How punk changed graphic design & music art

A new exhibition at the British Library shows punk’s impact on graphic design from record sleeve art to fanzines and T-shirts. See what’s on show.


The graphic design of the late 70s punk movement is as much part of what we consider ‘Punk’ to be as the music and fashion. Underpinned by the same snarling anti-establishment attitude and DIY ethos, punk art and graphics have a rawness that comes from both the artists and designers behind them and their means of production.

While the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid (who created the Sex Pistols fanzine showh here) went to art school, much of punk art and design was created by practitioners without formal training. A pen, camera and/or a pair of scissors – and a passion for the music – were all that was necessary to get involved, just like you only needed some cheap instruments and three chords to start a band. The end results were equally rough, with fanzines cranked out on grimy photocopiers in a similar fashion to bands self-pressing their own records. These singles and albums were sold at gigs and independent stores, with hand-printed covers that had a freedom of artistic expression not possible for most bands on major labels – though of course that freedom allowed as much for the crass as the truly provocative.

As part of this year's Punk London 'festival', The British Library has collected visual media from the scene in 1976-78 into a new free exhibition. Punk London is a series of events and exhibitions throughout the year that's either a celebration of its creativity, or the establishment just rubbing it in that punk failed to destroy it, depending on your perspective.

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The best thing in the exhibition is a wall of single covers: the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK; The Damned's Stretcher Case Baby, with its use of Charles Allan Gilbert's All Is Vanity skull/mirrror illustration; Chelsea's angry Right To Work / The Loner, The Buzzcocks' Orgasm Addict and many, many more. Individually they are wonderfully raw examples of the visual representation of the reaction to struggle than underpins punk: anger, pain, nihilism, strength.

Image: The first issue of the first punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, © Mark Perry 1976


From here, you can see how those emotions were translated not only by the musicians and those working directly with them, but by the fans too, into magazines and fanzines, fashion labels and choices. While there are very similar concepts and use of language, visual styles and production techniques, there's a wealth of individual voices wanting to be heard on their own terms. And that was the true success of punk.

Image: The first issue of Ripped and Torn, created by Tony Drayton.

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Punk 1976-78 is on a the British Library until October 2.

Image: Flyer from the Roxy Club Covent Garden London 1977, artwork by Barry Jones. From England's Dreaming: The Jon Savage Archive held at Liverpool John Moores University.


Image: Flyer from the Roxy Club Covent Garden London 1977, artwork by Susan Carrington. From the Barry Miles Collection at the British Library.


Image: London’s Outrage fanzine (December 1976) by Jon Savage on display at Punk 1976-78 at the British Library.

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Image: The Clash Eric's Club ticket, Liverpool (1976-1977) from The Pete Fulwell Archive held at Liverpool John Moores University


Image: Photograph of Buzzcocks (1976). From England's Dreaming: The Jon Savage Archive held at Liverpool John Moores University


Image: Original tape cassette of the Clash’s first interview for New Musical Express, 4 November 1976. From the Barry Miles Collection at the British Library

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Image: Tits printed cotton T-shirt (1975), Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood, SEX, 430 King's Road. From the Colin Fallows Archive


Image: X Ray Spex Eric's Club ticket, Liverpool (1976-1977) from The Pete Fulwell Archive held at Liverpool John Moores University.