When I was a boy, skulls were a sign of terror or horror. The Skull and Crossbones flag pointed to pirates that were thieves and villains, not the affable, well-intentioned Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame. Seeing a skull on TV or a movie meant that there was death and fear in the air. Comically shaped, animated skulls in cartoons were kind of funny but still scary. And a skull tattoo generally marked someone who went against the grain of society, and not in good way. Seeing a skull when I was growing up was not intended to be a pleasant or inviting thing. It was something terrible and ugly.
Things have changed greatly since those days. Pirates are fun loving heroes rather than violent villains. Skulls in movies are just as likely to be a sign of the cool, quirky gal next door as they are an indicator that something foul is afoot. Skull tattoos are in, as is art that features skulls. Some organizations still mark themselves with skulls in order to remind others that they are truly a scary bunch, but others simply use them as just another decorative bit of art.
I have to admit that I’ve never been comfortable with skulls. I am very much a product of the times in which I grew up. So seeing the transformation from object of fear to just another kind of decoration has been uncomfortable for me. I don’t get the appeal and probably never will. That’s my personal reality.
I do understand that it’s all a matter of interpretation and what society deems appropriate. The Swastika was originally a Hindu religious symbol of divinity. When it was adopted by the Nazi party, it became a symbol of terror and tyranny in Western society. Its adoption by the Nazis forever tarnished its holy and beautiful origins. So too with the skull. Once a symbol of fear and ugliness, it’s now simply another image suitable for framing in the loveliest home.
When I was a boy, I was taught that a person’s appearance didn’t matter. What mattered was their character. It is an eternal, universal truth that speaks both to how a person looks and to their personal tastes. I’m not a big fan of skulls as a form of art, but I have friends who like them, and they are truly, genuinely wonderful people. Despite our different likes in terms of the decorative arts, we like and care for each other. Character counts more than image in any healthy relationship. I may never understand why they find something beautiful that I think is ugly. They may never understand why I think something they think is beautiful is ugly to me. The wonderful thing about friendship is how it lets us see past any possible ugliness straight through to the beauty within each of us.