At a recent car show in Sacramento, an artist who refers to himself as Rob-O recalls setting up his stand of handmade skulls molded out of sugar and covered in royal icing designs, when a man dressed in rockabilly fashion approached.
“Hey, I have something that looks like that tattooed on my arm, but I didn’t know they were called sugar skulls,” the man said, showing his tattoo.
Rob-O then made the familiar shift from artist to educator as he explained that the symbol, a skull heavily decorated with different colored patterns, inked on the man’s body came from the Nov. 1 and 2 holiday Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico and parts of Central America, and the tradition of making colorful skulls out of sugar to honor deceased loved ones. In the celebration, sugar skulls typically represent a departed soul, whose name is often written in icing on the forehead, and are placed on home altars or gravestones to honor that person and the return of their spirit.
Rob-O makes this explanation often, finding that while people are familiar with the sugar skull image, they know little about it.
Not surprising, since that image appears today on everything from T-shirts and iPhone covers to singer Chris Brown’s neck. Last year alone, it inspired a Monster High doll named Skelita Calaveras, numerous Halloween makeup tutorials and costumes, and a forthcoming Disney Pixar film still in early development.
The sugar skull’s rising popularity in mainstream culture isn’t so sweet, though, for many in the Mexican and Latino community who celebrate the holiday and feel that the symbol is being stripped of its spiritual and cultural heritage as it is commercialized for other uses, often unrelated to the celebration.
Stories like Rob-O’s are exactly what upset many in the community and confirm their fears that the symbol is losing its meaning to trendiness.
“It is not just a cool painted skull,” said Adrian Viajero Roman, a 35-year-old Brooklyn artist who celebrates Día de los Muertos. “A cultural tradition can’t just be picked apart and only the things seen as good taken for use in pop culture.”
Marguerite Medina, a 24-year-old student at the University of Idaho, who also celebrates the holiday, echoes Roman and wants those who wear the image to think about its meaning.
“Before you go and make yourself up to look like a sugar skull or have one tattooed to you or buy an article of clothing with one on it, I would really love it if you knew what it really means,” she said.
Medina feels it is too easy now for people to see the image as nothing more than the latest trend, referencing the time a sorority at her school placed sugar skulls on a compulsory member T-shirt without understanding the symbol’s roots.
“People think it’s edgy and cute and fashionable and they completely miss the point of what the sugar skull is actually used for,” Medina said. “It’s mass producing an image that has significant cultural meaning for people, like myself, and desensitizing it, making it seem less than what it is.”
When the image is taken out of the context of Día de los Muertos and used as a face paint design for Halloween or as a marketing tool for costume shops, some in the Mexican community argue the use can become offensive and demeaning as well. They feel the symbol’s use then becomes a costume or parody of the Mexican culture in the same vein as donning a poncho, sombrero and fake moustache for Cinco de Mayo parties.
“Every image associated with Día de los Muertos is sacred,” Roman said. To make sugar skulls into a pop culture fad, “to turn it into a Halloween costume is blatant disrespect and disregard for any kind of understanding of the culture.”
Rafael Jesús González, a retired professor of Mexican Studies from Laney College, in Oakland, Calif., believes the symbol’s absorption into U.S. culture is just an inevitable part of the culture exchange.
“Most people just respond to a symbol they find attractive and use it without much awareness of its origins or its meaning to the culture that birthed and nurtures it,” González said.
But he added that immigration politics might play into why some in the Latino community are so protective of their heritage and this symbol.
“In some places, like Arizona, there have been real efforts to suppress the expressions of Mexican culture and then to find those same images used commercially on T-shirts can cause resentment in the people who are struggling and fighting for their rights,” González said. “People in battle tend to be more protective of what they see as a part of their identity and heritage.”
Not all who celebrate Día de los Muertos see the sugar skull’s rising popularity as a problem. Cesáreo Moreno, chief curator and visual arts director for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, likes seeing reminders – in any form – of his heritage in pop culture.
“I love that they are being used more and becoming more popular, but every time it spreads it does lose some of its original meaning,” Moreno said. “This happens with a lot of different popular icons. A few years ago, many people were upset that images of the Virgin of Guadalupe were appearing everywhere. It’s the same thing with sugar skulls. As the Mexican community in the U.S. continues to grow, a lot more of our culture will permeate U.S. culture and it will be transformed by it and become something different.”
Because of the image’s evocative mix of levity, dark humor, and death the sugar skull is likely to remain popular.
“It combines the sweetness of candy with the bitterness of our mortality and that is a very atypical symbol that people respond to in an unconscious way,” González said. “It takes a bit of the sting away from death.”