The Squid Game Masks And Symbols Explained

Have you seen "Squid Game"? It's the conversation starter of 2021, and if you haven't heard of the show by now, you must have been locked in an off-shore facility playing deadly games of survival all year.

For those who have somehow missed out, "Squid Game" follows 456 debt-ridden contestants in a tournament where they must participate in lethal versions of children's games for the chance to win a huge stack of cash. The brutal South Korean drama has become a massive hit, racking up almost $900 million for Netflix to date.

Everyone has an opinion about it — some people rave about the show and its themes, others shrug it off as massively overrated. Personally, I thought it was an entertaining if shallow rehash of ideas, owing a clear debt to the likes of "Battle Royale" and "The Hunger Games," a triumph of eye-catching design. But what design! 

Part of the "Squid Game" design that raises the most questions is the striking masks worn by the nefarious workers, overseers, and spectators in the show. What — if anything — do those masks signify?

Let's start with the workers' masks...

The whole "Squid Game" contest takes place in an elaborate island facility with unlikely design features that is overseen by the shadowy Front Man, and he's not the kind of guy who likes to get his leather gloves dirty. It's down to the anonymous staff in the pink jumpsuits to keep the whole thing ticking along, and they have a clear hierarchy. Like everyone running the show, masks are important to disguise their true identity.

The guys wearing masks bearing a circle symbol are the general dogsbodies. They are tasked with all the most menial jobs, including dragging away corpses and incinerating them. They're the lowest of the low and aren't allowed to speak unless spoken to. Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), the cop who sneaks into the game to look for his missing brother, starts out posing as a Circle.

Above them are the Triangles. These are the enforcers, armed with pistols and submachine guns. They act as crowd control as well as earning the dubious honor of eliminating losers in some of the games.

Top of the heap are the Squares, who oversee the Triangles and the Circles. They take their orders directly from the Front Man and also keep watch on the facility's CCTV system. Jun-ho inadvertently promotes himself to a Square when he takes a mask from a dead man.

While reminiscent of Playstation controller buttons, the three shapes make up the playing field for the kid's game that gives the show its title, Squid (Ojing-eo).The shapes also make up whole or part of letters from the Korean alphabet (Hangul) which spell out OJM, the initials of the Korean translation of "Squid Game," Ojing-eo Geim.

What about the other masks in the show?

The Front Man wears a black geometric mask which, like the others, contains a device to distort his voice. There appears to be little meaning behind this design other than it looks pretty sinister and cool.

He is later joined by a group of VIPs, who arrive on the island to cast obscene bets on the outcome of the final few games. They also wear masks to conceal their identities, although their disguises are far more elaborate, with stylized depictions of various animals in glittering gold. The gold represents the sickening riches of the VIPs, men who are so deadened by their immense wealth that they get their jollies betting on the fate of a bunch of plebs. But what of the choice of animals themselves?

To find out, I contacted Dr. Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who offered this interpretation: 

"The Deer symbolizes longevity and spirituality, while the Tiger, once native to the Korean peninsula, represents authority and power. The Lion and Eagle are both similar to European symbolism, so may indicate strength, courage and military might. The Buffalo, much like the Bull, represents wealth and prosperity. The Bear is not frequently used in Korean visual culture, but according to the myth, Korean people descended from a bear-woman and the son of Heaven. Lastly, the Owl signifies inauspiciousness, death, and loneliness, a perfect animal for the old man."

Might this lead us to believe that the VIP in the Tiger mask is a politician? The Lion a military man? The Bull a financier or broker? The Deer a religious leader, and the Bear a descendant of the royal family?

Whatever the answer, "Squid Game" Is sure to remain one of the most debated shows of the year.