Sex Pistols design by Jamie Reid

Sex Pistols design by Jamie Reid

During this period of pluralism, mass culture splintered. Out of the social and political challenges of the 1960s, many distinct subcultures emerged, each taking on visual forms in attempts to embody different identities and ideas. In the 1970s, the punk movement in the United States and Europe generated one cultural response within this splintering. The movement was rooted in a combination of music, fashion, performance, and graphic design, which together orchestrated an alternative cultural space that diverged from the conformities of consumer culture. While participants in the movement, including many designers, desired to break out of the dominant modes of cultural production, there was still “the recognition that living within that culture forces compromises.”[i]

One technique of punk design, was the appropriation of symbols of power, authority, and tradition. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This is often criticized when members of a dominant culture appropriate from a minority or socially disadvantaged culture. However, the appropriation of dominant cultural forms, such as authority symbols or corporate logos and advertising, fits the Situationist concept of détournement in that it can turn expressions of the capitalist system against itself. This hijacking can be seen clearly in the iconic design work produced for two of the most recognizable punk bands of the era, one on each side of the Atlantic.

During the mid- to late 1970s, the Mexican American graphic designer Arturo Vega held the title “creative director” for the New York punk band the Ramones. The logo he designed for the band directly appropriated the image of the Great Seal of the President of the United States, designed by Charles Thomson in 1782. According to Vega, the Ramones

reflected the American character in general—an almost childish innocent aggression. … I thought, ‘The Great Seal of the President of the United States would be perfect for the Ramones, with the eagle holding arrows—to symbolize strength and the aggression that would be used against whomever dares to attack us—and an olive branch, offered to those who want to be friendly. But we decided to change it a little bit. Instead of the olive branch, we had an apple tree branch, since the Ramones were American as apple pie. And since Johnny was such a baseball fanatic, we had the eagle hold a baseball bat instead of the [Great Seal]’s arrows.[ii]

The logo was reproduced on posters, album art, and T-shirts—and in various forms it is still being produced today.

Ramones Logo by Arturo Vega

Ramones Logo by Arturo Vega

The British artist and fashion designer Malcolm McLaren had an appreciation for the Situationists yet felt that a new aesthetic of protest and social rebellion was needed for the 1970s. McLaren and his girlfriend, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, managed a clothing boutique in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, which they treated as home base for testing their social ideas. In 1975, McLaren organized some of the shop’s employees and regular customers into a band that he would also manage. He named them Sex Pistols. The British graphic designer Jamie Reid was brought on to design album covers and promotional art for the group. For their single titled “God Save the Queen,” Reid took an explicitly détournement tactic. He lifted an image of the queen of England familiar from currency and postage in the United Kingdom and “defaced [it] with letters and words torn from newspapers in the manner of a ransom note … subverting the usual meaning of both an image of respect as well as the title of Britain’s national anthem.”[iii]

[i] Raizman, History of Modern Design, 374–375.

[ii] Quoted in Marc Arsenault, “John Holmstrom Remembers Arturo Vega,” Maximum Rocknroll, June 11, 2013,

[iii] Raizman, History of Modern Design, 374.

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