DIY or DIE!
For decades, the punk scene has symbolized a counter-cultural revolution, a stand against the prescribed capitalist interactions, and a defiance of the mainstream. But at the center of it all was the do-it-yourself mentality, an ethos born of necessity that became synonymous with the music and the movement. Milk Gallery’s latest exhibition, DIY or DIE! curated by Johan Kugelberg, founder of Boo Hooray, will shed light on the pinnacle of the DIY-music era with an impressive collection of handmade record covers, fanzines, rock posters, and original stencils from the Crass archive. These handmade artifacts, dating from the late 1960s to the current day, trace the roots of the do-it-yourself ideology as it relates to music culture, and the ways in which it lives on today.
Punk exploded in the 1970s. It was born in New York’s gritty downtown clubs, the most iconic of which was CBGB’s on the Bowery (R.I.P.), and flourished among London’s disenfranchised youth looking to rebel against the system that had seemingly left them behind. Punk shows became a cultural happening. Unsigned bands performed night after night, transfixing youths with brash, in-your-face sounds, breaking down the barrier between performer and audience as they leapt off the stage, inviting you to participate in the spectacle. These underground venues provided a place to see new music, but more importantly a place to exchange ideas with like-minded people looking to overthrow the status quo.
The music itself embodied the DIY attitude: you didn’t have to be a classically trained musician to be in a punk band, you just had to have something to say. Bands like the The Ramones, The Stooges, and The Sex Pistols assaulted you with their lyrics—and their political statements. As the movement gained momentum, bands rejected the traditional methods of the music industry, namely the role of the major record label. Bands took to self-releasing their albums and EPs, recording songs and pressing them on 7- and 12-inch discs in editions as small as a couple hundred. Screen-printing came to the forefront in the 1970s, making it increasingly affordable to print record sleeves, posters, and t-shirts. “The iconic graphics that we have come to take for granted as a visual signifier of punk were necessitated by this,” notes Kugelberg.
But in many cases, even screen-printing was too expensive for many artists, and they decorated their record sleeves by hand. “They enlisted the help of their friends, their cousins, their girlfriends and boyfriends,” says Kugelberg of the record assembly parties, an iconic example being Joy Division’s debut 45 An Ideal for Living, for which they hand-folded 1000 sleeves. Other bands used rubber stamps, magic markers, paints—whatever they could get their hands on. “All of the albums and zines and posters were blank artistic canvases, but without artistic pretense,” says Kugelberg. “It was out of necessity, these aesthetic creative solutions—it shows how much of an art school scene there was in the punk movement.”
Punk and the DIY philosophy spread to the far corners of the world, from both coasts of the United States and all across Europe, to Down Under in Australia and the shores of Jamaica. The exhibit includes an array of records from the Jamaican Dub and Rocksteady albums of recent years, which were heavily influenced by the culture and set out to do it themselves, too. “Coxsone Dodd from Studio 1 thought it would be cheaper to silkscreen the covers instead of print them, and they’re beautiful,” says Kugelberg. “The beauty of their design is that handcrafted, artisanal element.” His most-coveted record in the exhibit comes from this school, Slim Smith’s Born to Love. “Sometimes I think it’s my favorite record I’ve ever seen.”
Throughout the years, the “punk aesthetic” has been commodified, branded, and bastardized by the mainstream. You can see it on the runways and in the shopping malls at Hot Topic, a cookie-cutter anti-establishment statement favored by angsty teens. But though the visual cues of the punk movement no longer signify the same meaning, the spirit of punk and the DIY mentality live on. Some of the more recent albums in the exhibit were produced by the New York-based label Sacred Bones, headed by Caleb Braaten. “I got into it just like anyone else who ends up being a part of the DIY movement—out of necessity,” he says. “We were making records in small quantities and needed to figure out an easy way to do it while still make something that had an aesthetic value.” Since the inception of Sacred Bones, Braaten has worked closely with the artist Keegan Mills Cooke, who has printed many of the label’s releases. One of their most impressive collaborations to date is the Crystal Stilt’s record Nature Noir, a black record sleeve embellished with bronze foil leaf that Keegan designed and made himself.
It is that drive to create something handmade that they hope to instill in others with this exhibit. “I don’t know if there is some great aim, but I guess the ultimate goal is just to encourage people to do it themselves also,” Cooke says. “It can be any little creative impulse, it doesn’t have to be grand, it can be simple and satisfying.”
Get inspired and check out DIY or DIE! HANDMADE ZINES, RECORD COVERS AND POSTERS FROM PUNK TO REGGAE on display at Milk Gallery from July 17 through August 10.
Alexandra Thurmond is a writer living in New York City. You can follow her on @alex_thurmond.