The Plumed Serpent: Art and Tattoo

Ever since I was aware that they once existed, I’ve felt drawn to the imagery of the lost Aztec and Mayan civilisations. The angular lines of their buildings, the incorporation of the animalistic,  the feeling of both the civilized and the savage meeting in one. It reflects so much of their cultures, especially the Aztecs with their beautiful cities and need to please their gods through human sacrifice. In the 1920’s, the West would come to the Aztecs for inspiration both in art and design, influencing the Art Deco movement in the same way that Egyptian imagery did.  Although the Mesoamerican civilizations were all but destroyed at the hands of the invading Spanish, somehow they seem to survive not just in their native lands but in the culture of the Europe that plundered them. It seems to me that they exist almost outside of time – no wonder their influence can be felt in so much science fiction.

Below is an Aztec-influenced digital piece I created using a Samsung compact camera, PowerPoint and Paint. The starting point was a photograph of stone tiles outside Bridgewater Place in Leeds. The title is Beneath the City, the Plumed Serpent Sleeps.

Beneath the City, the Serpent Sleeps

The inspiration was the god Quetzalcoatl, a name which meant the Plumed Serpent. He appears in the beliefs of several civilizations of the region. To the Aztecs, he was a creator god with a hand in the birth of mankind. He had links to culture and to clear thinking. It’s has been suggested that the Aztecs mistook Cortez, the leader of the invading Spanish Conquistadors, as Quetzalcoatl returning to them. In the 1920’s, DH Lawrence explored some of these Aztec legends in his dense and hard to love novel The Plumed Serpent, but his aims seem to have been more to espouse his own proto-fascist beliefs of the time and I found it very hard to get past these to the mythical elements.

In this piece, I was imagining an abstract representation of the serpent god sleeping beneath a modern city and perhaps stirring when he is disturbed.

As Aztec and Mayan imagery appeals to me so much, a few years ago I decided to have a tattoo of an Aztec symbol. I copied by hand a detail from a photo of temple relief to Quetzalcoatl and had this tattooed on to my arm. A further appeal of doing this was my love of reptiles. I liked the idea of a tattoo with a reptilian element without it being representational. I have many tattoos, but all of them are abstracted images.


I had a curious experience with this tattoo. At the time I was going through a very difficult period in my life having made some bad career and relationship choices and my thoughts felt very jumbled. While the tattoo design felt beautiful, yet at the same time I struggled to connect with its presence on my body. It was only a year later, when my mind was more settled that I suddenly and powerfully connected with it. Perhaps there is something in Quetzalcoatl being the god of clear thinking after all.

Below is an image I created as a semi-sequel to Beneath the City the Plumed Serpent Sleeps. Called Wildflowers, it contrasts the colour of flowers with the grey of man made stone and hints at the structure and repetition inherent in both.


The peoples of Mexico once created buildings of astonishing mathematical precision and technical skill and yet the world of nature was still incorporated in their dress and day to day beliefs. Some of their religious beliefs and practices were terrifying and yet this meeting of civilisation and savagery also makes them fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s