The Punisher Skull (from the Field Guide to Car Decals)

Photo of skull sticker next to NRA sticker on car

A few years ago a long-toothed white skull began appearing on the back windows of pickups on my local highways. Always curious about the symbols people display, I looked it up. It’s the Punisher skull, and it has traveled from Spider Man comic books to the killing fields of Iraq, to your local Trump supporter’s trunk.

Identification of the Punisher Skull

The Punisher skull or logo is easily distinguished by its elongated teeth (four of them) and lack of a bottom jaw. It’s always shown face-on, with empty eye sockets conveying menace.

Habitat of the Punisher Skull

The logo frequently is found on pickups, a vehicle of choice for members of the military who popularized it. Consistent with its fan base, it is also frequently found near firearms-related symbols and other conservative causes. The photo above shows it displayed on a sedan, with a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme and “Trump” printed on it, near a National Rifle Association sticker.

History of the Punisher Skull

The skull is the symbol of the comic book character the Punisher, a Vietnam veteran who takes the law into his own hands after his family is killed in mob violence. The Punisher is described by creator as an “anti-villian,” some one who does the wrong thing, like torturing his victims, for the right reasons.

Although the Punisher was introduced in 1974, his icon surged to fame after 2014, when joint Iraqi/U.S. forces were fighting a brutal enemy, ISIS, for control of parts of the country. The same year, biopic “American Sniper” told the story of Chris Kyle, who belonged to a military group that called themselves the Punishers and painted the skull logo on everything they could.

“As a poorly-guided vigilantes, the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).”

Time Magazine in 2016.

Meaning of the Punisher skull

When used by soliders fighting ISIS (which was known to burn captives alive) the skull was clearly meant to symbolize their own bad-assedness. That is, they literally dealt death to their enemies.

On sedans parked near grocery stores, the meaning is less clear. Certainly it conveys toughness, and a sense of deadly resolve, especially when near other symbols of weapons. It seems to say that the owner is armed and dangerous.

This, of course, is not a welcome message for some. In 2017, a Kentucky police department stopped using the skull logo on its cruisers after complaints. And in 2019, Salon.com published an article titled “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult.”

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