JUXTAPOZ Art of Rock Special Issue, Summer 2003

The Art of American Hardcore Punk
by George Petros

There was Punk, and then there was Hardcore Punk. Whereas Punk screwed stylish cadavers, Hardcore stripped away all pretense of style, fucking rotting carcasses without rhyme or reason.

From 1980 through 1986 Hardcore smashed its way across America. Hardcore kids — brutal, “political,” often hypocritical — hated everything; pop culture sucked. They dug violence and mayhem; many purported to be peaceful but weren’t. They formed extended dysfunctional families, united by alienation (“There’s an attractiveness to being ghettoized”  — Raymond Pettibon). They made their own music, put out their own albums — and albums need album covers!

Hardcore covers attacked everything sacred and profane during those dark days of Reagan and Gorbechev. Stripped-down and stark, the art outraged and offended; the best of it portrayed the most fucked-up shit imaginable.

The typical Hardcore artiste took a few moments out of a busy schedule to sit down, get high, draw a little, cut pictures out of magazines with rusty X-acto blades, and produce exquisite works of timeless communicative beauty with Letraset rub-on lettering, appropriated ad copy, tabloid headlines, and porno rantings, all coalesced into mean-spirited verse, extolling readers to wake up! and go fuck yourself. Merciless words loomed stamp-like upon Reagan, Hitler, Manson, JFK, and Marilyn, upon autopsy photos, crime-scene photos, war photos, mushroom clouds, and porno, all in umpteenth-generation xeroxographic degeneration. The commercial proliferation of Xerox machines allowed kids to crank out zillions of flyers, which became the pervasive HC medium of expression. Eventually album covers emulated the flyer graphic formula — awful pictures festooned with terrible words.

Anything went. Pictures of cops, demons, whores, angels, and babies blended into brain-dead banality, in basic black-and-white with maybe one additional color if the additional fifty bucks was available.

Artists included: Winston Smith, renowned for his Dead Kennedys covers; Raymond Pettibon, responsible for many Black Flag covers (and brother of BF guitarist Greg Ginn); Pushead, original Thrasher music editor whose skulls adorned Metallica covers; Vince Rancid and Buxf Dicks, who did stuff for MDC; Dave Parsons, the Rat Cage records guy (he put out the first records by Beastie Boys and Agnostic Front); Sean Taggart, prominent on the NYC scene; Shawn Kerrey, the Circle Jerks’ logo designer; Seattle’s Art Chantry (who sums up the style as “rotten, crappy, scrappy”); and Mad Marc Rude (RIP!!!), who did stuff for the Misfits and Battalion of Saints. Some musicians created art for their own bands — for example, Bruce Loose of Flipper and Jim Jones (RIP!!!) of No Trend. Additionally, photographers such as Edward Colver (Black Flag’s Damaged), Glen E. Friedman (Suicidal Tendencies), and Phil In Phlash (the This Is Boston Not LA comp) captured HC’s edgy energy.

The artists fought against every convention, and against Art itself. Boston’s SS Decontrol posed the musical question, “How much art can you take?” Raymond Pettibon said, “Art is the last place anyone is going to derive their inspiration from.” Winston Smith noted, “There was a drive to get away from finished-looking work.” Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore, observed: “The term “Hardcore Art” is an oxymoron. Hardcore types fancied themselves dismissive of art. Theirs was an essentially undecorated, unadorned world. It celebrated not being hip.”

The artists wanted to bum out the consumer, either by hurting them or by shaming them into coming to grips with “reality.” In that era only the most brutal crack on the head got the consumer’s attention; only the most brutal art, assembled with no indication of graphic skills, could assure that Hardcore’s new values shone brightly into every American home. Blush: “Hardcore art was totally primal. Nothing was taboo.” Pettibon: “My visual style was right out of comic books.” Smith: “Hardcore art was an expression of angst.”

Incidentally, in their anti-corporate zeal many HC artists developed logos for specific bands; those logos, tag-like on album covers, served the same purpose as those of the Fortune 500. How’s that for coincidence?

Just when it began, Hardcore ended. The government won the culture and drug wars, so-called society prevailed, and the cops certainly triumphed. Sure there’s still lotsa “Hardcore” stuff produced but it’s not quite the same: its prime motivators differ from those circa ’80. Perhaps dedicated individuals still speak of the genuine real thing but in fact they chose a lifestyle demographic, just like Jazz or the Blues or Metal or Punk — or Sports or Movies. It just keeps on keeping on; if ya dig it, it’s cool. Steven Blush: “Hardcore was of its time. Now it’s gone. Such an energetic confluence of social currents will never again occur.” That’s it. In conclusion, yo, Fuck You!!!