Mohawks. Buzz cuts. Tangled, teased, dyed, chopped, braided, long, short and any every color in the book. What do you think of when you think of punk hair? This is a broad question, but holds more meaning than it may seem. From its beginnings in the ’70s in England and the United States, the punk movement has always been closely related to its members’ presentations in fashion and grooming, specifically hair. Though punk has split into many subgroups since its inception, the general consensus remains the same: To be punk is to subvert the status quo in every manner, especially in the way you look to others.
The separation between the mainstream and counterculture that functions as a foundation for the movement was initially and still is based heavily in presentation. This is something that has splintered into different subcultures in the past five decades but is still what many people imagine when they think of punk conceptually. In terms of appearance, punk hairstyles have become the primary marker for the masses to identify rebellion and subversion in public, an opportunity for members of the movement to “other” themselves in a way that is easy to reverse and change at a moment’s notice.
Punk and its offshoots have often gotten a bad rep in the media and society at large, in response to not only the ideology of their movements but also their appearance. Extremist submovements, like the white nationalist skinheads, have often overshadowed the meaning behind punk style from the beginning, and color the media’s portrayal of the culture as a whole with negativity. But in reality, punk and its attachment to style began as a way to subvert the expectations of mid-70s England, which was under the heavy veil of social pressure to conform as the post-war world erupted into turmoil once again.
Young people who resisted the norms of their world found solace in music from groups like the Sex Pistols and created a cultural movement that shifted the “free love” counterculture of hippies to a harsher, more direct response to political and social discord. In the late ’60s, the earliest members of the punk movement shaved their heads in protest of the long-haired freedom of the Aquarian age, becoming the first skinheads. Later, the name “skinhead” would become associated with ugly nationalist rhetoric groups, but initially, it was just a descriptor for those who chose to buzz their hair in search of a bare-bones, stripped look.
Using appearance to solidify their identity, English youth began wearing ripped and distressed clothes, black, leather and, of course, spiking and cutting their hair. London punks gathered in places like Sloane Square to organize and meet other people like them, but as the movement gained traction, outsiders would often come to their hangouts to gawk at the variety of hairstyles on display. One of these haircuts, arguably the most famous of the punk movement, was the mohawk or mohican, a characteristic spiked ‘do running down the center of the head. The shock factor of these looks alone drew attention from the mainstream, and in turn, punk became a bigger and bigger phenomenon, their music and anarchist ideologies thrust into the public eye.
At the same time, musicians like Patti Smith and The Ramones began the same path in America, separating themselves from both the mainstream and hippie counterculture to begin something raw, new and profoundly powerful. New York City punk was less gaudy than London’s initial movement, but still presented itself as a legitimate social culture with a look to match. Though NYC is often credited with the beginnings of American punk culture, Los Angeles had its own burgeoning punk scene, and eventually, the movement spread to most major cities. The leather and distress of English punk made its way into American punk culture, some taking an almost identical approach, but many people in the States chose to bypass the extreme hairstyles of punk fame and instead opt for a messy, slept-in look, long and unkempt as if to say: “I don’t care what I look like, what matters is the message.”
By the late ’70s, punk was a massive force in youth culture and counterculture as a whole, and the appropriation of its characteristic looks began to flow into the mainstream. Bands like the New York Dolls started subgroups like glam punk, which took the basic elements of punk and brought them to a draggy, over-the-top level, sporting high-femme makeup and big teased hair in an effort to distinguish themselves. Art punk formed in bands like Television, who grew out of drug culture and into almost avant-garde music and performance. In addition to glam and art, the punk movement started to fracture into dozens of these smaller subcultures with their own looks and ideologies. But there was still a distinct emphasis on the purposeful self-“othering” of punks through their choices in clothes and hairstyles, something that lives on today in these shattered pieces of the original movement.
As the ’80s came and went, punk grew into its own, and so did the movements it inspired, like hardcore and eventually post-punk. Many of the bands who transitioned into the latter two categories even began as part of the original punk rock movement, but then separated themselves as the subculture grew and changed. The looks that accompanied both were noticeably less extreme and shocking than many of early punk’s trademarks, choosing comfort and the ability to mosh over the spiked extravagance and upkeep of their predecessors. Their hairstyles followed this, either settling into the Patti Smith mold of languid disinterest and shag or completely buzzing it off in order to follow the raw intensity of their music. This continued into the next two decades, as post-punk, grunge and emo rock carried the spirit of the original punk movement into the future and with it the style which separated them from the mainstream. The remnants of punk are everywhere, in music, culture and of course, in hair.
Now, extreme colors and cuts are more common than in the ’70s, but the value of unique styling has stayed the same — ultimately, hair is an easy way to separate yourself from the masses, to express culture through your appearance and show it for all to see. It is clear how the hairstyles of each facet of punk matched and enhanced their mission as subcultures, drawing attention to themselves in an effort to subvert and in turn highlight the reality of social norms. The superficial shock factor of a mohawk is obvious, but the history behind it may not be. At the end of the day, it’s just hair, after all, but its power to shift perception is a foundational aspect of the punk movement’s history, influence and proliferation into the present day.