the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and King Elynas of Albany. 

Mélusine done at La Rose de Jericho
Mélusine by Mel Mauthe
Mélusine by Pcla Ink

Now Mélusine was perfectly normal in appearance, despite being part fairy, except on Saturday’s. On these days she unwillingly transformed into, you guessed it, a snake lady, usually described with the two tails and a bit more fishy than strictly serpentine. One day Mélusine met a young man named Raymond in the forest nearby. As most fairytales go, they were married extremely quickly, in this instance, by morning. But Mélusine had one condition, Raymond was not to see her on Saturdays. The couple had many children, but each child was born with a different deformity, including mismatched eye colours, an ear larger than the other, only one eye, and even a son who was born with a lion’s foot growing out of his cheek and another with a great tooth. This was of course because of her fairy blood, but Raymond didn’t know that. One day Raymond’s brother visited, and made him suspicious of his wife’s lonely Saturday’s. So of course Raymond betrayed his wife’s trust and spied on her the next Saturday, and though he was horrified at seeing her in the bath with her two serpentine tails, he didn’t say anything. Until their one son with the great tooth attacked a monastery seemingly unprovoked, and killed one hundred monks. Raymond then accused Mélusine of passing on her serpentine blood to their children, and of course alerting her to the fact that he had betrayed her trust. So distraught, Mélusine turns into a 15 foot snake, circles the castle three times, wailing loudly, before flying away. She continued to visit her children, but only at night. 

Snake lady head done by Mark Cosgrove
Traditional snake lady head done by Capilli Tupou
Huge neo traditional stomach snake lady done by Timmy Howe

This story has something for everyone, as Mélusine is also a romantic, but her child is also a murderer, and she’s still a giant snake lady.  As a snake lady tattoo, we can see she often looks more like a mermaid then a snake, but 3/4 of these stories feature water as a common theme, so that’s not too surprising. Mélusine also makes a great snake lady tattoo if you’re a fan of Starbucks, but you don’t want that classic “death before decaf” piece! She’s a bit more subtle than that, and only true Starbucks fans (and anyone who reads this) will know who she is. 

American traditional snake lady head done by Frank Ball Jr
Black and grey realism meets red neo traditional snake lady by Jared Bent
Colourful neo traditional snake lady done by Jamie Santos

While these snake ladies might seem like monsters, they’re really just women wronged by men, and stories of feminist power. So guys, don’t be assholes! And when in doubt, get yourself a snake lady tattoo. They look badass, and they might just protect you from unwanted advances if they’re scary enough. 

American traditional snake lady head done by Brad Andrew Snow
Neo traditional snake lady head done by Jason Reed Brownless
Snake lady back piece by Devx Ruiz
Black work snake lady done by Giulia Luconi
Realistic full sleeve of a snake lady with her pet done by Tophe Tattoo
Subdued colours in this neo traditional snake lady head done by Javier Franco

Which snake woman is your favourite?

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Medusa Tattoos:

According to Greek mythology, Medusa was born a beautiful woman, one of three sisters known as the Gorgons. When she was still human she was a priestess to the goddess Athena. Being a priestess she was sworn to celibacy.

Aaron Breeze
Dark American trad Medusa head done by Aaron Breeze at Life & Death Tattoos Shrewsbury, England.
Gara Happy Lighthouse Seoul Korea
Heavy blackwork Medusa head as a statue done by Gara at Happy Lighthouse Tattoo in Seoul, South Korea.
Lynn Akura Illustrator, tattooing since 1999. Tiger Bones, Brighton UK
Black and red traditional Medusa head done by Lynn Akura at Tiger Bones, Brighton UK.
Zhuo Dan TING Owner-Tattoo artist at Shanghai Tattoo
Full hyper realistic black and grey backpiece done by Zhuo Dan Ting at Shanghai Tattoo in Shanghai, China.

So how did a beautiful maiden turn into the monster we’re all familiar with? Medusa was really a victim, and turning into a monster was not at all her fault, but the god of the sea, Poseidons. Poseidon met Medusa and was immediately infatuated. He tried over and over again to seduce Medusa, who refused each time. Finally Medusa sought refuge in Athena’s temple to get away from Poseidon. Poseidon didn’t care and went after her, following her into the temple of Athena, where he forced himself on her against her will.

Abel Sanchez
Neo trad Medusa head and rose done by Abel Sanchez at Red Dagger Tattoo in Texas.
Dave Lao Winnipeg,Manitoba,Canada Lone Wolf Studios
Realistic black and grey Medusa done by Dave Lao at Lone Wolf Studios in Winnipeg, Canada.
Kike Esteras
Black and yellow Medusa piece by Kike Esteras at Black Ship in Barcelona.
Shio Zaragoza
Neo trad Medusa head done by Shio Zaragoza at Blessed Tattoo in Spain.

To punish Medusa for having relations inside her temple, Athena turned Medusa into a monster. A woman with snakes for hair that could turn any who looked upon her directly into stone. Seeing herself as a hideous monster, Medusa fled, shunned by all, wandering alone. In her despair her character turned into the monster of her outward appearance.

Alexander Grim
Blackwork decapitated Medusa head done by Alexander Grim.
helena darling halifax Nova Scotia
More elegant looking Medusa by Helena Darling in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Matias Noble in Valencia, Spain
Hyper realistic Medusa piece done by Matias Noble in Valencia, Spain.
Teresa Sharpe
Neo trad Medusa head and Perseus’ sword done by Teresa Sharpe at Unkindness Art in Richmond VA.

Many warriors tried unsuccessfully to slay Medusa, but all were turned to stone, and her reputation grew with each kill. Until Perseus was sent to collect her head and bring it to the king Polydectes. Perseus was given quite a bit of help to complete this task, which the other warriors did not have. He was given a sword smithed by the god Hephaestus, Hades’ helmet of invisibility, winged sandals from Hermes, and a mirrored shield from Athena.

Anderson Luna
Realistic black and grey Medusa on the back of the head done by Anderson Luna in New York.
Jake Danielson from Melbourne, Australia
Large neo trad thigh piece done by Jake Danielson from Melbourne, Australia.
Nik The Rookie
Very bright neo trad Medusa head done by Nik The Rookie.

Perseus was able to slay Medusa by looking at her reflection in the mirrored shield so he could see her coming and not be turned to stone. He decapitated her, and in doing so freed her from Athena’s curse.

Daniel Teixeira
Linework Medusa head done by Daniel Teixeira.
Karlos Lloyd
Dark neo trad piece done by Karlos Lloyd in Australia.
Oash Rodriguez
Heavy black and good use of negative space in this piece by Oash Rodriguez.

As a tattoo Medusa is often done in black and grey, neo traditional, realism, blackwork, and American traditional. She is most often tattooed as just her head, either visibly decapitated or portrait style.

Heath Clifford
Lots of red in this neo trad piece by Heath Clifford at Throne Room Tattoo in New Zealand.
Kati Berlinkey
Black and yellow neo trad piece done by Katie Berlinkey.
Rodrigo Kalaka
Lots of green in this neo trad piece by Rodrigo Kalaka in Barcelona.

Who is your favourite mythological Greek character?

Winnipeg Artist 8: Dave Lao

Dave Lao is a black and grey artist working out of his private studio, Lone Wolf Studios in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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Dark religious piece.
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Realistic Greek god/monster back piece.
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Crazy surf tattoo with shark.
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Centaur and flowers.
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Game of Thrones’ Daenerys.

Dave works in realism and sketch work styles. Much of his work is portraiture, such as characters from shows and movies, and lots of animals.

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Roman statue styled piece.
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Eyeball with a space theme.
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Beautiful elephant back piece.
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Angry polar bear.
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Virgin Mary portrait.

Dave has an impeccable attention to detail; with every line counting.

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Terrifying grim reaper.
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Greek/Roman surreal piece.
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Greek god Atlas.
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Portrait/ sketch work style lion.
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Surreal woman portrait and nature themed piece.

Most of his portfolio is made up of somewhat larger pieces, but he will also do smaller tattoos which are just as impressive.

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Nautical themed hand.
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Canadian army memorial piece.
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Realistic king piece.
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Small photo realistic swiss army knife.
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Gas mask and chopper.

Dave is a must see artist for black and grey work in Winnipeg.

Anubis Tattoos:

Anubis is the ancient Egyptian god/guardian of the dead. The name Anubis actually comes from the Greek, but the earliest Egyptian names for him include Anpu, or Inpu. Both have the same root word which means “royal child”, and “inp” which means “to decay”.

Anubis Agny Fran at Black Velvet Studio Salon in De Santiago, Chile
Watercolor Anubis done by Agny Fran at Black Velvet Studio in De Santiago, Chile.

He is generally depicted as a black, jackal-dog-man hybrid, with the body of a man and head of a jackal/dog. The colour black was chosen for its symbolism of both decaying bodies, and the soil along the Nile river.

Anubis Andrew Conner
More American traditional version of Anubis by Andrew Conner.

Anubis is first seen as the son of Ra and Hesat, before he is brought into the story of Osiris, and said to be his son.

Anubis Bryan Hidalgo Reyes
Black and grey full bodied Anubis by Bryan Hidalgo Reyes.

Anubis is the earliest god depicted on tomb walls, usually presiding over the mummification process, or weighing of the soul. This is the process in which a persons soul is weighed against the feather of truth.

Anubis Codrea Bogdan
Brilliant black and grey Anubis and Ra by Codrea Bogdan.

Anubis is both judge and guide of the dead. Making him an authoritative figure, as well as a protector. This makes him one of the most important gods in Egyptian history.

Anubis Dany Linhares in Brazil
Neo traditional Anubis by Dany Linhares in Brazil.

Later in history he was partially adopted into Greek mythology, associating him with Hermes.

Anubis Dono B in Seoul, South Korea
Blackwork skeletal Anubis by Dono B in Seoul, South Korea.

As a tattoo, Anubis is often done in blackwork, black and grey, neo traditional, water colour, and realism styles.

Anubis Fatima Oliveira
Neo traditional Anubis by Fatima Oliveira.
Anubis Heather Bailey at Black Heart in San Francisco, CA
Heavy matching black/dark colour Anubis and Bastet by Heather Bailey at Black Heart in San Francisco, CA.
Anubis Mario Farfán Calderón ar
Black/dotwork Anubis head by Mario Farfán Calderón at Blackmoon Custom Tattoo in Mexico.
Anubis Melissa Flattinger Corpsepainter Tattoo and Piercing in Munich, Germany
Realistic black and grey Anubis by Melissa Flattinger at Corpsepainter Tattoo and Piercing in Munich, Germany.
Anubis Meza Cruz in Mexico
Realistic black and grey Anubis head by Meza Cruz in Mexico.
Anubis Miss Poppy in the Netherlands
Neo traditional Anubis head and scarab beetle by Miss Poppy in the Netherlands.
Anubis Ráa Fernandes in Tokyo Japan
Black and grey sketchwork Anubis head by Ráa Fernandes in Tokyo, Japan.
Anubis Shawn Qin Cat Town Tattoo South Korea
American traditional Anubis by Shawn Qin at Cat Town Tattoo in South Korea.
Anubis Yeray Perez in Sitges, Barcelona
Brilliant neo traditional Anubis by Yeray Perez in Sitges, Barcelona.

Which is your favorite?

Monkey King Tattoo

The Monkey King is a Chinese story based on a real monk who walked on foot from China to what is now India to recover the true Buddhist holy books. When he returned to China he translated the Sutras into Chinese, contributing to the development of Buddhism in China.

monkey king James Acrow
Monkey King full sleeve by James Acrow at Slow Down tattoo in Vancouver.

Monkey king is the story of this monk, mixed with Chinese legends, fairy tales, supernatural stories, and popular beliefs. Monkey King is a rebellious being, born out of rock that was fertilized by the grace of Heaven and Earth. He is very intelligent and has magical powers learned from a Taoist master. He can transform himself into different beings such as trees, birds, beasts, and insects. He can travel by riding on a cloud, and can shrink or grow by using a metal rod he steals from the Dragon King after fighting him in the ocean. The Monkey King is a mischievous character who fights many battles, travels to heaven, and comes back to earth. He is trapped under a mountain for 500 years, and after being freed, must travel with the monk to ensure his safety on his journey West to the Sutras, accompanied by a pig, a sea monster, and a horse.

monkey king Adam Sky Rose Gold's Tattoo, San Francisco
Monkey King Sleeve by Adam Sky at Rose Gold’s Tattoo in San Francisco. 
chronic ink 4
Amazing black and grey back piece done at Chronic Ink tattoo.
chronic ink 3
Realistic Monkey King done at Chronic Ink tattoo.
chronic ink 2
Incredibly detailed sleeve done at Chronic Ink tattoo.
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Half sleeve Monkey king done at Chronic Ink tattoo.
chronic ink
Half sleeve Monkey king done at Chronic Ink tattoo.

There are various versions of the Monkey King story, and all are very interesting and amusing.