From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,
My girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).
The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.
Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Back patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).
Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:
[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).
None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.
The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”
Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.
Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.
Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.
Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.
Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.
Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.
Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).