Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Art of Punk: Skulls & Stuff

Skulls and stuff… I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for quite a while now, but it keeps getting put off. I’m continuously coming across more and more examples and want to gather as many as possible before I set the post in stone, so to speak. But enough is enough because skulls, skeletons and all kinds of macabre imagery go hand in hand with punk rock and they always will. Plus, I have a growing Pinterest board of relevant images that will continue to grow regardless of this post being published now – do check it out!

Why exactly do punk bands adorn their album covers, t-shirt designs, posters and such with skulls and skeletons? I can’t really give a definitive answer – I don’t even know why I love such imagery so much myself, I always have done (I have a skull shaped mug on my desk at work that serves as my pen pot). However, I can at least try to consider a few ideas and share some examples. I’ve published a couple of posts already in the Art of Punk series that heavily use a theme of skulls – Dan Allen and Brunofsky – so I will refrain from repeating myself with those.


As we all know, punk evolved from an anarchistic movement in the 1970s, going against what was perceived as ‘normal’. In some ways punk rock still has this element to it but really it is so much more than that – ie. not all songs are about ‘sticking it to the man’. In visual terms, using images that would most commonly be used to represent poison, death and mortality goes quite against the norm in itself. I know that skulls are not strictly associated with only punk music, they are used within all kinds of alternative music genres, but they do seem to be frequent occurrence in many sub-genres of punk rock. But nor are skulls solely a symbol for death, they also bring to mind Hamlet, pirates, horror movies, halloween costumes and the Mexican ‘Día de Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) festival – which is a celebration of lives lost rather than mourning. Why?

I’ve done quite a lot of reading into the symbolism of skulls – as I said, I really do find skulls appealing and I know I’m not the only one. I found this paragraph from Wikipedia quite interesting. Although it doesn’t, of course, relate to punk rock it is still worth considering.

‘A human skull with its large eye sockets displays a degree of neoteny, which humans often find visually appealing – yet a skull is also obviously dead. As such, human skulls often have a greater visual appeal than the other bones of the human skeleton, and can fascinate even as they repel. Our present society predominantly associates skulls with death and evil. However, to some ancient societies it is believed to have had the opposite association, where objects like crystal skulls represent "life": the honouring of humanity in the flesh and the embodiment of consciousness.’

And so, onto the punk… I can’t talk about skulls in punk rock without first of all discussing The Misfits and one of the most, if not the most, famous skull images. The Misfits’s skull first appeared on the cover of their 1978 single ‘Horror Business’ and was inspired by (some say completely stolen from) a poster for 1946 horror film, ‘The Crimson Ghost’. It was from that point on that the skeleton figure became a mascot for the band and the standalone skull logo became an iconic symbol as well. And what better visual representation for a band so influenced by horror than a skull! The skull and a variety of skeletal figures feature throughout hundreds of Misfits posters both old and new.


Social Distortion are another band that use this theme for their logo – this time with a whole skeleton rather than a skull. But the logo is more than just a typical skeleton… it’s a dancing skeleton wearing a hat and holding a cigarette in one hand an a martini glass in the other. Yeah, it sounds a little odd (and more than a little awesome) but the band have used it consistently since its creation in 1983. The skeleton – either as a standalone logo or incorporated into an illustration – is often used as the stage backdrop at shows. He also seems to find his way onto posters and T-shirts. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2011, Mike Ness, singer and guitarist, explained where the skeleton came from: That I found – it was an invitation to a New Year's Eve party that my friend had designed. At the time, I saw that, and it just felt like, "That's it right there. It's life and death, it's celebration." It just felt powerful.’


The skull and cross bone symbol, in particular, is of course synonymous with pirates and piracy. Therefore it is no surprise to me that bands such as The Dreadnoughts – with a very much piratey/shanty folk punk sound – choose to use it. Bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, who play a similar form of folk punk, although perhaps a little less shanty-like, also use a lot of skulls and skeletons. Though not strictly logos for any of these bands, that doesn’t stop them from featuring heavily in posters and T-shirt designs. Teenage Bottlerocket are another band that use the skull and cross bones. In fact it is their logo and it is used for every album cover design – but with the background colour and logo colour varied.


Elsewhere in punk rock, Alkaline Trio are known for their almost-cute simplified skull and heart logo. The logo is teamed with macabre imagery such as coffins and blood (think Tim Burton), which along with the band’s poetic lyricism has earned the band as much of a goth and emo following as punk – much like the Misfits before them really! Perhaps a more recent band that is embracing similar themes is Creeper. Their purple grim reaper logo is already pretty well known – note how it also appears in a heart, like Alkaline Trio.

But skulls and skeletons aren’t used exclusively as logos, they frequent album artwork, posters and T-shirts of hundreds of bands and festivals. A recent favourite of mine is the album cover for Will Tun & The Wasters’s The Anachronist’s Cookbook (Colin’s number one album of 2015!). The three skeletons on the cover – one being some kind of dinosaur or perhaps a crocodile – are having a great time playing their instruments and moving to the music. It was whilst researching for this blog post that I came across something called ‘Danse Macabre’ or dance of the death. The term comes from medieval times and is a metaphor about the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all’. It sounds dark but there are some great illustrations not unlike the Will Tun album cover.

What do you think? Am I dark and twisted or do you love skulls and skeletons too?

NOTE: I really wanted to call this blog post ‘Skulls & Shit’ as it has a better ring to it but I try to avoid using such language on the Internet unless it’s absolutely necessary – like talking about Shit Present. Also, Colin isn’t so keen on ‘foul language’!