The majority of the time we do not question what is around us. We do not delve too far into why something is popular or current. It’s not that we are naïve; we just aren’t thinking about it all that much. It is rare that popular culture ever stems from any one person’s divine inspiration. Popularity is cyclic. There is an unseen creative rhythm that beats unknowingly, sucking us in so that nothing is ever a singular idea. We are a melting pot of history, culture, creativity and repetition.
Skulls have been raining down on our own cranium for a long time. The iconic Alexander McQueen scarf and the myriad of knock offs that have followed in its wake. A diamond encrusted skull crafted by the artistic icon, Damien Hirst and the tones of coloured skulls that line the shelves of the Urban Outfitters home ware department and sit with gazing sockets into the rooms of so many. Everybody did not have the brilliant idea to introduce a fleshless face into mundane life at the same time. There was a starting point. A place from where this icon originated. They adorn the flags of pirates’, warn against toxic substances and every actor is expected to have recited Shakespeare while brandishing one. Since McQueen’s debut of the skull design, droves of fashion houses have followed suit, embracing the icon of death as embellishment and expression. No other bone or body part is as widely used for such a variety of purposes.
Neither the mind nor the spirit is physical entities, they have no home nor yet they belong in the head, encased by a cage of skull. Metaphorically speaking there is little difference between our minds and our brains. It is our head that defines us, and our individuality. The artistic craze of the skull stems from it being the defining essence of our being as opposed to merely being an aesthetically interesting design.
As well as this somewhat emotional aspect, both history and culture are pulling points and something that we as humans pin ourselves to, deriving inspiration and meaning for creative endeavors. The fad of skulls can be time lined, to focus on the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. The sugar skull is an intensely coloured and uniquely decorated skull made from sugar, icing and bright materials. It is one of the most recognized traditions associated with the Day of The Dead. The festival centres on the theme of death and the transience of life and is thought to have evolved from the Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuati, goddess of the underworld and queen of the afterlife. Unlike the Western custom of Halloween, it has less to do with the haunted and possessed and more with celebrating the lives of loved ones who have passed. Family members invite spirits of the dead back into their homes where purpose built altars are decorated in bright and vivacious colours on which sugar skulls are placed. Cultural traditions have a tendency to float from one place to another and although the festival has remained all but firmly rooted in Central and Southern America; the aesthetic element certainly began to weave its way up North.
The skulls are integral parts of the Mexican mural which Northern America began drawing influence from around the 1920’s and 30’s. Before they exploded into the pop cultural phenomenon we now know them to be, skulls were part of a more serious artistic movement and were often seen in religious works. They represented death, sickness and seem to scream Memento Mori or Remember Your Mortality. A message that advised humbleness and warned that today’s victory is often a predecessor to tomorrow’s tumble. They were symbolic warnings as opposed to divine embellishment. But then Andy Warhol arrived. Known for his exuberant expression, tendency toward extracting alternate meaning and shaking up of anything defined, his 1976 piece, Skulls, literally turned skulls on their head. Here was something that had previously represented modesty and now it was duplicated in a rainbow of modernity and change against a glamorous and bohemian backdrop.
Damien Hirst pushed the boat out further with For The Love of God, decorating at a platinum skull in 8,601 diamonds at a total cost of £23.6 million. Hirst’s artwork has a tendency to focus on death and the fragile interpretation of life but his skull is far from a mirror image of the respective tone that those before Warhol had engaged in. We no longer fear death nor offer it the respect it was previously shown. We embrace it, pull it close, treat it exactly the same as any other topic. The word taboo is becoming extinct and we are not scared to explore death, massaging the malleable fibres of its meaning. This is not sneering in the face of death; this is a celebration of life as opposed to a fear of judgment and where we may end up.
Now, the boardwalk of Venice Beach is lined with street vendors selling their own sugar skulls and most street markets have followed suit. These pieces are beautiful and cool. They are of our generation. We shy from humble translation of Memento Mori and instead choose to interpret it as “You only live once”. Be extravagant, be creative, and don’t be afraid of what is on the other side. Let the skull be a symbol of individuality and creativity because at the end of it all, we will all end up the same. The skeletons of monks hang in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, on the floor beside them is written, “What you are, we were. What we are, you will be”.
Words: Hannah Mullen