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But, Is It Punk?

Big Ups fucking shit up at the Silent Barn. (photo courtesy Maks Suski, 2011)

Any punk with their wits about them is bound to react rather viscerally to the words “punk rock,” “rainbow” and “sparkle” being tossed together in the same salad of a sentence. So, naturally, when I walked into Jonathan LeVine gallery last month to catch the tail-end of Natalia Fabia’s East Coast debut, I shivered at the sight of its title. Punk Rock Rainbow Sparkle? I shook my head, wondering what I had walked into. Whatever it was, I stood convinced that at best it would be an uncomfortable experience I’d hopefully forget. However, I soon got a schooling in the life lesson, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” or rather, you can’t judge a show by its title.

Detail from "Green Hell Princesses" by Natalia Fabia. *(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Punk Rock Rainbow Sparkle does — surprise, surprise! — comprise punk rock, rainbows and sparkles, but Fabia’s solo exhibition uses these forces for good … discussion, as one might question how these elements relate to punk whatsoever; a culture too often deemed masculine and regarded as “counter.” However, Fabia’s show attempts to identify and investigate the feminine yin to the masculine yang in punk through rainbows, sparkles, glitz and glamor, and although at first blush it may have appeared to be nothing but an embodiment of the artist’s interest in “punk fashion” (whatever that is), here we have a body of work that throws a spotlight on women with especially “unique” (or is it punk?) means of expression. Fabia’s photorealistic oil paintings pay homage to these unconventional women with an acute devotion to detail as every button, pin, tattoo and piercing is reproduced with unfailing precision. However, upon closer observation and after a brief discussion with the gallery’s associate director, Malena Seldin, I found that Fabia wasn’t creating carbon copies, but rather embellishing her subjects and their surroundings with even more tattoos and graffiti (in addition to the ubiquitous rainbows and sparkles). The artist’s additions beg the question as to what is actually ‘punk’ and what the public expects of punks, which inspired me to hit the phonebook.

In an effort to define what is essentially punk and to make sense of the murky waters that separate it from its distant, dumb cousin “unique,” I turned to some trusted resources. Enter a parade of people whom I regard as paradigms of punk today; from label owners and show promoters, to band members and bandmates, to supporters of the scene whose role on the floor is just as important as that of those on stage or behind the scenes. In the end, we’re all singing the same songs anyway.

“Punk to me is a combat against discouragement of any kind,” writes Hillary Maltz, a third year Media Studies major at Purchase College. Hillary and I go way back: we grew up in the sticks of eastern Long Island and survived our dead-end adolescence by going to lots and lots of local punk shows. Through a love of the music and its message, we clicked and have been best friends ever since. Speaking of, “I think the common names in its inception like the Sex Pistols, Ramones, The Clash, etc. all had a message to those who felt helpless,” notes Hillary. “You are not powerless, you can be free, you can have fun and be silly and be ruthless, and you can bring change. Who the fuck is going to stop you?”

A typical night in the life of Big Ups (photo courtesy Ben Carey, 2011)

Echoing this inherent inclination to rebel, my flesh and blood, the second eldest of the Reiley clan, chimes in. “Punk is not a music genre,” Jordan, founder of Gane Booking, begins. “It’s a mindset, to go absolutely against the grain … Punk used to be solely noted [as] a music genre, I definitely feel that now it’s more of a mindset and attitude. Punk used to be all about shock value and was definitely mixed with drug culture because of poster boys Sid Vicious, [and] GG Allin among others, and that’s why people not in the scene definitely perceive punk to be about the image, the shock, the drug use. It isn’t though … there is a huge difference between the real definition of punk and how everyone else perceives it.”

Friends gather to see Oyster Boy. (photo courtesy Oyster Boy, 2011_

So, how does everyone else perceive it? And what is this real definition?

“I don’t believe it needs defining,” writes Brooks Phelps, a Journalism major at University of Maryland and guitarist of punk outfit Letteropener. “It might be difficult to imagine that open-endedness given the visibility of someone in a spiked Rancid jacket and foot high mohawk in 2012, but that has nothing to [do with] punk as a philosophy or way of life, which means progressive thinking whether it comes to music, art, or anything else … Punk today is free from the constraints imposed by early Britpunk and hardcore and is in turn more of a philosophy … than a defined genre.”

“What is punk? Oh God, good fucking question,” muses dear friend, punk almanac and vocalist/guitarist of Oyster Boy, Zach LaMalfa. “I think it’s the idea that you don’t have to be virtuosic to express your vision musically. Punk for me also has a lot to do with DIY, the idea that you can write, record, perform, promote and distribute your music all on your own, with your own limited resources. It’s a little bit utopian but all great ideals tend to be.”

Attesting to this, Matt Flood, owner of Connecticut-based Asbestos Records, agrees, “I run an independent record label, have booked shows solo, and in conjunction with Manic Productions pretty much constantly since 1996. As well as doing some tour booking, tour managing and half-assedly performing in my own band. Mostly I’m a fan of the music, and I guess my version of the idealism it represents.”

Zach LaMalfa of Oyster Boy (hoto courtesy of Oyster Boy, 2011)

To sum it up, “Punk to me was always … fuck the system, DIY and helping and accepting others,” explains buddy, bandmate and stage veteran Michael McDowell, former guitarist for Thunderlip. “Other than that, all other images, music style, and so [forth don’t] matter.

Mike’s insight sheds light on common conceptions and misconceptions about and within the punk community. After inordinate conversations, equally illuminating and entertaining, with friends both inside, out and on the fringe of said community, more than a couple things were agreed upon. For one, it seems that society tends to yoke the punk movement to an aesthetic standard, one that is often abhorred by its members. Whether it be studs and leather, distressed jean jackets with band patches, skinny jeans with a bandana hanging from the back pocket, or tons of tattoos (and don’t forget your gauges), it seems as if people outside the movement are convinced that one’s appearance is a testament to their involvement in it.

The Punk Look?

Boston-bred Transit playing Le Batofar, a boat venue in Paris. (photo courtesy Alejandro Plascencia, 2011)

But, is it? I have no friends that look like this, and every interviewee who I invited to step onto their soapbox was met through a love of the music and its meaning. What I’m saying is that I met most of these people in someone’s basement or low-budget show space, where fashion knows no place. Let’s be honest, it’s kind of hard to maintain any sort of aesthetic when you’re rushing the stage; screaming and/or singing into the mic with your hair in your face. Unless, of course, the aesthetic you’re going for is sweaty, disheveled and slightly deranged.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that punk and fashion are mutually exclusive, but if anything, it’s a relationship that is inherently humble and community-based. We wear the band shirts to support, to show our solidarity with the message behind the music, and to inadvertently act as a GPS for fans from faraway places.

Amar Lal of Big Ups (photo courtesy of Amar Lal)

“It’s always cool to wear your favorite band shirt … and have someone you don’t know just go out of [their] way to simply comment on it,” echoes Jordan. “It’s … a community and a t-shirt denotes you’re a part of it. [However] I really don’t like people labeling me as this or that, and … being a punk should not be based on what you wear, more of what you actually do.”

Amar Lal, guitarist for Bushwick-based Big Ups, agrees, “I got interested in punk because it was supposedly a haven for the misfits, and to have to dress a certain way to fit in with misfits would defeat the purpose. Punk is more about the attitude than the aesthetic; for some, this means [a] visual display of their lack of giving a fuck what other people think. For others, it’s about the actions and the intelligent dissent.”

What Dissent?

One might wonder what these actions are, and what exactly we are dissenting. Punk, since its incarnation in the late 1970s, has quite a colorful history of championing social consciousness, and since the movement’s beginnings — gathering steam with the advent of hardcore in the 1980s — a community of rag-tag kids have come to rally around it. One may think of the movement’s forefathers — Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones — and wonder how, or where, they fit into this equation. To boil it down to a simmer, all three spoke to society’s discontent and served as a mouthpiece (if not a megaphone) for their generation’s unrest; an ethos that prevails in any punk scene today. Whether political (“God Save The Queen,” “Guns Of Brixton,” “The KKK Took My Baby Away”) or personal (“Pretty Vacant,” “Train In Vain,” “Psycho Therapy”), each band voiced issues pertinent to their listeners and stood up for what they believed in, shaking the youth awake and ensuring that they wouldn’t leave the world the same.

Hostage Calm rallying for marriage equality at Stevens Institute. Peep me front and center! (photo courtest Hillary Maltz, 2012)

There was a time in my life when punk and its people were my only refuge. Punk is about truth, and punk is about community. Punk is about the youth, and in today’s punk culture, it is about providing a space for the youth to express themselves through music, to find friends with similar beliefs, and to support one another in our struggles. When I spoke with Alejandro Plasciencia, a friend from the Long Island hardcore community (represent!) whom I actually ran into at a show upstate, he recounted one of his fondest and proudest moments as a participant in the Long Island scene: his attendance at a benefit show where sufficient funds were raised to cover chemotherapy expenses for a local teen. Punks are no strangers to benefit shows; a few weeks ago, Jordan, Hillary and I attended a momentous marriage equality event spearheaded by the especially vocal Hostage Calm, Ensign and H2O at Stevens Institute in Hoboken. Hence, it comes as no surprise that just today the Human Rights Campaign published an article reporting that support for marriage equality in New Jersey is now at a record high. Whether or not a show attended by roughly 400 punks of all ages affected this, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

This is all to say that punk isn’t dead, nor is it a movement rooted in aesthetics, as commonly misconstrued by those not in the know. Not all of us are tattooed and surely not all of us fit into skinny jeans. A lot of us are vegan, so leather goes out the window (part of that whole social consciousness thing), and who has the time to stud jackets or sew patches anymore? Moreover, many of us have realized that piercings won’t serve us in the professional world, while some others — and even their employers — embrace them.

Dan Witz, "70 Commercial Street" (2010) (image via DanWitz.com)

Punk is alive and well, but it doesn’t operate on the surface. Our culture has often been described as “underground” as police and people who like their sleep push us deeper into basements and stuff us into smaller spaces with noise complaints. However, to my sensibilities, punk is harder to identify in the characters that comprise Natalia Fabia’s Punk Rock Rainbow Sparkle than it is to see in, say, the thrashing masses of Dan Witz’s Moshpits, Human and Otherwise series. Punk doesn’t exist in individual appearances, but rather, as put by Long Island legends Crime In Stereo — and surprisingly/unsurprisingly quoted by two of those I interviewed — “It’s in your best friend’s basement. It’s in your head.”

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