They're everywhere, skulls. It's as though Hamlet went walking through the graveyard a year or two ago, stumbled upon that old skull again, picked it up and, instead of pondering his very existence, thought, I should totally appliqué this design onto a hoodie, then add some tricolor pull strings to make it kinda feminine and different.
It's rare for one object to be so trendy in underground art culture and mainstream consumer culture at the same time. Every day, it seems, there's a skull printed or embroidered on a new piece of art or clothing. I've seen skulls on frilly women's underwear, iPod carrying cases, underground punk-rock fliers and '80s-style cool-kid art. When I saw the strangely beautiful cutout cardboard invitations advertising Tetanus: Pretty Nightmares at the Fahrenheit Gallery, I didn't notice at first that the brown cardboard shape was a skull. It just looked pretty, and, trendiness being insidious, I felt excited about whatever show these lovely little items were advertising. Then I actually picked one up. Skull! A skull is an appropriate image to accompany the phrase "pretty nightmares," but I was fed up.
Why is everyone making skulls?
More than one friend suggested that it might be a subconscious post-post-9/11 thing. Right after 9/11, everything was nice and sweet. Who could stomach ugliness or grotesquerie? But maybe now that death in high numbers isn't so much an event as a policy and is compounded by constant news of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and bird flu ... well, maybe even attempts to be cute come out looking morbid.
An interesting theory, but I thought I'd check in with some experts.
First stop: Spool, where proprietor and designer Hadley Johnson, a reformed skull hater, shed some light on the trend. When she opened her shop a few years ago, she brought in limited-edition shirts by area artist Seth Johnson, who silk-screened vomiting skulls onto garments long before that was en vogue. His vomiting skulls were made to be almost anti-fashionable. "The first night, we sold out of them," Hadley Johnson says. "They flew out of here. And I still wasn't into them at all. But I don't think I consciously didn't like skulls until they started being around me in this tiny, 100-square-foot room for seven hours a day, six days a week."
As more designers started incorporating skulls, Johnson swore she'd never wear one. Last spring, though, her feelings changed when clothing designer Marc Jacobs came out with linear drawings of skulls matched together to look like a simple decorative pattern. "I don't know if I'm just weak and don't have any sort of my own style, but whatever," she says. "First, I bought a Seth Johnson vomiting skull T-shirt from my own store. That was a short sleeve. Then I proceeded to buy the long sleeve, too. Same image."
As far as Johnson can tell, watching customers try on and pick out clothing in her store, it's not about the meaning of the skull. People aren't stopping to say, Oh, shit. I'm gonna die. It's strictly a fashion thing.
"A lot of them just want to shock people. When we first got the vomiting-skull T-shirt, we'd get comments all the time. Now it's just another T-shirt. We have skulls on baby clothes, and people buy them all the time. Any kind of person buys them. Moms buy them. Cute little girls buy them, and hardcore punk-rock girls buy them. Hardly anyone says anything."
One skeleton-themed T-shirt at Spool caught my attention. It didn't depict a skull but rather a pair of boney skeleton arms folded in front of the wearer's stomach, holding a bouquet of dead flowers. Written above the image is the phrase A Memento Mori roughly, "A reminder that you're mortal." The cut of the T-shirt is nice it's fitted with a rounded neckline that dips down in the back. Made by a Brooklyn collective called Made For Trouble, the shirt was obviously designed as a commentary on death, a tame one for this design group that, according to Johnson, also sells long-sleeved shirts with slits marked on the wrists, accompanied by text: "Gouge Away."
The "A Memento Mori" shirt has been popular, Johnson says. People have asked what the text means, but they aren't fazed when Johnson tells them she doesn't know. "It's almost like having this Japanese written on a T-shirt that says 'I hate Americans' and thinking it's really beautiful," she says.
Stupid mortals. To be fair, though, acknowledging death is about as foreign to most of us as speaking another language.
My second stop was an unexpected lesson in that language: an outdoor fall ritual and performance where skeletons and bones were part of a simple, primitive reflection on the season. It was GypSee Productions' October 21 Danse Macabre, billed as an "art and curiosity show."
GypSee coordinator Mikal Shapiro had filled the empty lot next to the Telephone Booth Gallery on Troost with haystacks and dotted the space with candle-holding chandeliers and lanterns. Even though people in the crowd knew one another, they didn't necessarily recognize one another in the half-light. That made the atmosphere warm and lively but also introspective and private.
In this setting, the crowd watched a shadow puppet show set to a specially arranged live performance of Camille Saint-Sa´ns' "Danse Macabre." The piece (its title translates as dance of death) is about the figure of death rising in the night and dancing like all get-out, partying in the graveyard and luring humans to join his ranks. When a rooster crows at dawn, they all slink back to their graves.
"I've always been interested in exploring death because it's something that doesn't get talked about," Shapiro says. But witnessing her father's death, she says, gave her purpose. She realized that young people are shielded from death because they're so far removed from old people. That's why, even though there's something goofy about a bunch of adults running around behind a sheet with skeleton puppets, she wanted her Danse Macabre production to be more than just goofiness.
That's where Shapiro's uncanny ability to set the mood came into play. You'd be surprised what candles, live violin music, real bones, a chill in the air and some subtle moonlight will do for a place.
At the entrance and exit to the city lot turned campground, Shapiro set up a few displays. One was a pile of hedge apples topped with an animal skull. The other, in the glow of a chandelier's light, was a skillet holding real dog bones. Shapiro had found the skillet and the dog bones together on a railroad track one day.
Seeing those dog bones at the end of that show was like a quick slap in the face.
In that moment, I recognized the feeling you get only when confronted with the reality of death. It's that feeling of purpose Shapiro described, that sense of wholeness. It's the sound of the music, with its jaunty dance weaving in and out of minor-key wails. It's Shapiro's comment, to me, that moving to Kansas City, where there are seasons (from Arizona, where it's always hot), has made her more respectful of the passage of time, of the need to recognize mile markers so that time won't just slip by, unnoticed.
I wonder what pants the Delia's catalog would recommend for a moment like that.