Street art of a skeleton in baseball cap with a mobile phone
Culture & tradition,  Mexico,  Photographing Public Art,  Street art

Gallery: skulls galore (and a few skeletons)

Skulls are most often associated with the Day of the Dead festival but can be seen throughout the year. They feature in street art, in advertising, in ornaments, and even as vessels for tequila! They are often decorated with colourful flowers, butterflies, and other patterns, belying the spooky associations. People believe that beauty can be found even in death, when the outward signs of beauty are gone, so it is important that these symbols of death are made as beautiful as possible.

Ancient beliefs

The depiction of death in this colourful manner developed from the blend of indigenous and Catholic beliefs following the Spanish conquest. But in fact the Day of the Dead celebrations can be linked to early Mesoamerican culture. The Aztecs marked a month-long festival during which they honoured the spirits of dead ancestors, and paid tribute to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. She was the ‘Lady of the Dead’ who ruled the underworld and watched over the bones of the dead. It was she who allowed spirits to travel back to earth to commune with family members. Mictecacihuatl’s husband, Mictlantecuhtli, helped her to rule the underworld. His skull head was decorated with owl feathers and he was honoured with human sacrifices.

And even before the Aztecs the Zapotecs held similar beliefs. They worshipped the goddess Huitzilopochotli with food, incense and flowers on a day when the dead were believed to parade around their communities. Their modern-day descendants believe that the souls of the dead return and spend time with the living in their homes.

Human skull decorated with small mosaic tiles
Aztec turquoise-covered skull from Tenochtitlán, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Human skull decorated with small mosaic tiles
Zapotec turquoise-covered skull from Tomb 7, Monte Albán, in the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca


Less common than skulls but still seen a lot, are complete skeletons. Unlike the decorative elements on the skulls, these are often portrayed as if alive, wearing traditional Mexican dress. One of the most famous depictions of a skeleton in Mexican culture is José Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina, a skeleton wearing a wide brimmed hat with feathers. Diego Rivera later incorporated a Catrina into his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Promenade) which we saw in Mexico City.

Painting of people with a skeleton wearing a large hat and feather boa
Detail of ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Promenade’ in the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, Mexico City

When I travel I often like to find a photographic ‘theme’ that can come to symbolise the destination for me. Sometimes this theme can be a personal impression (for example, the large number of Harley Davidson bikes I photographed in New Mexico, or the bike helmets in Cambodia and Laos) but in Mexico the theme was an obvious one: skulls. I looked for them wherever we went; admittedly finding them wasn’t exactly challenging! Here is a selection with a few skeletons thrown in too. And given the amount of street art included, I’m linking to Natalie’s Photographing Public Art challenge.

Hover over each photo for a caption giving the location, or click on any one of them to open a slideshow of them all. My feature photo was taken on Calle Regina in the Centro Historico, Mexico City.

I visited Mexico in February 2024


  • Annie Berger

    I’m glad you didn’t find the profusion of skulls and skeletons disconcerting, Sarah! Perhaps, after learning about the close link between life and death, they lost their ghostly connotations?

  • equinoxio21

    Very nice post Sarah. Death is ever present in Mexico. (Even more so in recent years, as Narco-violence increases). The “skull” culture ahs its good and its bad sides. I must confess that after 35 years, it can become a bit tiresome… But that’s all right…
    (I know that restaurant…) 😉

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m not really fond of skulls and skeletons, but I have to admit some of these can be classified under the category of very good works of art. That it is colourful may also contribute to a more acceptable image (to me at least). And thanks for explaining the reason behind the skull ‘madness’ in Mexico 🙂 .

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know, it’s hard to get your head around these sometimes, but understanding the reasons helps a lot – and as you say, some of them are very artistic 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I feel that there is more acceptance of skulls and skeletons in the south of the Americas – When I visit cemeteries in the Caribbean I often find the remains of candles that were lit for the Day of the Dead. Rosalie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m sure you’re right Rosalie (and thanks btw for including your name!) We saw similar in Ecuador for instance, where they also celebrate the Day of the Dead.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Meg 🙂 I felt the decorations were an important reminder that these skulls are as much about life as they are about death – maybe more os.


    Obviously, we noticed the same in Mexico – well, you can’t really miss it , can you! It seems a bit obsessive and macabre at first until you start to understand the back story. Love your collection.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right Phil, they’re impossible to miss! Once I’d photographed a few I realised they could make for an interesting blog post and decided to keep a look out for more, but I really didn’t need to try very hard 😆

  • Wind Kisses

    A wonderful gallery and the whys behind the skulls. When I moved to Arizona, I thought they were for Halloween then learned more about Day of the Dead and so on. It is fascinating to learn how one thing can have so many different meanings to another culture. Loved the photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Donna 😀 I had a vague idea about the Day of the Dead (we encountered similar celebrations in Ecuador some years ago) but learned a lot more about it on this trip.

  • Natalie

    Sarah, It’s an excellent idea to find a photographic theme that can come to symbolise the destination when you travel. I love how colourful the skulls are. I particularly liked those in Oaxaca. I used to attend the Day of the Dead festival in Toronto before COVID. Unfortunately, it is no longer on atm. Thank you for your PPAC contribution.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Natalie 🙂 Oaxaca was the best when it came to all sorts of photography, these skulls included! I hope they revive the Day of the Dead festival in Toronto soon.

  • Marie

    You did very well with your ‘photographic theme’…. what a collection. I recognise Rivera’s mural but I really love the last one!!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie 🙂 We were both drawn immediately to that wall in Coyoacan, as I’m sure the restaurant owner would have wanted – a great way to make sure everyone notices your business!

  • Anonymous

    I really like this tradition. I have been to the celebrations, and have quite a few of the decorations here, myself. We’ve also been to a similar celebration in Japan, the Bon Odori, which is a time in August that they celebrate the return of the spirits of their loved ones. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you ‘anonymous’ 😀 I’ve been trying to guess from your comment who you might be, but I’m really not sure! I’m really fed up with the way WP keeps logging people out so that I have no idea who they are!

  • Sue

    Fascinating. It seems to me “ The border between the dead and the living, if you’re Mexican, doesn’t exist. ” is quite a good attitude to have

  • margaret21

    Utterly extraordinary. I guess it’s a fairly healthy attitude to death. Sadly, some of the more modern ones look like a lot of plastic tat.

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