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The skull. Immortal icon of mortality. Overused, overexposed,
overdone—and yet evergreen, everlasting, ever in play.
As an icon, it will never die, not as long as we are flesh and
bone. We might one day be cyborgs, but the skull as symbol will
morph into something like a drive-in-theater speaker, a metallic
encasement with antenna and a mesh mouth. From primate to hominid
to homo sapiens to… robo skull. The skull will outlive
(clockwise from top left): Victoria's Secret bikini, Threadless
romper, Rehabilitated Dishware plate, and New York Times Book
Review illustration by Patrick Thomas.
Between you and me, literally, the computer monitor is an
exo-skull, more analogous to an insect's exoskeleton: the hardware
houses the software. Welcome. The eyes (iEyes?) are the Windows to
We are not exoskeletal. We will never see our own skulls. And
yet our brains reside within this bone house, like our hearts
inside our ribcages. We are locked inside this room of perception,
never to leave it. We rarely see actual human skulls, but we
constantly confront depictions, from the bedazzled skull on a black
Victoria's Secret bikini to a graphic rendering on the cover of the
New York Times Book Review. Empty-eyed on T-shirts and
skateboards, grinning on black bandannas, flaming on the fuel tanks
of Harleys, the skull is first a warning and then a boast. “Death
comes to all,” it warns. And in reply, the boast: “I dare you.”
Damien Hirst's sculpture “For the Love of God.”
Death is forever. Skulls are forever. Diamonds are forever. And
now, thanks to artist Damien Hirst, $100 million diamond-encrusted
death-skulls are forever. “Death comes to all,” says this
8,000-gemmed visage. “And it's shiny, like irony.”
Death comes to all, like a gift you never need to deserve.
Montezuma gave to Cortes a skull inlaid with turquoise, jet and
seashell: a symbol of death. Cortes, in return, gave death
The symbol depends on the referent—the thing made of bone. And
not just the skull but our ability to perceive it, to interpret it,
to be conscious of what the skull might shake loose in our minds.
The thing we see can't be our own skull: knock knock [dull
thuds]. It has to be another's skull, a dead person's skull, the
empty melon, the cranial carapace: knock knock [cavernous
echo]. We see a symbol of ourselves that asks us to see ourselves.
And so to see a real skull, clung with rot and soil, scraped,
eroded, hair-clumped, to see this room deserted, it's a shock to
the senses, an affront to our existence. No one lives there
anymore. No one ever will.
Dissected vinyl toy by Kaws/Original Fake.
The skull is as common as a penny. It's the designer's coin, so
cheap you half expect to turn it over to find… a smiley face.
I will never see my own skull, but my grandfather wanted me to
imagine it, vividly. His warnings were so penetrating that they
entered my mind when I was first learning to ride a bike and have
resounded, thirty years later, out of my own mouth as I teach my
son to ride a bike: “Be careful you don't crack your skull open.”
Then and now, I see the impact and the aftermath, the descent and
the blood blooming across the sidewalk. In the shade of trees are
the scattered acorns, the broken concrete, the canyon of cracked
We will never see our own skulls. To be so close and yet so far.
To see yourself so alive for so short a time and never to see
yourself dead, which you will be for so much longer. “Hi. It's nice
to meet you.” Blink. “I'm a skull.”
U.S. Marine Corps insignia on a lighter.
This is what makes the skull so potent a symbol. All this,
actually—all the ways we think about life and death, time and
consciousness. On crucifixes, a skull-and-crossbones refers to the
site of the crucifixion, Golgotha or “Place of a Skull.” Skulls for
centuries marked the entrances to Spanish cemeteries. The
Royal Navy vessel to return from the war in Iraq in 2003 flew
the Jolly Roger (the National Royal Navy Museum has examples from
throughout the years). The 17th Lancers of the British Army adopted
the skull-and-crossbones insignia in 1759. The U.S. Marine Corps
reconnaissance battalions use the emblem. We use the symbol for
spiritual reasons and for secular ones, in peacetime and in war.
Pacifists use the skull as warning: death is the cost of
ignoring reality. Warriors use the skull as boast: death
is the cost of ignoring me.
The skull invites meditation on the locus of meditation. Forget
Yorick. Picture a Chuck Jones cartoon. Our flesh is a suit out of
which steps our skeleton. The suit of flesh sags to the floor, a
puddle. But the skeleton somehow… moves. Without muscles, without
flesh, it moves and it lives. Beyond that, it dances; all joints
and angles and negative spaces, it dances a click-clackety jig.
Hahaha. The Day of the Dead. But it's not us, not at all.
And it's not our day.
To see consciousness, to make thinking visible, like the eye
seeing itself see itself: even our abstractions are not this
limber. The skull is the next best thing, a stand-in for the brain,
the precious brain! Too see a skull is to see the absence of the
brain. Quoth the raven: “Never mind.”
“Basketball Player” from the Body Worlds exhibit.
Plastinated corpses: more stand-ins, more substitutes. A nearby
museum features the “Body Worlds” show. Plastic-injected cadavers,
skinless and as stiff-limbed as dolls, are worked into positions of
suspended activity: mid-leap, mid-stride, but verifiably post-life.
Still, this is just the bitter meat of our species. It's not me.
It's someone else, or the paused rerun of a vivisected someone
else. An “it.”
We want to see ourselves stripped to the mechanistic dynamo, the
soul in motion, the mind at work. Our desperate desire drives us to
derivatives, the skull, the overuse of the skull, slapped across
our cultural walls like plastic stars glowing in the dark. We're
inured to them. It's too bright out for the skulls to glow, these
faded blobs drifting farther and farther from the things they
represent. We see skulls and think: poison, danger, pirate, X-ray,
“No Diving,” “Wear a Helmet,” “Mid-life Crisis Ahead.”
Wal-Mart's ill-advised T-shirt design compared to the SS
For more on “skull, decoration,” see socks, panties, umbrellas,
toilet brush. Cf. skull stacks and skull walls: Mayan rituals,
American bison, Native Americans, the Holocaust, Cambodia. See
also: German soldiers simulating oral sex with a skull plucked from
a mass grave near Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006 for a photograph. Also
in 2006, Wal-Mart sells T-shirts with the same skull symbol used by
the 3rd SS Division, a unit of Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS.
You mean symbols have histories?
The skull is an elastic symbol, but it expresses a frustrated
desire: we will never see our own skulls. The impossibility of this
self-knowledge maddens and tempts us. So we flatten our skulls,
misshape them, adorn and prettify them, wrap them in thorns and set
them afire, make them scary, funny, silly, slick, put them
everywhere, on everything, for whatever excuse comes to mind. On
and on, we are doomed to representations, teasing ourselves with
reminders of the limits of our perceptions. We will never see our
own skulls. But we will always want to.
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Video: AIGA Medalists Michael Donovan and Nancye Green
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Section: Inspiration -
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Section: Tools and Resources
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