People have been worshiping skulls for thousands of years, long before the invention of motorcycles. Skulls have been featured in paintings, described in ancient texts, and numerous archaeological excavations prove that tribes often used skulls in rituals. A skull, no doubt, conveys death, mortality, and decay, which can be seen through the image of a skull and crossbones as an indicator of hazardous substances. In addition, a skull denotes a threat. Therefore, pirates and pillagers often put it on their flags and banners.
Today, skulls can frequently be noticed on motorcycles and their riders. Does this mean that they want to plunder cities or summon the god of war? Well, of course, there are many scumbags among motorcycle gangs but in general, bikers do not wish to hurt anyone. They just want to hang out with friends and ride their steel horses. Then why do they keep the sign of death so close if they definitely don’t want to die in the saddle or cause harm to others? It turns out that a skull is not only death and danger. It carries a positive meaning as well. Let's learn why bikers love skull items and what they signify.
Biker Culture and Skulls: the Origin
After the end of World War II, about half a million young recently dismissed military veterinarians returned to the United States. The changes they have seen in society, coupled with memories of the horrors of war, made them, to some extent, renegades and rebels. At the same time, the US Army was getting rid of thousands of Harley Davidson motorcycles involved in the war but now being a burden. Unwanted people and machines have formed a strong symbiosis which we now know as the biker movement. This bond was beneficial for everybody: the riders regained their purpose in life and the American army was not only able to sell motorcycles profitably but also managed to save a lot on therapy for veterans. Bikers even came up with a joke: "You will never see a motorcycle parked near a shrink’s office."
So, a new subculture was born but it still had to develop its own insignia. The military past of the motorcycle clubs’ members has come to the rescue. They began to emblazon their mean machines and riding gears with emblems of their military units. Skulls and all their varieties (crossbones, Death's Head, Jolly Roger) can often be found on the warfare of various land, naval, and aviation military units. Why? It's simple, such an intimidating image was supposed to instill fear in the enemies. Fortunately, skull symbolism harmoniously blended in with bikers who weren’t all that warm and fuzzy themselves.
A huge role in the skull popularization among bikers played movies and television. In the 1950s-70s, countless films about reckless men on motorcycles occupied the screens and, predominantly, bikers were portrayed as bad guys — hooligans, rebels, and criminals who disrespected laws and morals. Typical gears of screen riders were motorcycles, leather jackets, and skull jewelry (as well as skull stickers for motorcycle or outwear patches). Thus, in the public’s mind, the skulls became an integral feature of bikers. So, everyone who wanted to look like bikers enhanced their appearance with skull items. Even famous people pulled off this trend. For instance, Elvis had a biker ring (he was an avid motorcyclist himself) and Keith Richards still rocks his legendary silver skull ring known as Keith Richards ring.
Meanings of the Skull
A skull is a multifaceted symbol and every individual might have his / her own interpretation for it. Along with that, there are a few common meanings that are widely recognized among bikers. These are some popular explanations for the biker skull symbolism:
For many people, skulls and bones mean mortality and, to some extent, they are not mistaken. However, in fact, skulls have the opposite significance, i. e. immortality. Indeed, after death, when the flesh will decompose, the only thing left after us is our skeleton, a silent witness of our life on this Earth. As the symbol of the cycle of life, rebirth, and afterlife, a skull was widespread among the ancient cultures such as the Aztecs and Egyptians. Our ancestors frequently used fragments of skulls and bones to create jewelry and ritual items.
Today, some cultures still celebrate skulls. For example, the famous Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) gave us such a quirky symbol as a sugar skull. In memory of the departed loved ones, Mexicans baked sweets shaped like skulls, smeared them with vibrant icing, and decorated it with curls and flowers - these are the original sugar skulls. With time, these much loved images began to appear on jewelry. Along with that, women started decorating their faces with festive sugar skull makeup.
Thus, wearing a skull became a testimony of the love to passed away relatives and faith in life after death. In addition, a person who accepts a skull into his life through jewelry or clothing wants to state how much he loves life and that rebirth and a new beginning lie ahead of him.
Hardy and Bravery
During the Elizabethan period (1558–1603), Death’s Head rings or items featuring a skull without jaws reflected belonging to the underworld. This significance was taken as the basis by a variety of militant groups such as outlaw motorcycle gangs and gun clubs to develop their own ‘branded’ symbolism. For members of such clubs, skull items are not only a sign of disobedience but also a powerful symbol of courage and resilience of body and spirit. Tough bikers rock such jewelry to show how severe and fearless they are in the face of any danger. Many men flaunt skull rings is a testament of their masculinity, machismo, and indomitable spirit.
No one can escape the fate
A skull is a visual recognition of fate. Riding a motorcycle is a constant risk, regardless of how masterful you are with it. A skull ring on your finger is a reminder that you can’t hide from fate, can’t fool or bribe it. Death and life are tied together and they cannot exist without each other. Everything has its beginning and its end. Sooner or later, death will take every one of us with it and we must remember about it. To some extent, skull jewelry is memento mori, the reminder that we are mortal.
Keep the Death Away
Indeed, we cannot escape death but one can delay its arrival. Riding safely is important but you may need something more powerful than traffic laws abeyance to keep the Grim Reaper away. According to beliefs, skull jewelry is excellent protection against death. Coming to a dying person, it leaves a skull mark. Those who already have this mark are protected from death because it won’t come twice. Thus, bikers show that they are not afraid of death but it is still too early for them to go to other side.
We are equal in the face of death
No matter who you were in this life, rich or poor, a big fish or nobody, for death, we are all the same. Grim Reaper makes us all equal. This overlaps with the ideology of the bikers themselves who accept everyone into their ranks no matter what they do in civilian life. In a motorcycle club, despite the hierarchy, all members are equal and everyone has the right to vote.
Devotion to your brothers
The skull symbolism, especially if it is a part of motorcycle club colors, shows your loyalty to your comrades. Looking at your skull patch or ring, you should always remember that you are a member of the pack and must act according to its laws. In general, it is a symbol of fraternity, team play, and dedication to everything that biker culture personifies.
It is not so important where the skull came from and what it means, the main thing is that it found its place in the hearts of motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world. This much respected symbol can be seen on various parts of bikes, riding gears, tattoos, and everything the hand of a biker can get to. As a kind of stamp, it makes the biker image cohesive and complete. Do not think that biker skulls are monotonous and boring. Riders try to give their skulls individuality – some of them look fierce while others are designed funny and cartoonish. There are even skulls for biker chicks who rock them with roses and hearts.
This does not mean that all bikers love skulls. You are free to wear whatever you like, not what people around you wear. In the biker community, everyone has the right to express their individuality in their own way as long as it does not contradict the biker's code and rules established in a particular club. If you don’t like skulls, there are many other biker symbols such as crosses, totem animals, dragons, gambling symbolism, etc. They all have brutality and badass aspect. After all, you are a biker and not a fairy, so you should look accordingly.