Category: Art of Punk

Active Resistance to Propaganda

Vivienne Westwood is one of today’s biggest names in the world of fashion design, and her creations have been considered so significant that England’s Victoria & Albert Museum mounted a retrospective of her stunning career in 2004. Westwood began her career as a fashionista in 1971 when she teamed up with Malcolm McLaren (the vainglorious manager of the Sex Pistols), to open a boutique named Let It Rock. The small retail shop specialized in bizarre garments for rock ’n roll misfits, and later renamed Sex, became the hangout for London’s punk scene. The peculiar clothes Westwood created and sold there, slashed T-shirts covered with safety pins, leather fetishware trimmed with metal studs, and tartan bondage outfits with tons of misplaced zippers - came to define the aggressive oddball look of the punk movement.

Photo of Vivienne Westwood in 1977

[ Photograph of Vivienne Westwood in 1977 wearing one of her infamous punk creations - the Destroy T-shirt. Made from muslin cloth and printed in lurid color, the confrontational silk-screened art combined images of an upside down crucifix, a swastika, and a small profile photo of the Queen of England. While misinterpreted by many, the graphic was meant as an angry denunciation of government, religion and fascism. ]

Since those chaotic, nascent days of punk rock, Westwood has moved on to become Britain’s dame of high fashion - although she’s still an iconoclastic rebel at heart. She owns the old shop that once housed Let It Rock, but the space has been transformed into a new boutique called World’s End, where Westwood sells her chic signature line. Currently she has other things on her mind besides runway shows and spring collections, and in an interview with the Guardian she expressed a concern for contemporary art and culture - which she bluntly insists have been “kidnapped by business.”

Westwood condemns today’s so-called cutting edge art for being a “sham” devoid of humanity. To her the latest avant-garde conceptual art in galleries and museums is nothing more than “propaganda” meant to buttress a worn out and empty art world. Culture, Westwood tells us, is withering on the vine, and she asks, “how can people be so easily satisfied? Even people with talent.” (Listen to an mp3 audio clip of the interview.)

To provoke a discussion on contemporary art and its possible future, Westwood has written Active Resistance to Propaganda, a whimsical yet sober art manifesto that she will publicly present at a literary festival this month in England - here are some excerpts:

“Dear Friends, we all love art and some of you claim to be artists. Without judges there is no art. She only exists when we know her. Does she exist? The answer to this question is of vital importance because if Art is alive the world will change. No art, no progress.

Music has not yet been conceptualised by the art mafia, though they are trying. We do not accept a symphony composed on the remaining three keys of a broken piano, accompanied by the random throwing of marbles at a urinal. Yet its equivalent is the latest thing in the visual arts. (Aren’tya OD’d on the latest thing?) Items selected from real life and set up as art do not represent a view of life. The famous urinal is still a urinal whatever you do with it.”

Punk Portraits: L.A. Punk 1977

Punk Portraits is the title I’ve given to an early body of my work documenting the original punk rock explosion in L.A. as it happened. Now that punk is fast approaching the 30th anniversary of its 1977 detonation, I’ve uploaded some additional artworks to my online gallery that serves as a portfolio of artworks from that period. These latest additions include my portraits of Darby Crash, Pat Smear, and Lorna Doom of the Germs, a bleak urban landscape depicting Hollywood Boulevard as it appeared in 1980 near the vicinity of the city’s first punk club, The Masque, as well as one of my favorite drawings from that time, my likeness of Chris D., lead singer for the band, The Flesh Eaters.

Vallen sketched the Germs at a 1979 concert at downtown L.A.'s punk club, The Hong Kong Cafe

[ Darby Crash & Pat Smear - Vallen. Pen on paper, 1979. The Germs were one of L.A.’s most notorious original punk bands, and now the subject of a major motion picture - What We Do Is Secret. In 1979 I made a series of quick sketches of The Germs as they performed in L.A., this particular drawing portrays lead singer Crash, and guitarist, Smear. ]

The Clash London Calling Security Alert

Now war is declared, and battle come down

[ London Calling: "Now war is declared, and battle come down." ]

This is getting ridiculous. A man was frog-marched off a London bound airplane flight because he had listened to the song, London Calling, by the legendary punk band, the Clash. 24-year old Harraj Mann took a taxi to Tees Valley International Airport in Northern England, and while in the cab he listened to his own music through the cab’s stereo. He played songs by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Procol Harum - but it was the Clash song that made the taxi driver suspicious. Perhaps the good cabby thought the lyrics were some type of terrorist code - “London Calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared, and battle come down. London Calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.” The alert taxi driver reported Mann to airport police, who arrested him and interrogated him for three hours under the Terrorism Act before releasing him.

Now some may say “better safe than sorry,” and that the police were correct to have arrested the fellow for listening to “suspicious music,” but what message is really being delivered here? Are we really expected to believe that there are certain songs, books, movies and paintings that are “suspicious,” and that their enjoyment warrants a visit from the police? The Clash penned another trenchant observation about authoritarian government in their 1978 song, English Civil War. “Who hid a radio under the stairs, an’ who got caught out on their unawares - when that new party army came marching right up the stairs.”

Sex Pistols Shove Off Rock Hall of Fame

Furious and snarling, the Sex Pistols exploded onto the world stage in 1977. Their anti-authoritarian stance, expressed in songs like Anarchy in the UK and God Save The Queen, outraged society and turned the music world upside down. As the years passed, more and more people started to recognize how great a rock band the Pistols actually were, and while they’ve been copied by a million others, few have managed to capture that original rebellious spirit. Punk was always much more than a style of music, it was an aggressive stance that demanded a break with the status quo. True to form, the Pistols have once again stormed the world stage, reminding us all that it’s possible to bite the hand that feeds us crap.

Silkscreen print by Jamie Reid, 1977.

[ God Save The Queen. Silkscreen print by Jamie Reid, 1977. This image was one of many created by the artist to help promote the Sex Pistols. A version of this print was published as the cover art for the Pistols’ second single, God Save The Queen. In March of 2001 Reid’s graphic appeared in the book, 100 Best Record Covers Of All Time, where it was proclaimed the "best record cover ever produced."]

After being snubbed for years, the Pistols were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in late 2005, with the band receiving an invitation from the Hall of Fame foundation to attend the March 13th, 2006 induction ceremonies in New York City. As might be expected by anyone familiar with the subversive stance of punk, the band has refused its induction, turning its back on the ceremonies with an impetuously scrawled message to the Hall of Fame foundation. The seething communiqué, full of atrocious spelling and grammatical errors, was posted to the official Sex Pistols website on February 24th, 2006 - it reads as follows:

“Next to the SEX PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. Were not coming. Were not your monkey and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, or $15,000 to squeak up in the gallery, goes to a non-profit organization selling us a load of old famous. Congradulations. If you voted for us, hope you noted your reasons.Your anonymous as judges, but your still music industry people. We’re not coming.Your not paying attention. Outside the shit-stem is a real SEX PISTOL.”

SLASH: Manifesto of Angry Refusal

1977 Slash Magazine cover - John Denny of the Wierdos

Slash Magazine of Los Angeles was the first punk publication to emerge on the west coast of the US in 1977. I consider myself fortunate to have worked there for a time, designing pages and graphics and also creating two cover illustrations for the notorious periodical. Slash did more than just challenge the prevailing ideas of the day regarding music, it helped set the standard for the rebellious anti-fashion and visual art that went hand in hand with the punk movement.

Slash introduced Americans to bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but it also offered the world LA bands like X, Fear, and the Germs. To celebrate Slash Magazine and the defiant role it played in challenging the status quo, I’ve created an online exhibition consisting of several original Slash Magazine covers, along with the editorials written by the magazine’s chief editor and punk’s L’enfant terrible, Claude Bessy - aka Kickboy. On a more personal note, my exhibition of Slash covers and editorials also serves as a memoir of sorts, here’s an excerpt to tantalize you into viewing and reading the entire exhibition:

“While working at Slash Magazine, I crossed paths with a number of artists, writers, musicians, and photographers - but few such encounters could top my being rude to one of the contemporary art world’s biggest stars. One day, as I was designing pages for the magazine, Bob Biggs popped in with a disheveled looking blond fellow. I immediately recognized the scruffy fair-haired man, but feigned blankness (not being a fan of the luminary).

Claude Bessy had stopped pecking at his typewriter in the adjacent room, no doubt to better overhear something. Biggs stepped up to me with his guest at his side, and with stars in his eyes pronounced, “Mark, I’d like you to meet David Hockney.”

Barely looking up from my work, I said, “Should I know that name?” Biggs was more embarrassed by my insufferable attitude than was his famed UK artist friend, but the both of them retreated to a friendlier setting. Bessy emerged from his room sniggering and grinning ear to ear after having heard the encounter. I had apparently passed his test of not falling to celebrity worship, and from then on he considered me a friend.”

The entire exhibit of original Slash covers and editorials can be viewed at: