Skulls have been part of motorcycle culture for almost as long as there have been bikers. The image of a skull is synonymous with the dangerous and rebellious history that the motorcycle and riders alike share. It is a powerful symbol instantly recognizable, and skull motorcycle helmets are designed for riders to carry that symbol for a wide range of reasons:
To give caution to others as recognition of danger.
In celebration of the dead.
To symbolize the spiritual belief of life after death.
As an emblem of change.
For good luck.
As a symbol of vanity.
As a macho or toughness symbol.
As a symbol of free-spirit, rebellion and nonconformity.
The temporal lobe in the human brain is designed to recognize faces and face like shapes. Seeing a skull design with prominent eyes, nose and mouth regardless of the artistry style will almost always be instantly recognized as a skull.
This makes the skull a powerful tool for illustrators and marketers wanting to make a bold statement with a symbol.
To give caution to others as recognition of danger
Anyone who has seen a skull or skull and crossbones will automatically associate those images with fear and caution. Toxic chemicals or poisons have long worn the emblem of a skull to warn users of a risk to their health. Pirates flew flags with skulls on proudly to put fear into approaching ships of the impending danger. And the Nazi SS used a skull image on the uniforms worn by guards in their concentration camps.
Skulls are still commonly seen today on toxic materials, images of haunted houses and horror books along with any image to create a sense of fear.
In celebration of the dead
Every year Mexico holds a Day of the Dead celebration over October 31st- November 2nd in memory of family and friends who have died. Traditions include building altars and paying tribute to the deceased by making sugar skulls. The sugar skulls are crafted out of clay molded sugar, the name of the deceased written on the forehead and placed on their gravestones.
Flowers also pay a large part of the Day of the Dead celebrations, marigolds in particular. Marigolds are known as the flower of the dead. It is long believed in Mexican lore that the scent of the flowers helps returning souls feel happy and welcomed. Skull and flowers are both used in designs made for ‘Dia de los Muertos’ to symbolizing overcoming the fear of death, and to celebrate life.
To symbolize the spiritual belief of life after death
Spiritual beliefs have been wide spread of hundreds of years that there is a life after death. During medieval Europe cemeteries would run out of room to bury all of the dead. So, people were buried for seven years before their remains were dug up and the bones placed in an ossuary. Today some of the crypts holding skulls and bones across Europe are tourist attractions.
In early Mexico the Aztecs were known to make human sacrifices, these were done as offerings to the gods believed to be necessary to ensure the sun would rise each day. Relics were made out of the remains, then the bones were bleached and put on display. The Aztecs believed that life on earth was some sort of illusion and death was a progression to higher consciousness. From this we can take the skulls used by Aztecs as positive symbols, reflecting rebirth after death.
As an emblem of change.
The best known example of a skull being used as an emblem of change is in the Tarot deck, the 13th trump card.
Tarot readers interpret this card as meaning the end of a cycle, transition into a new state, psychological transformation, regeneration, good-byes and a deep change to name just a few.
For good luck
Throughout centuries skulls have often been used to ward off the presence of evil spirits and illness. The skull is the longest lasting bone, most resistant to decay and philosophically it is seen as representing strength, intelligence and human life.
As a symbol of vanity
In a 1892 illustration, Charles Allan Gilbert drew a picture with a double image. It showed both a woman admiring herself in a mirror, yet when viewed from a distance it appears to just be a large skull. His drawing was titled ‘All is Vanity’ and is probably the best known example of vanity being entangled with a skull. Vanitas art flourished in the early 17th century across the Netherlands, defined as a genre of still-life painting that contains collections of symbolic objects depicting death and vanity. In Latin the word means ‘vanity’ and relates to the meaninglessness of earthly life when loosely translated. The bible is often quoted with this term, Ecclesiastes 1:2 states that ‘Vanity of vanities’.
Vanitas sculptures were becoming more common in the medieval period of funerary art. They were becoming extremely morbid and explicit by the 15th century and reflected an increasing obsession with death and decay. Memento mori – an artistic reminder of the inevitability of death, and Ars moriendi – text detailing the art of dying, both became seen more frequently. Paintings in the vanitas style were reminders of the transience of life and the certainly of death.
Other commonly used vanitas objects along with skulls were; rotten fruit – to symbolize decay, bubbles – to symbolize how fragile life is and the sudden action of death, smoke, hourglasses and watches – to symbolize how short life is, and musical instruments – to symbolize the short and ephemeral nature of life. Butterflies, fruit and flowers can all be interpreted in a similar way, as can a peeled lemon, attractive to look at but bitter to the taste. Without the skull there has always been debate among historians as to how seriously the vanitas theme is in still-life paintings.
As a macho or toughness symbol
As mentioned earlier the skull as a symbol has been used in biker culture for as long as records date back. It also has a history within the military, often said as being an influence from pirate ship flags.
The Hell’s Angels are without doubt the world’s most well known biker gang. However much of the gang’s history is unknown due to a long-standing code of secrecy within the gang itself. It was sometime within the 1940’s and 1950’s that the Hell’s Angels MC was formed in California, US. The logo became easily identifiable and is a ‘death’s head’ copied from the insignia on 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron and 85th Fighter Squadron. The clubs colors are white backgrounds with red lettering. The Hell’s Angles quickly grew in popularity and new divisions sprung up all across the US as well as Europe, Australia, North and South America and New Zealand.
As the notoriety of the Hell’s Angles grew, so did the bad press with repeated run-ins with law enforcement and rival biker gangs. One of the more notorious events happened at a Rolling Stones concert. It is alleged that the Rolling Stones hired some Hell’s Angels members to be bodyguards at their gig in December of 1969 at the Altamont Speedway. Violence broke out in the crowd and one person was stabbed to death after pulling out a pistol.
In Nevada at the Harrah’s casino and hotel another highly publicized incident occurred when Hells’ Angels MC faced off against a rival biker gang called the Mongols MC. As a result two Hell’s Angels members were shot dead and one Mongol MC member was stabbed to death.
Obviously not all bikers who wear helmets or other items of clothing with skulls on are gang members, and in today’s biker culture there is a lot less emphasis on being part of a ‘gang’.
As a symbol of free-spirit, rebellion and nonconformity
The skull has been portrayed as a symbol of free-spirited nature, rebellion and nonconformity across countless heavy metal, punk and alternative album covers. Along with t-shirts and other merchandise in this industry, this transcends over into biker culture as well.
As a fashion statement
With any iconic symbol there is a fashion sweep at sometime. The skull has become increasingly popular in recent years although it can be traced back as far as the 1950’s, if not even earlier.
It’s no longer surprising to see it used on everyday clothes, or watches, wallpaper, and now my favorite….. skull motorcycle helmets.
Some famous examples of skulls being publicly used as decorations include the aptly named Chapel of Skulls in Poland, the Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic and the Paris underground. Dating back to some of the earliest mass killings of war, disease or other reasons the mass remains were put to decorative use. Today skulls are crafted out of materials and displayed in different ways, usually for a more subtle purpose and not to shock.
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This article has covered only some of the historical and modern day interpretations of the skull image. And when tying it in to why people wear skull motorcycle helmets the interpretation is left up to the individual, if indeed there is anything to interrupt. One thing that will never change in our psyche however , is that the skull will always remind us of our own mortality. That life is short and death is inevitable. A skull with a wreath of roses as a crown is referred to as ‘carpe diem’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘seize the day’.
Looking at the skull as a symbol from this point of view encourages us to live life to the fullest, and view the skull as a positive reminder that we are alive.
The Punisher Helmet also resembles the look on the front mask of the skull helmets above.