Skulls, realistic or decorative, are procured for a reason and not just by whim; there’s meaning in the choices! A skull tattoo can be lighthearted and fun or complex and arty or mean and threatening or have any one of hundreds of different meanings or many meanings rolled into one.
People love skulls because they are mysterious, and we all love a mystery.
A skull with wings means mortality with freedom attached. A skull is often chosen to represent secret societies because they generate the camaraderie of facing a scary thing together. A person wears a skull tattoo because it’s a permanent sign that he’s missing someone who’s gone, but in a happier way than the puritanical Christian grieving thing.
Because nothing is more interesting to human beings than human beings, and a skull is representative of us without focusing on a specific person; it is the least specific representation of a human, a human with all its superficial “humanity” stripped off.
It means a trendy kind of rebelliousness. Because its meaning can be fluid and multiple. Because it means spirituality without a lot of conventional organized religion being involved. Because it’s just plainly an interesting shape and texture.
As one website dedicated entirely to skulls in art, fashion, body decoration, and other fanciful forms suggested, skull tattoos are beautiful in part because of their meaning, and their meaning changes with whomever wears – or sees – it. A person might wear a skull tattoo because…
Long ago and right now, one of the images most frequently tattooed on people’s bodies is skulls. Whether they be grinning, smiling, threatening, wrapped in ribbons or words or flowers or flames, skulls seem to be nearly universal in appeal.
The images continue through the Indiana Jones movies. Each of the four films features a skull or skulls in at least one scene. Who can forget the sight of a snake pouring through the eye socket of a skull in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the garland of skulls worn by the evil priest in Temple of Doom? Even 2007’s superhero Ghost Rider appears as a flaming skull when he is acting as the Devil’s bounty hunter, symbol of both death and super-charged life.
The power of skulls to embody and express some of life’s most important questions has not been lost on modern screenwriters, either, starting with 1933’s King Kong, in which the monster that is supposed to represent humankind’s most basic, animal-like instincts (as opposed to modern man’s achievements in, for example, building the Empire State Building) arose from “Skull Island.”
This fascination is certainly still strong. In modern fiction, The Last Unicorn is one of the most popular titles in the fantasy genre. Written by Peter S. Beagle and published in 1968, the story features a talking skull; this skull is not alive but is not really dead, either. He has the answer to how the heroes can escape their prison, but all the skull wants is to remember life and talk about pleasures of the flesh he no longer has!
From’s Shakespeare time to the modern day, people did not lose their fascination with skulls and their symbolism. One of the stranger versions of this fascination is Les Diableries – a series of photographs taken in the 1860s. French publisher Adolph Block printed books of pictures taken of little scenes that were set up using miniature sculpted skeletons and small, grinning skulls in fancy dress clothing and in high-society poses and activities. The scenes were supposed to represent Hell and the corruption of the French court. Today they are rather bizarre testimony to our fascination with skulls and their symbolic meanings.
With all its baggage as symbol and actual artifact, the skull is a tool much beloved by writers.
In “the Scottish play” (theater folks know about the “curse” that is attached to Hamlet, and won’t say the title aloud), the hero, Prince Hamlet, is tossed a skull that has been freshly dug up from the cemetery. The Prince claims to recognize the fellow and proceeds to have conversation with the thing.
It just goes to show, you can’t kill off good art… or bury a symbol with the body!
The use of skulls as subject matter in art continues in today’s wide-open art scene. Techniques, styles, and media change, and today skulls in art range from the beautiful, slightly stylized animal skulls of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings to a glitzy platinum-cast human skull covered with more than 8,600 diamonds by artist Damien Hirst (2007), but the meaning and symbolism have not been diminished by skulls’ long history or it varied applications.
Vanitas paintings are still lifes that also use skulls – and other objects with universally recognized symbolic meanings of passing time, the vanities of youth, etc. such as drooping flowers, hourglasses, watches, or nearly extinguished candles – to convey a message.
Danse Macabre, taking its title from and originally depicting real events enacted at some funerals, show a dance or parade of figures that may all be dead (skeletons) or alternate between the living and the dead, to show the leveling power of death as well as its inevitability for us all.
Paintings in the memento mori (Latin: remember that you must die) school depicted religious figures or events and featured items that show how fleeting – and vain – is earthly life. Saint Jerome, known for his writings about the rewards and punishments that await us, is often shown holding or sitting close to a skull.
During the late Middle Ages of Europe, skulls were such a popular subject that certain styles were assigned “schools” that focused on specific aspects of skull art; these symbols served as a kind of shorthand to convey meaning to the viewer.
In the New World, Aztec and Toltec cultures made use of the skulls of defeated enemies and sacrificed slaves in tzompantli (racks for displaying large numbers of skulls). The Toltec people used carved skulls in jewelry and also in depictions of their gods and goddesses.