All my early childhood was marked by fear of the devil. It was taught to me to keep me from sin. To help me repel the night attacks of Beelzebub, my parents had hung a crucifix and some dry branches of blessed boxwood above my bed. A medal of the virgin brought back from Lourdes hung around my neck by a chain was the last bulwark against Satan. The good fathers in church had shown me many times what the fallen angel looked like: his goat feet, his forked feet, his horns. The dread of hell mingled with the terror of death, the moment of the journey with no return to damnation, perhaps. Associated with these fears, the skulls, the skeletons, the darkness, exerted on me fascination and terror.
Today, this skull that I dared not draw as a child is (almost) everywhere. Painted on the walls, woven in the most precious fabrics, reproduced on tee-shirts, bandanas, mugs, wallpapers, jewelry, shoes, in the ready-to-wear of prestigious brands such as Dior, Alexander McQueen, Diesel, Philip Plein. Hence my astonishment and my question: how to explain the passage of the most obvious symbol of death into a decorative motif?
The skull of street art and fashion objects have followed, at least in part, the same evolution, what unites them, what separates them is rich in lessons about the cultural currents that cross the social field.
Let's quickly go over the obvious: our society has become de-Christianized and the cultural referents that were closely linked to religious practice have undergone a slow but inexorable erosion. So that the sheep would not stray into the bitter pastures of sin, the fear of eternal damnation was a powerful lever. The use of images was then imposed, not without debate, controversy and schism. An iconography commissioned by the Church gave an image of the devil, the demons, the torments of hell, and, in opposition, of God, Jesus, the Virgin, the apostles, the saints, and paradise.
Around death a symbolic apparatus was built up piece by piece over the ages. It was decided that black would be the color of mourning, that the skull, sometimes completed by two crossed shins, would represent death as well as the skeleton, the coffin, the grave. For good measure, animals, ravens, vultures, owls, bats, black cats, etc., clocks, clenched hands, black horses, butterflies, torches, lyres, broken columns, dead branches, hourglasses, gnomons were associated with it. Even death was personified in the guise of a reaper.
In short, what inspires repulsion, which has to do with death, with the dark, with the passing of time.
These symbols have passed through time and remain more or less "active" depending on the society and are often combined with other pagan symbols or symbols inherited from other religions.
Our decorative skull come from its religious origin. In passing, it was recovered to frighten and provoke, which explains its use by young people of the rock and roll generation, already largely dechristianized and wanting to exist to provoke the wrath of the elders.
Topped with the wings of an angel, the skull became the symbol of Hell's angels. The desire to frighten, the taste for limits, the desire to shock the bourgeoisie, images of force and violence were all mixed together.
The punk movement went, in my opinion, further into provocation. The "No future" has to do with death; it will take over the skull and crossbones that condenses the idea of nothingness and nihilism.
The "Gothic", to the symbolism of death, adds some artifices of Satanism, reconfigured by the horror films of the period; films by John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Robert Wise etc. The complexion is pale, Khôl's ringed eyes like those of the living dead, the black clothes like those of morticians, the chains are those of ghosts. An aesthetics that evokes and mixes religious and pagan symbols. A heterogeneous mixture to express its difference and create a group of young people sharing the same desire for provocation.
To the decrease of these movements (rock and roll, punk, gothic) corresponds a gradual weakening of the symbolic meaning of the skull. To such a point, that its drawing becomes an elegant and very light provocation when it is declined in handbag or silk square. The skull then loses a large part of its relationship to death and keeps only its "antisocial" side. It becomes a decorative, offbeat "motif", playing on the ambiguity between the formal beauty of its representation and the always slightly subterranean and provocative meaning of a figure of death.
Graffiti and street art are not independent of cultural and social movements and their images. I would say, to make a long story short, that the skull fulfills three functions: it is in line with the Vanities, it symbolizes death keeping its full meaning, and it represents a virtuoso exercise that testifies to the technical mastery of the painter.
In the first sense, the skull is a variant of the Vanities of past centuries. Except that a proposition is forgotten. The function of the Vanity was to remind Christians that they are mortal and that they must therefore prepare themselves for the final journey. For, in the Christian religion, paradise is earned. On Judgment Day, the souls of the dead will be weighed. Beware of hell! Paradise is the reward for a life of piety. In between, purgatory, a kind of waiting room, was invented. The skulls of the street artists presented as Vanities, reminding us that we are mortal, invite us to enjoy life. A variant of the old "carpe diem". The meaning of the Vanités has faded and the artists have only retained the beauty of a still life (in this case, a very dead one), a touch of provocation, and an optimistic message that is very much in the spirit of the times. Life is short so let's enjoy it without hindrance! A way to make something new out of something old!
However, for other street artists, the significance of the skull remains. It speaks of death and its violence. This is why many forms of violence will be associated with skulls. The violence of a deeply and increasingly unequal society reinforced by the class contempt of the powerful, the terrible violence of the torments and crimes against women, the violence of discrimination of all kinds, the violence caused by the assumed abandonment of migrants to their fate etc.. The skull is no longer a discourse on death but a discourse on violence in all its forms, because death is the supreme violence.
More interesting because, as it does not belong to the same category of ideas, skull is, at least for some artists, what the masterpiece was to the companions. It is true that the exercise is very difficult. For the artist, it is a question of creating his skull that will stand out from all the other skulls. As the repertoire of skull shapes is limited, a skull cap, a jaw, empty sockets, nasal cavities, variations are, by definition, limited too. The importance of the constraints resembles that of Oulipo; one imposes on oneself the representation of an object known to all and the challenge is to create what does not yet exist.
Symbols do not have an anthropological existence; those who try to make people believe this are crooks. The meaning of symbols crosses time by "loading" itself with different meanings. Hence the need not to isolate the symbol from the society that gives it, or gives it life again.
The skull and crossbones are only one example of the metamorphosis of a symbol. A symbol that, over time, is enriched with layers left as sediment by the cultural movements of our society.