In the early morning hours of Mardi Gras day, as New Orleans residents dream of the floats and throws from the nights before, a much scarier parade awaits them right outside their door. The Treme neighborhood will be awoken by the North Side Skull and Bone Gang in their hand painted skeleton outfits and paper-mâché skulls. This is a tradition that goes back 200 years, reminding New Orleanians of their mortality.
The tradition dates back to 1819 and African spirituality, but the gang views its role in New Orleans as the “literal meaning of Carnival, the shedding of flesh.” This black masking tradition is a form of communal resistance to poverty and gentrification, honoring ancestors, reclaiming power, and expressing joy, grief, and strength.
The sound of drums and skeletons knocking on doors fills the streets, and the skeletons yell out their haunting phrases, “You Next!” and “The End is Near.” One of the gang’s goals is to warn the younger generations away from the dangers of the streets, such as violence and drug use.
Members of the Skull and Bone Gang create their costumes in the days leading up to Mardi Gras. Since the group began back in the 1800’s, full of working-class men in impoverished neighborhoods, their costumes are simply made, using only the essentials.
Their masks are painted to resemble large skulls, ranging from cartoon-like to genuinely frightening. The suits themselves usually consist of all-black clothing painted with basic white skeletal structures. Some members wear aprons with simple drawings and messages such as, “you next,” “come with me to hell,” and “drug did it to me.”
As they have grown in popularity over the years, tourists and locals alike will wake up in the early morning hours of Mardi Gras, hoping to catch a glimpse of the skeletons, or if they’re lucky, have a skeleton show up at their house and command them to dance to the beat of their drums.
The North Side Skull and Bone Gang will begin waking up the Treme neighborhood at 5am on Mardi Gras day, ending Carnival season with the reminder that it may be our last, so enjoy it while you can. The krewe will be stepping out at 1924 Bayou Road where they will pay homage to the oldest road in the city of New Orleans. They will end up at Lil Peoples at 1226 Barracks. The Skull & Bone Gang invites everyone to join the procession to start their Mardi Gras day and see the traditions.
See the full 2024 Mardi Gras parade schedule here.