Home for music and weirdos, I mean The Smiling Skull not my boyfriend’s house

Cheap beer, live music, and no ID requirements at the door. It’s basically what broke college student dreams are made of. While it may not be a gem to many the Smiling Skull Saloon is definitely a remarkable part of Athens.

Athens has a large music scene and The Skull is one of the many locations used as a venue to book shows for local and other up-and-coming musicians. Shows at the Skull tend to be more punk rock oriented with the occasional bluegrass band. This is only my second year at Ohio University but I’ve been able to see numerous bands at this small dive bar alone.

The crowds at shows tend to get very rowdy, especially after a night filled with drinking. Last year New York punk band, Bbig Pigg, was wrapping up the show for the night as last call approached. I was hoping to stay until the very end of show but during one of their songs a member of the audience stole the microphone from the vocalist. The microphone thief then smashed his beer bottle onto the ground. Shards of glass flew all over the place and I was so excited I didn’t realize some of the pieces cut my legs and were stuck to my clothing.

Graffiti wall inside the women’s restroom

In”Smiling Skull Saloon a sanctuary for students and townies alike,” Emily Bohatch captures the essence of the bar. She said the usage of old license plates and photos hanging on the walls as decoration of bar “embodies a sense of tradition and home.”

The vintage posters and photos hung around the walls surrounded by graffiti are what make the Skull some kind of time machine for me. Even though the bar is only 16 years old the graffiti is a sobering reminder that I’m only going to be here for four years. I should enjoy it just like everyone else who left their mark somewhere in the bar.

The decorations are not the only thing that make the bar remarkable for me. It’s also the people I’ve met and stories I’ve learned. There’s always an interesting mix of patrons which make up of bikers, ‘townies’, and college students.

The most interesting to talk to have always been the older crowd of bikers and ‘townies’ because they always have a story to tell about “back in the day” and you can see how people’s eyes light up when reminiscing.

One of the most notable characters I’ve met has been Santa. A tall, older man with a beard that reaches his belly who sits by the door greeting people. There hasn’t been a night in which he isn’t filled with jokes and compliments.

Everyone in Athens has a bar that they prefer, and the Skull is definitely it for me. Many people I’ve met are usually not too excited about the idea of going to a dive bar at first but it’s an experience they end up enjoying. The Skull stands out and is unique, just like its patrons.

Smiling Skull Saloon a sanctuary for students and townies alike

The Skull is famous in Athens for its odd patrons and horrendous creation of "Skull Ale"
The Skull is famous in Athens for its odd patrons and horrendous creation of “Skull Ale”

If the 16 bars of Athens were people, the Smiling Skull Saloon would likely be the quintessential representation of Athens.

Affectionately referred to as “The Skull” by its loyal patrons, the dive bar represents the small, Southeastern Ohio town itself: the perfect fusion of faithful “townie” population and the transient students who call the city home for four years.

From its patrons to the decor covering the walls that pay homage to an interesting history of its owner and the bar itself, the Skull is the perfect mix of seedy dive bar and beloved hang out. Settled into its Union Street location in 2000, the Skull has spent 16 years acquiring character and meaning to its loyal customers. From old license plates and photos hanging on the wall to the tables defaced with carvings of people’s names, the saloon embodies a sense of tradition and home, even if it does smell a little and is in a desperate need of a powerwash. The 116 year old building housing the old watering hole only adds to the air of history.

Bargoers crowd around the Skull's bar, not to drink, but to stare intently at each other.
Bargoers crowd around the Skull’s bar, not to drink, but to stare intently at each other.

One does not have to order a drink to enjoy the Smiling Skull; one only needs a childlike sense of wonder and a natural affinity for people watching.

After walking the streets of uptown and peeking into bars like the Crystal or JBar, the world of bargoers begins to look monotonous. All the faces begin to blur together. It isn’t until one finds a biker-esque man dressed as Santa with a full, belly-lengthed beard perched on a stool at the Skull that that tedium is broken.

From the dogs often running around off-leash in the bar to the warbling of townies and students alike trying their hand at open mike night, the Skull exudes that feeling that just makes Athens Athens.