Using Skulls in Art

Skulls represent death and are a sharp reminder of our mortality. Nevertheless, they are much more than that, especially in the creative realm. They depict change and transformation while other cultures associate them with strength and even protection. Without a doubt, skulls have various representations, particularly in the art world.

To Celebrate Death

The Day of the Death (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico is a time for families to dress up and celebrate their dead. Sugar Skulls are decorated in bright and vibrant hues and patterns as a means to show respect and commemorate the loved ones that have lost their lives and are placed on and around the gravestones of the deceased.

At first, the skulls were made from moulded sugar (hence, the name) and adorned with icing, beads, and feathers; all in garish colours. This has changed throughout the years and we can see skulls made from almost any material – without ever losing their whimsical decorations. You can identify a skull meant to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos by the cheerful shades, lashings of flowers, and elaborate details around the mouth and eyes.


To Hymn Life After Death

Not everybody believes that life ends with death. Many cultures stand by the idea that death is just the beginning of a new page in one’s existence – a step forward into a higher level of consciousness. Take the Mexican Aztec and Spanish cultures for example. In the Middle Ages skulls were believed to contain all of the energy and power of the human. They were also used to mark the entrance of a graveyard.

Aztecs would make human sacrifices to the gods to ensure that the sun will never abandon them. From their victims they would only keep the skulls, then bleach, paint, and also decorate them with flowers (marigolds in particular) potentially to immortalise the dead in ways not possible in real life.

To Show Change

Even if you are not a massive believer in Tarot cards, it is worth noting that the 13th trump card of the traditional deck is the Skull/Skeleton, which appears as a symbol of transformation or change.

Among the various interpretations of the card, the most common ones are:

  • End of a cycle
  • Psychological transformation
  • Transition into a new state
  • Regeneration
  • Finishing up
  • Conclusion
  • Elimination of old patterns
  • Deep change
Image credit: Tarot Card Project by Rann Poisoncage on Deviant Art

To Signify Vanity

In his painting, Charles Allan Gilbert used the form of a skull to represent human flaws, specifically vanity, in the late 1800s. In this painting, one can see a woman sitting at a dressing table staring at her reflection in the mirror, which is merely something innovative or impressive as an idea.

A closer look, though, will reveal that if the components of the image would come together, one can clearly see the outline of a skull created right in front of their very eyes, which encourages viewers to look much deeper than an individual’s (vain) exterior and quit practising vain ideals.


As a Fashion Statement

Over the years the skull has evolved into a cool emblem that more and more tattoo lovers choose to ink themselves with. Whether painted on tees or tattooed on forearms, the skull has started a trend on its own. What it represents depends on its wearer and the viewer.

From just another decorative feature to a medium on which to create other patterns, we have witnessed the rise of the skull as a fashion statement.

For example, Damien Hirst’s diamante skull – For the Love of God – or the work of artist Georgia O’Keefe, who has decided to paint the skulls of horses and cows she found while crossing the desert to give them a place in the pantheon of the immortals, or even Sasha Vinogradov, who gives an otherwise playful piece a dramatic (and somewhat macabre) undertone with the use of skulls.


Undeniably skulls will continue to hold symbolic status across the corners of the earth. They will continue to tell their own stories and express themselves in art, design, sculpture and history through the eyes of their creators and those that hold them dear.