Defining a movement that has outlasted its expectations

Postcardd for Ramones fan club

What is punk? The modern term was originally used to describe a criminal or street hood, and the word originally derives from the late 17th century term for a (street) prostitute ( But the term has changed and transformed into an entire subculture, beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Punk is loud, brash, vibrant, violent, aggressive, riotous, and deeply philosophical, even when it tries not to be. 

As an identity aesthetic and visual argument, punk is even more difficult to define. The purist would refer to political and social commentary that punk is famous for; subsequent generations might offer anecdotes about the fashion and sound that stirred something within.  But, if we ask “what is punk?” of those punk icons who invigorated the scene(s), we can begin to understand the underlying contexts and implications surrounding punk – and we also begin to get a sense of how punk as a set of images rhetorically evolved. 

Arts and culture mag Flavorwire hoped to answer this question, “What is Punk?” in precisely this way, gathering snippets of conversation from 40 years of the movement’s influencers. Below are several of t hese quotes, which remind us that punk, while a youth movement, has its roots in much older ideas. As you read through these and look at the gallery of images, consider: how does the image portray the idea(s)? Where does the idea visually fail? Is there consistency? How are these ideals being reinterpreted as the movement becomes less “fringe”? What does this all say about larger social meaning-making? How does this reinforce ideas about fashion and identity? For the full list of quotes, see “What is Punk? 25 Definitions from People Who Should Know.”

The Stooges‘ Iggy Pop: “Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies, and the bodies, and the hearts, and the souls, and the time, and the minds of young men who give what they have to it… I don’t know Johnny Rotten, but I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did. What sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise is in fact the brilliant music of a genius — myself. And that music is so powerful that it’s quite beyond my control, and when I’m in the grips of it I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally.”

Television and The Voidoid‘s Richard Hell: “There are characters in [punk] that do deliberately go as far as they can in certain kind of taboo areas.”

Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious: “Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

David Byrne (Talking Heads): “Punk was defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.”

Siouxsie Sioux: “What people don’t understand is when punk started it was so innocent and not aware of being looked at or being a phenomenon and that’s what everyone gets wrong. You can’t consciously create something that’s important, it’s a combination of chemistry, conditions, the environment, everything.”

Patti Smith: “Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”

Minor Threat and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye on the DC punk scene of the mid-1980s: “I think what we took away from first hearing about the punk stuff in England and then the early American punk stuff was a sense of self-definition and also sort of playing music for music’s sake and being part of a family for family’s sake.”

Music journalist and rock critic Lester Bangs: “At its best New Wave/punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides.”

There are some fantastic books and documentaries on punk, across the years and on both sides of the pond (since it is largely a Western phenomenon). I offer some starter articles, however: Afropunk’s article on the punk Goddess PolyStyreneBritish mag Uncut’s 50 Best American Punk Albums; The Bearded Gentleman’s historical looking back at Riot Grrls, and The Atlantic Monthly’s review of the retrospective collection entitled Pretty Vacant. For our part, let’s look at some of the images below that detail some of the defining moments of punk.

Soo-Catwoman, Johnny Rotten, and Siouxsie Sioux, courtesy of Eleven Nineteen
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill ca. 1991, originally from Seattle Met online