From long before Hans Holbein’s famed Ambassadors (1533) up through Jean Michel-Basquiat in the 1980s, artists have been fascinated by skulls. Updating the subject for the 21st century with his unique modeling approach on the motif is self-taught New Zealand-born, Australian-raised artist Andy Firth.
“Throughout history and pop culture, skulls have become a symbol for a lot of different things. They can be used to represent the hazardous nature of an object, danger on the high seas, or even to pay respect to the fallen,” Andy Firth said. “Through the human experience, I find that almost everyone can connect with their interpretation of a skull that links back to their story and very existence. Clients of mine who have heart conditions or have survived heart attacks connect with the Heart of Gold skull.”
Firth’s name was unknown in art circles – literally – until 2022. Previously he chose to remain anonymous, working under the title “Jack Of The Dust,” an 1800s Royal Navy term used for cooks assistants who helped managed the bread storeroom which was always dusty from flour.
Firth’s origin story includes a bit of seafaring, but not the romance or glamour of sailing. After graduating from high school, he embarked on a grueling marine craft construction apprenticeship, building multi-million-dollar yachts. To make ends meet, he worked nights as a video store clerk. After three years on this grind, his stifled creative nature was bursting at the seams.
“I’d been looking for a decorative skull for ages, so as a joke, my roommates gave me a $2 shop skull as a housewarming gift. It was cheap and tacky, but with a little imagination, I thought it had the potential to look much better!,” Firth recalls. “The skull was dark grey with a dragon coiled up on the top of it; I cut the dragon off, sprayed the skull matte black, and added gold teeth. After that first piece, I was hooked. I didn’t have any experience as an artist, but my mind ran wild with all the other ideas I could hash out using a skull as my canvas.”
With no formal art education or training, he searched YouTube and social media for sculpting and painting tips to progress his skill set. He set up his garage as a studio and workshop in 2013. Within two years – during that time working three jobs – Jack Of The Dust’s orders catapulted to the point where he could pursue it exclusively to support himself.
Today, he has 2.5 million followers across social media and counts Slash, Jason Momoa and Chris Brown among his clients. His backlog of orders became so great his work is now only attainable through a handful of public releases per year.
Despite the skill and effort his skulls require, and the incredibly global demand for them, Firth has kept prices down, with the large majority of pieces retailing for under $1,000 USD, many below $500, Consider this an homage to his roots.
“I’ve always had a little chip on my shoulder when it comes to art galleries, and I’ve come from humble beginnings where investing big bucks in art wasn’t possible for me,” he said.
Bringing Skulls to Life
Each original piece is hand-made in Australia by manipulating mixed media such as acrylic, clay and cinema-grade urethane resin imported from the U.S. to resemble skin, steel, stone and bone. Andy Firth has grown Jack Of The Dust to a full-time crew of 15 to keep up with production.
“I see skulls as one of the most iconic symbols of the human race as a species,” Firth said. “It’s the one true object that shows, beneath everything, we’re all very much the same. Skulls are that lasting image of history, cultures and characters. By reviving these stories, I like to think that nothing is ever truly dead and gone.”
Firth’s skulls now take on a limitless range of colors, finishes, adornments and modifications. References to American Popular culture abound from “Star Wars” to Andy Warhol, “The Predator,” “Aliens,” U.S. money and the Statue of Liberty.
“Skulls represent endless possibilities and a link to the past that can be then placed in the present to live on into the future,” he said.
It is that future which finally convinced him to reveal his identity.
“Growing on a global scale got me thinking about the connection my works have on people all over the world,” Firth said. “I guess I want to follow in the footsteps of my skulls and leave some type of legacy. That, and people kept asking me, ‘who the hell are you, dude?!’”
He’s Andy Firth.