Let’s say you’re walking down a street in Boyle Heights, L.A. You spot a mural depicting a colorful skull and a serpent. Ever wonder what it represents? In the interest of helping eradicate cultural appropriation, here’s a tight list of indigenous symbols you’ll spot in modern life, and a little bit on what they mean. You’ll be wiser in matters of Latin American art, and bonus: you might be saving yourself from an ill-chosen tattoo with the wrong meaning.
You might’ve seen this symbol tattooed on someone’s arm or as part of a store sign. In the Mayan world, the Hunab Ku connects and unifies opposites, such as day-night, internal-external, conscious-unconscious, and creates peace, oneness and balance. A cousin, of sorts, of the Chinese yin-yang.
While this animal carries myths and meanings all over the world, it has a starring role in the Mayan world and features prominently in Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of Kukulcan. Mayas believed that Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, gave life, strength and renovation to the planet. According to legend, the feathered serpent glides down the pyramid on May 20th (the start of the spring equinox), connecting the sky with the earth and bringing the sun’s energy for the upcoming harvest.
The jaguar is the biggest feline in the Americas. For the Mayans, it also represented the kingdom of darkness, night, and a connection to the underworld. With its knowledge of darker secrets, it was also seen as a powerful animal, often associated with rulers and fighters.
The green feathers of the quetzal were of immense value in the Mayan world and often served as currency. The bird itself signifies freedom: The quetzal dies when put in a cage, so it cannot live in captivity.
The original celebration of the dead is an indigenous ritual. Tribes would congregate to celebrate the transitory return of dead relatives to the world of the living. The sugar, paper, and decorative skulls seen today, as part of the Día de los Muertos celebration (which merges indigenous and Christian celebrations), represent the dead. They decorate the altars where food and drinks offerings are laid out.
Maize served as the primary source of nutrition for Mesoamerican tribes. As such, they worshipped Hun Hunahpu, the maize god, a youthful man often depicted with a headdress and hair made of parts of the corn crop. Maize also represents the origin of the Maya people, as narrated in the Popol Vuh story, in which the gods create people from corn.
While there are multiple representations and important differences between the Aztec, Maya and Inca calendars, this symbol is the one most people recognize. It’s the sun stone, depicting five eras of the world and the Sun God Tonatiuh in the middle, sporting a sacrificial knife as a tongue. This calendar disk can be found in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
To uncover more history behind Latin American symbols and their representation in art, hit up Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA’s exhibits from September 2017 through January 2018.
Astrid Harders is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.