The Fourth Wall

9.18.08 The Power of Punk (Images)

Confession: I was never really a bona-fide punk rock grrl.

Not in the pure sense of earning the title. I was rebellious; in the cultural context of my early-70’s teen years suburban Columbus, Ohio ennui was such that my rebellions could have been considered fairly radical. A few years later, within my college culture (University of MD, fine arts dept), I might also have been considered a rebel, lugging massive art books and dressed in shades-of-black thriftstore clothes. Small things, yes, but in 1977, these affectations amounted to quite the statement in College Park, where sports and the Greek System defined campus life. I may have thought I was cool, and maybe I sort of was for a nerdy art-dork. But I’m pretty sure I knew even then that I wasn’t hard core. After all, my nice Jewish mother would have killed me and although I was in perpetual mourning for the sad state of the world, I wasn’t ready to die yet.

Regardless of my admission to being far too tied to my traditional upbringing to ever qualify as Punk with a capital P (see Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, above), I can say with absolute certainty: The Sex Pistols, bursting onto the world scene with glorious brain-searing noise unlike anything ever heard, changed my life. The Pistols turned everything upside down; how I thought about popular culture, music, art, writing, fashion, graphic design, DIY, image and image-making, politics, the whole heady late-70’s mix of youthful life. So although I never pierced my face with a safety pin, part of me became and still is punk.

Oddly enough, today, a week past my 51st birthday, I may be having the truest, yet wholly unexpected experience of what it meant/means to be punk. And I am having it because 30 years after the fact I am sporting a t-shirt I picked up at Trash & Vaudeville in the East Village, NYC (above) this summer.

Pictured above, in screaming neon pink, there is Sid… as hideous and F-You as he could possibly make himself (or, as English impressario Malcolm McLaren could create him). And yes, I’m sporting a t-shirt of Sid, and Sid is sporting a t-shirt of a shattered image of Christ–unarguably sacreligious just for the context and color treatment, among other things.

On the elevator ride to the designfarm world HQ this morning I wasn’t really thinking about all of this–I just love this danged t-shirt–but the reaction was palpable. I could feel my usually friendly office-building mates stiffen with discomfort and I was taken aback. As people exited, they snuck final sideways glances. Then they scurried off. Quickly.

Attraction/repulsion… I think that’s at the heart of punk. You want to look, you must look. Simultaneously, you have a strong urge to run in the opposite direction. The fact that a t-shirt, so far removed from the people and events themselves… can still have this effect… is a testament to the undeniable power of images and of design, and of the enduring power of punk.

And yes, I probably should have known as much.

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