It's easy to see why artist and collector Toby Mott is enthralled by skinhead culture; it sprawls decades in history, has seen various iterations, and, if you take a step back and look at the movement as a whole, you're met with a bunch of head-scratching contradictions.
For example, if early skinheads were influenced by Jamaican rude boys and rocksteady music, how did later skinheads come to be defined by their racist propaganda? And why, if skinheads became associated with the far right, was their look also widely adopted by the gay community? And finally, if skinheads were about working-class authenticity and masculinity, why was the movement so meticulously concerned with fashion and aestheticism?
These issues are all addressed in a new book, Skinhead – An Archive, a collection of the skinhead ephemera Toby's picked up over the years, compiled beautifully by Ditto Press and designed by Jamie Reid. The book takes its focus on the punk-influenced skinhead revivalism of the late 1970s and 80s, but also traces its roots back to 60s England. From zines, posters, photos, and pamphlets, it's pretty much the most extensive skinhead archive available to buy. We asked Toby about how the book came to be.
VICE: How did you become involved with skinhead culture?
Toby Mott: Well, I was a punk in the 1970s, a middle-class sort of arty punk. The great thing about punk then was that it really was a melting pot where class and race made no difference, because most of the kids attracted to it were rebellious, or troubled in some way, and we found a home in punk. But in the late 70s and early 80s, punk kind of split, and you had your left-wing art school type punks and then skinhead culture. Both communities were subcultures under attack by Margaret Thatcher, but skinheads took a more right-wing attitude on the whole, I'd say.
Punk was quite loose and creative, but skinhead became a much more rigid identity. It supposedly took its inspiration from original, working-class skinheads in the 1960s, but it had become much more fetishized. If you look in the book you'll see that, for the skinheads in the late 1960s and early 70s, there was more room for interpretation. But by the time it came back around again in the 80s, everything was very defined, down to the width of your braces, the turn-up on your boots, and how many holes you had in your Dr. Martens.
What intrigued you about these people then, if you didn't identify as one of them?
To identify yourself as a skinhead in 80s Britain, you had to go out and get all the clothing together and stick to a very strict set of codes. Whether you were left wing, right wing, gay, whatever—the commonality was a very rigid interpretation of this chosen identity. The word that really defines all of them is "authenticity." Their shared goal was to be the authentic skinhead, and it's the drive to do that which really intrigues me.
Given that some skinheads were quite right wing, and punks like you identified as left wing, did that not create a bit of a conflict?
Yeah, punks were always living in fear of being attacked by soul boys, teddy boys, and then by skinheads, who were the most notoriously violent and aggressive. The 1980s skinheads had their roots in punk, and there were some bands that straddled punk and skinhead culture, like Sham 69, but eventually, well, we became enemies.
If you read my essay in the book I talk about my moments of being the victim of skinhead violence. But the only thing I have to say now, looking back, is that although it was violent, people didn't die. There was a lot of running when I was 16, there was a lot of jumping off moving buses; just all these tribes of kids running around. It was odd.
When did you start collecting skinhead ephemera?
Well, when I was a teenager I'd go to a gig at, say, the Hope and Anchor on Upper Street in Islington. You'd be seeing some band like Ruts DC or Adam and The Ants, and the crowd was all just kids—15 to 16, and there were people circulating print materials. I mean, it's paper I collected. There are some records and things, but mainly it was about people generating print publications, and circulating them pre-internet.
What kind of things did you pick up?
I collected political material of the left and right at the same time. We were highly politicized kids, albeit a very crude sort of interpretation of politics. Mine were to the left but in the same spaces where I hung out you would be handed a British Movement leaflet. None of us could vote, so it was all ridiculous, but the skinheads were giving out stuff like Bulldog which was this kind of... you can't call it a magazine, but a publication by the National Front aimed at school children. Anyway, I kept all that stuff because I was always intrigued by it. Not by the ideas, by the objects themselves.
Apart from the politics, how did some of the punk and skinhead ephemera differ?
Well, there was much less skinhead stuff because they were less articulate, visually. The things they did create were much cruder, in a way, because they didn't have those art school pretensions that punk had. Punk was knowing, it was referencing Dada or John Heartfield collages. Skinheads didn't really have that because they truly were an authentic sort of working-class group and they also rejected that kind of thing, those aspirations of going to art school and stuff.
It's interesting that skinhead culture is considered so right wing but, as a look, it was picked up by certain corners of the gay community quite rapidly. Why do you think that was?
That is something which people do theorize about academically, but I guess in one way, if you look at gay culture and, say, the leather man, and that band, The Village People, gay men look to these identities of strong, hyper-masculine figures. In the 70s there was a certain type of gay man called a "Castro clone" that you would see all over the world, which was a guy with a moustache and a leather cap, a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket, black leather trousers and boots. But I think the younger gay guys in the UK didn't identify with that so much and they were probably listening to their own music like Bronski Beat and wanted to dress as skinheads, like Bronski Beat's singer Jimmy Somerville, who was also gay.
It's really odd, because these people adopted the uniform of the oppressor, and co-opted it. So one minute skinheads were this group that gay men would live in fear of, and two years later in King's Cross there would be hundreds of skinheads that were all gay.
Yeah, it was. And then the most notorious skinhead of all time, Nicky Crane, who was a convicted racist and a leader of the British Movement, came out as gay. So it became even more bizarre because some of the gay skinheads were actually right wing as well.
Even the skinheads that weren't openly gay... if you watch, there's something very gay about it. They called it working-class dandyism because, you know, most dandies are quite suave and some skinheads were very specific about what they wore. Within the fanzines it's absolutely rigid about what clothes you can wear. Before, men weren't that interested in clothes.
How did the book come into being, after all this time?
Basically, I've got 3,750 bits of punk and skinhead ephemera, mostly from about 1976 to 1980. It's taken about 18 months to go through all the material and it was difficult because we wanted to show all sides of the phenomenon. So that's the earliest sort of incarnation of it, and then the revival and girls, and international aspects, and the anti-racists, the racists—we didn't want to leave any stone untouched.
I think what we've ended up with is something that tells that story in an objective and neutral way. There is stuff in there which you could describe as toxic and they're certainly not ideas any of us share. We're not looking to be offensive or anything, we just want to present the material.
It's really the first book of its kind. There are lots of photo books about skinheads because if you're studying photography often you go and immerse yourself in some sort of subculture, whether it be skinheads, travelers or ravers. Nick Knight immersed himself in skinheads and set a precedent, so there are lots of photography books. This is not a photography book, this is a book on the ephemera generated by skinheads. So it's actually their culture told by them, it's not some kind of outsider looking in.
'Skinhead – An Archive' is available to buy from Ditto Press. Scroll down to see more of Toby's collection.