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The Art of Chaos: Punk Rock’s Timeless Influence on Graphic Design

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Shaggy spiked hair and studded black leather jackets; motorcycle boots and thick chain necklaces; the permanent expression of anti-establishment disgust. Few cultural movements have had as much impact on modern society as punk rock music. The story of its influence is mostly a tale of two cities—New York and London—during the mid-1970s, but punk has been a constantly evolving movement, drawing in anyone who rejects the mainstream. Working class angst, coupled with the frustrations of living underneath the weight of establishment gave birth to punk’s characteristic ideals, sound, and attitude. It was also fertile ground for a new kind of design aesthetic—a communication style that shared the same ideologies that the movement came to represent. So pull out your favorite Ramones and Sex Pistols records, and crank the volume up to 11. Because the same social, political, and economic unrest that provided the breeding ground for punk rock in the 1970s is back to greet us in 2017. Understanding how one graphic designer captured a voice and defined a generation built on chaos can teach us a thing or two about what it means to make your message heard.

Year Zero: How It All Began

Long before punk rock became synonymous with safety pins, slogan T-shirts, and studded bracelets, it was simply a convergence of influences that began with mid-1960s garage rock—a period that came to be known as proto-punk. During the early 1970s, as a reaction against the happy-go-lucky mainstream music of the time, New York City bands, including the Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Television, and Patti Smith, began to experiment with new sounds in the alt-culture mecca of Greenwich Village. Around the same time, CBGB, a ‘biker bar turned live music club’, aiming to appeal to the country, bluegrass, and blues crowd, had opened up just a short cab ride away. In search of a new home, the group of musicians carried their sound over to the East Village venue and effectively established it as home base. Although he didn’t know it at the time, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal had opened up a space that was to spawn an entire movement in music history—a movement that would turn CBGB into a legendary household name. Within months, CBGB had become not just the place to hear new sounds, but also a focal point and creative outlet for the anti-establishment. It was also where Television’s Richard Hell began fashioning what would become the ultimate punk uniform and aesthetic: ripped t-shirts, black leather jackets, black motorcycle boots, chains, and spiky unkempt hair.

On the other side of the pond, in London, a similar movement was beginning to take shape. In 1975, inspired by the fashion, sounds, and punk attitude he experienced at CBGB shortly after it opened, Malcolm McLaren, an eccentric art school dropout with a penchant for business, headed back to his native England to put a punk rock band together. Consisting of a rag tag group of young anarchists, who could play just good enough to get by, the Sex Pistols were born, and a new kind of Anarchy began in the U.K. In Britain, this was a period of social unrest. Working class angst was widespread, and the economic outlook for the country’s youth was bleak at best. In a society ruled by the rich and the powerful, the Sex Pistols became, from the moment they hit the stage at their very first gig, the embodiment of the nihilistic attitude of a segment for Britain’s youth. So while the Ramones, Television, and Patti Smith were busy creating new anti-establishment sounds in New York, it was the oppression of British working class youth that helped propel punk rock and, with it, its torn and tattered anarchist appeal to a new generation. And at the center of this social revolution was visual artist Jamie Reid, a British anarchist, who translated this uncaged angst into a style of cut-and-paste collage artwork that came to define the chaos of punk rock as we know it today.

Post-Modern Punks: Punk Design Emerges

Malcolm McLaren had known Reid since art school. They both shared similar taste in design and similar political ideals, influenced by the beliefs of Situationist International—a Paris-based movement rooted in anarchy and anti-capitalism, and made up of quirky artists and intellects. He asked Reid to design graphics for the Sex Pistols—for posters, and for the band’s only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. With his lo-fi approach—years before the existence of Photoshop, or any other digital design tool—Reid effectively captured the chaos of the anarchist spirit by visually attacking existing compositions and elements that he remixed into violent contrasts in shape, color, and form. If modernism, which represented the establishment with its orderly type and graphics, was at one end of the spectrum, then Reid’s loud and messy post-modern interpretation of the punk aesthetic couldn’t have been more absolutely its opposite. Using a DIY ransom note typographical style, mixed with photocopied elements in menacing compositions, Reid was also able to create freely as he pleased, without the limitations imposed by traditional graphics standards and typesetting rules. It was a metaphor, of sorts, for working outside of the rigid establishment. Reid had effectively captured, and executed, a multidimensional expression of angst in two dimensions via collage. During a time when those in the punk scene shunned mainstream culture by modifying their clothes through a DIY mentality, it was a natural progression for the DIY ideals to spread to other forms: posters, zines, flyers, and other communication materials. And because the ripped décollage art style required only torn photos, typography lifted from other sources, and a photocopier, it wasn’t long before telephone poles and dive bar bathrooms were covered with similar poster designs, instilling the aesthetic even more deeply into rebellious punk culture.

No Future: Punk Artwork Explodes

By the late 1970s, the popularity of punk rock was growing at an unprecedented rate, and the number of punk rock bands, led by a new generation that had finally found its voice, grew with it. As a result, this once-underground culture, founded by a small group of rock and roll legends in Greenwich Village during the early 1970s, experienced an explosion of post-punk musical subgenres before ultimately going mainstream. As a result, the punk aesthetic, as defined by Jamie Reid in the mid-1970s, became remixed and reinterpreted in new ways. While some bands, such as Black Flag, began to add more hand-drawn illustrative elements to their posters, other acts, such as Blondie, made subtle changes to the posters, making them more inviting for radio-friendly crowds with color pops. Ultimately, the explosion of various interpretations of the punk rock aesthetic coincided with the explosion of the punk rock sound.

Today, as forward-thinkers pore over look books and Instagram feeds to find the next ‘new’, the punk aesthetic will always carry a timeless quality that functions as a way to speak to the rebels; there’s a reason why Kanye West, Bernie Sanders, and the cult streetwear label Supreme have all adopted various forms of the punk aesthetic into their own branding. And in a landscape where more and more youth are showing a growing distaste for the social, political, and economic state of the world, right now might be more important a time than any other to know why certain messages hit their mark. But at its core, punk isn’t just about music; it’s a rebel attitude driven free of any restraint. And without restraint, you’re free to do whatever it takes to make your message heard. “To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are,” Patti Smith once said. “It’s freedom.”

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